By Dick Postma
It was a hot summer day in 1956 when two young lads from Manhattan, MT borrowed a small tin boat and set out to navigate the Gallatin River from Central Park to Logan. Now 42 years later Dick Postma and Dave Droppers, are again setting out on an adventure to navigate one of Montana’s great rivers, the Missouri, but this time in a kayak.
It all started with a hike over the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska and the Yukon Territory by my wife, Leona and myself in July of 1997. After living some of the history of the 1898 gold rush to the Klondike I decided that a trip down the Yukon River would be a great way to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the gold rush. Plans were made and a kayak was purchased but circumstances beyond my control postponed such a venture for at least a year. Then we heard about a class reunion that was planned for the Manhattan, (Montana), class of 1958, in August of 1998. I was in the class of 57,which was the smallest class to have ever graduated (7 graduated) so why not go and see some old friends.
Since the Yukon expedition was on hold why not kayak the Missouri River. After all, there had been a lot of press on the adventures of Lewis and Clark and the Missouri River in recent months. My life long friend, Dave Droppers, class of 58, who now lives in Bozeman was called and asked to participate in the adventure. The answer was yes so the planning began.
The kayak I was using is a K2 expedition, tandem, made by Feather Craft, and purchased from Lyle of Folding Kayak Adventures located in Seattle. The Feather Craft is what is called a folding kayak because it can be taken apart and carried in bags. The hull is made out of rubber and the deck is a very tough nylon with a framework of aluminum tubes. As I knew nothing about kayaking, Lyle was a big help in selecting the right gear. Our food consisted mainly of freeze-dried packets, which proved to be quite tasty on most occasions. The rest of the gear was just the basic camping equipment with the emphasis on compactness and lightness.
August 4 was a beautiful day after a week of scattered rain showers nearly every afternoon in the Gallatin Valley. We (Dick & Leona Postma & Dave Droppers) arrived at the headwaters near Trident at 9 AM. This is the spot where Capt. Lewis and his party camped on July 27-28, 1805 and where Sacagawea (a Shoshone Indian) was kidnapped five years earlier by the Hidatsas Indians. The Gallatin, Jefferson, and Madison rivers meet to form the Missouri. Clark with an advanced party had reached this area on July 25. He was faced with the dilemma of which river was the main fork that would lead them to the Columbia River and on to the Pacific Ocean.
It took about 30 minutes to unload the kayak from the truck and get our supplies loaded. After donning our spray skirts and PFD (personal flotation devices), Dave took his place in the front cockpit and I in the rear. The rear cockpit has foot pedals that control the rudder, which proved to be of great value negotiating the river channels. After much fanfare proclaiming our departure we found that we were going no where, we were grounded. It was with a little embarrassment that I had to ask my wife Leona to give us a push to get us away from the riverbank.
Now we were really on our way. We paddled out into the current and found that it moved us at a good pace. I had brought along my GPS and found that we were traveling along at 4.5 to 5 miles per hr. Soon we were in country that could only be seen from the river. An old railroad track ran along the east bank, which was now no longer used. As we paddled down the river my next objective was to locate an area known as Clarkston. It was here in the fall of 55 and 56 that I worked on a wheat ranch for Paul Bates who had several hundred acres of winter wheat in the area. My job was to fill the railroad box cars with grain that was harvested. Several boxcars would be placed on a siding in a remote area along the river. It was my job to install the grain doors and auger up the grain into the cars making sure they were filled to the correct height. Wheat, oats, and barley all had a different level in the rail road cars to accommodate the weight requirements. After 40 plus years I was not able to locate the siding where the railroad cars were left but the scenery was great and looking for it made this part of the trip go fast.
We moved right along until we approached Toston dam which is a small dam for the purpose of supplying water for irrigation. Approximately 1½ miles from the dam the current slowed to a crawl. It was now that we had to paddle in earnest to make any headway. We had checked out the dam a few days earlier. We decided to portage around the dam some ½ mile making, two to three trips with our gear and the kayak. As luck would have it a young fellow pulled up in a small aluminum, flat bottom boat and began to load it on a trailer. This was the opportunity that we had hoped for, perhaps he could help us portage the boat and gear around the dam. I asked if he would give us a helping hand, trying not to act too desperate. He said that he would be happy to. As it turned out he, Pete Harmata, was a college student at Montana State University, Bozeman, doing research on the Osprey Eagles, which live along the river in great numbers.
