Paddling as hard and as fast as I could, I was still being taken backwards down the left channel, the channel that we wanted to avoid. Diane had made it to the sandbar but was hung up on shallow rocks. Swearing (which always helps me paddle harder), I turned the kayak around, nose first downstream and paddled toward the main shore. A few minutes later, I stood on the bank, bent over and breathing hard, mostly out of relief. Diane and I yelled across the rushing river and she got in her boat and paddled toward shore. I ran ahead to grab the nose of her boat as she reached my side of the river. This was the day we called it. Winds gusting to 30 mph, rain and snow in the forecast… we decided that we’d given this second year a good run on the Yellowstone River. 134 miles, some beautiful weather, but more and more rainy cold and snowy days in the forecast, and now high winds – yeah, it was a good run, and time to be happy with our accomplishments and wait for next year when we hope that ‘third time’s the charm’.
This last day had begun with rain and wind… And an invitation to pancakes. As Diane and I lay in our tents, considering the day and the weather, a truck drove up. Daniel from across the river called out. After good mornings, he asked whether we’d be interested in breakfast and a clothes dryer. Well of course! Diane grabbed yesterday’s wet gear and we hopped into the warm truck for a ride across the old black railroad bridge.
Almost two weeks earlier we had put in the river at Myers Bridge Fishing Access in Hysham, MT where we’d gotten off the river in 2017. The river begins to widen out and slow down a bit beyond this point, which makes for somewhat more relaxed paddling. I may say ‘relaxed’ but in reality river paddling requires constant vigilance. If not for Diane’s good vision, I would have been hung up on sandbar after sandbar. While we did not have the constant hold-your-breath-and-pray rapids of last year, we still needed to make continual decisions as to which channel was the better route.
The morning ritual included breakfast, dry the flies if dew had collected on tents, pack the kayaks and get on the water. Eagles often perched above the river or flew overhead. Bev began counting and we continued the tradition after she left the water. We counted 55 Bald Eagles this year. We saw some osprey and many sand hill cranes. The cranes were alone as well as in congregations, on the shore and flying overhead. We heard flocks of starlings convening loudly in cottonwood groves as we floated past. The din of Canada Geese was constant, sometimes to the point of distraction. The feathered commotions highlighted the changing season. I thought of these birds readying for their yearly migration as we slowly floated by on our own migration toward the Missouri. Mergansers, Western Grebes, shore birds, flickers, and kingfishers punctuated the edges of the river, adding focal relief to the shoreline.
We saw one coyote—in this part of the state, any coyote is lucky to be alive. A few deer wandered down to the river in the evenings, and one beaver joined us for lunch at the mouth of the Powder River, slapping his tail to give us a strong hint to move along. Cottonwoods were the dominant large tree, but Russian Olives, an invasive fast-growing tree with large thorns, also lined the shore. Russian Olive has been planted as a windbreak or ornamental but it spreads quickly and out-competes native species. Along the river, it uses a lot of water, having roots that can reach 35 feet.
Our longest day was 27 miles, from Far West to Moon Creek Fishing Access. We arrived at Moon Creek late in the day, set up tents ate as the sun set and crawled into tents. The following morning, it began to rain lightly as we heard a four-wheeler approach. A male voice called out letting us know that we were camping on private land. Apparently the Montana Fish and Wildlife does not lease the land for Moon Creek anymore. The voice made it known the he wanted us gone ASAP and we assured him we’d be up and moving right away. No breakfast, no tea or coffee and we were on our rainy way down river 14 miles to Miles City. We checked the weather forecast upon arrival and decided to stay in Miles City the following day to avoid snow and more rain. We knocked on a door and met a kind woman who not only allowed us to store our boats in her yard, she also helped pick them up and then took us to the Olive Hotel. While a historic hotel, the Olive could use some TLC. A few amenities it could have: a hairdryer, shampoo/conditioner, a decent showerhead and HEAT. Apparently they don’t put the boilers on until absolutely necessary. They did, however, bring us a very dusty space heater, which worked well to dry our gear. It did indeed rain and snow the following day. We walked through town wearing our kayak gear to shop at Murdoch’s for a few more supplies.
While the weather was a huge factor in this year’s river journey, it also afforded us the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. Kyle and Tracey in Forsyth Montana who helped schlep our kayaks with his truck and saved us carrying them a mile, and who picked Bev up and got her to a bus stop when she needed to get off the river. Blake who used her truck to pick up our kayaks and bring them to her yard in Miles City. Daniel, a federal predator control specialist who checked on us and then invited us to pancakes in his warm home and who kept watch over us as we tried to get back on the river in high winds. Russ, the owner of The Historic Kempton Hotel in Terry Montana, who picked us and our kayaks up at the old black railroad bridge, brought us to his hotel, rented us the perfect cabin for two nights, and gave us a tour of his and his wife, Linda’s, beautiful hotel. Everywhere we looked was a feast for our eyes—sculptures, photographs, original art, books and antiques.
As much as this trip is about tracing the length of the Yellowstone River to the Missouri, it has also become about the people we are meeting along the way. Each person we’ve met along the way has enriched the warp and weft of the tapestry of memories that are becoming the Yellowstone River Expedition. With perfect weather and river conditions we’d never have met good people. I find that I agree with T.S. Eliot: “The journey not the arrival matters.”
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends” – Maya Angelou