We were able to put the kayak on top of his boat and after a short ride unloaded the boat and gear just below the dam. It was now about 1 PM and our stomachs were telling us that it was time to have lunch. With a full morning of paddling we were hungry. Leona had packed some apples and trailmix with nuts and raisins. That does not sound like much but it hit the spot.
After the short lunch break we reloaded the kayak and were off down the river. We had not gone 100 yards when we encountered our first rapids. Not much in the way of rapids but we did get some water splashing into the kayak. I found that the only way to navigate rapids is by paddling hard so that the rudder can do its job.
For the rest of the day it was paddle, float and paddle some more. The scenery was just beautiful. The river flowed through Toston under the highway and on to Townsend. We arrived in Townsend at 6:30 PM and made camp just north of town at a camp ground called Indian Road Camp Ground. This was our first encounter with that venomous little pest the mosquito. We were forced to move from the original camping spot near the rivers' edge to a location some 100 yards away from the river to elude the little pest. After the sun went down we had to take refuge in the tent for the rest of night.
The mosquitoes also plagued Captain Lewis and his men. On 7/21/1805, Lewis wrote "the men all fortunately supplyed with musquetoe biers [made of duck or gauze, like a trunk-to get under] otherwise it would be impossible for them to exist under the fatiegues which they daily encounter without their natural rest which they could not obtain for those tormenting insects". On the 24th Lewis wrote "our trio of pest still invade and obstruct us on all occasions, these Musquetoes eye knats and prickley pears, equal to any three curses that ever poor Egypt laiboured under, except the Mahometant yoke"
We arose early August 5 and had a quick breakfast, as we knew that Leona and her mother Lois were to meet us and portage us to the upper Holter Lake thus bypassing Canyon Ferry Dam and also Hauser Dam. Leona arrived at about 7:30. We loaded the kayak and gear and were off to the upper Holter Lake and the Gates of the Mountains.
It was here on July 19, 1805 that Lewis wrote, “every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. The towering and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us…from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains,”
Of course in 1805 there was no Holter Dam or Holter Lake. One can only imagine what it must have been like to row, pole, and drag their boats up a swift river through this canyon. The view from the lake was splendid with Osprey and Bald Eagles nesting in the tops of trees all along the way. Also we could see Indian paintings on the walls of some cliffs. As we emerged out of the canyon and looked back we could see what Lewis was talking about. Two solid rock walls on either side of the river appeared to close as the river made a gentle bend giving the appearance of gates closing. With a gentle breeze at our backs it was decided to try the sail. This proved to be very beneficial as it helped us cross Holter Lake, thus cutting down on the paddling.
It was nearly 5:30pm when we arrived at a small marina along the east shore of Holter Lake. Again, our luck was good as we met a young couple with a pickup truck who offered to portage us around the dam for a 10-dollar bill. I convinced Dave the smallest change that I had was a $100 bill and, asked him to pay the young man. He did so, but I am not sure he believed me. I don't think I will ever hear the last of that. After putting back in below the dam we noticed that the river became very clear with fly fishermen everywhere. They were standing on the banks, in the water up to their waist or even armpits and many were just floating along in all sorts of boats. I am not sure if they were having any luck as it seemed to me that there was so much natural food floating on the water, but I guess that is what fly fishing is all about. We managed to find a nice grassy area about 5 miles further down the river. It was a quick meal and into the tent as those pesky mosquitoes were out in force. They seemed to have followed us from the last campsite. I must say that as long as we were paddling on the river the mosquitoes were no problem.
I was awakened early Thursday morning, August 6, by the sound of a beaver slapping his tail in the water. As I exited the tent I could see him about 100 feet down river. Again he slapped his tail, as if to remind us that this was his territory and to move on. And move on we did.
From here the river flows between Interstate 15 and Hwy 87 past Craig MT, then back and forth under I-15 four times before continuing on the east side of the freeway. The section between Holter Dam and Craig is a very popular fly fishing section, as was evident by the number of fishermen that we encountered. In the 50s, the official "Classification of Montana fishing Stream" designated it as a "Blue Ribbon" trout stream. The river became more recreational along this section. We saw several groups floating the river in every thing from inner tubes to air mattress to aluminum boats. Every turn in the river revealed a new vacation retreat, a summer home, or recreational area. At one point we saw four young men who said they were from Malmstrom Air Force Base, poised to jump from a rock to the river some 30 feet below. As we passed one of them shouted to us and jumped feet first into the river as if he was eluding some villain.
After crossing under I-15 for the last time the river narrows and begins to flow a little faster. This was the only section on the river, which had any rapids that are note worthy. Half Breed Rapids, as it is called, is a section about a quarter of a mile in length. It has small, but fast rapids at first, then it smoothes out flowing to another section of rapids. I would like to have seen this type of water more often along the river as it got the adrenaline pumping a little faster.
As we continued paddling down river I was amazed at the clarity of the water. I could see the stones on the bottom just like looking through a window. The rest of the day was very relaxing. The most demanding thing we had to do was to figure out which side of an island we should take to stay in the main channel. I did learn one thing. The main channel tends to follow the out side portions of a turn. I thought I could straighten out the river by setting a course through the inside corners of turns. I soon realized we wound up in calm and slow moving water.From Cascade, MT on the river slows down considerably; it only drops 66 feet in the next 45 miles.
We found a place to camp just north of Cascade, a pasture with a sandy area next to the water. By this time the skies began to cloud up and a serious storm was on its way. We erected the tent on the sandy area. Nice soft sand, right? This proved to be a big mistake because 30 minutes after setting the tent up the storm blew in. It became necessary to get into the tent to keep it from blowing away. What was to follow was a severe thunderstorm. Lighting was striking all about us, and it appeared that it set a grass fire about one mile from our camp. The night's meal was rather abbreviated due to the fact we had to stay in the tent to keep it from blowing away. The blowing sand was so bad in the tent that when in calmed down a little, we had to empty the tent and shake the sand out of it before we could think about sleeping. Once we got settled in it was no time before we were sleeping like a couple of babies.
August 8. By 9:00am we had all of out gear cleaned and stowed in the kayak and were on our way. We had decided to meet our wives at Ulm, MT about 10 miles south of Great Falls. The river was getting very slow and monotonous. The terrain was flat, and often all we could see was the wall of the riverbank. We only had 18 miles to go, but because of the slow current it took us four hours to reach Ulm.
We did, however have a running encounter with two flocks of Canadian Geese. We would float up to them as they were foraging for food on small islands to see how close we could get before they flew off. Within 200 feet the geese would get rather nervous. Then one would sound the warning and a few seconds later they all would start honking. Away they would fly further down the river. A few minutes later we would come upon then and again. This time they would let us get a little closer before they flew off. This occurred at least four times before one group flew back up the river never to be bothered by us again and the other group flew to a slough area next to the river. We also observed several white tail deer along the riverbanks.
At 1 PM we rounded a bend in the river and there were our wives out on the bank of the river with a video camera documenting our adventure. I was able to communicate with my wife via ham radio and learned that they had stopped and gotten some fried chicken for us. Hearing this the paddling became more intense. I must admit knowing we were being photographed, we were in our best paddling style. With in a few minutes we were pulling up to where our wives were standing. Our adventure was over; nearly 150 miles in 3 1/2 days, not to bad.
I was very pleased with the performance of the kayak. The stability was outstanding, and the sail worked well. And by golly it just looked good in the water! I learned a lot about stowing all of the gear needed for an extended stay on the river and a lot about camping out of a kayak. All of this is in preparation for my trip down the Yukon River next summer (1999). My partner, Steven Rose, and I, will put in at the headwaters of the Yukon River near Carcross, Yukon Territory, and kayak to the Bering Sea some 2200 miles away.
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