Determination drives adventure

Ryan Dam generates hydroelectric power (60 megawatts) 16 kilometers upstream from the city of Great Falls, Montana. Photo: Rod Wellington

By: Rod Wellington

“Good or bad, we must do the portage.” – Captain Meriwether Lewis, June, 1805.

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been paddling my way along the Missouri-Mississippi river system for more than 40 days now. But believe it I must. When I look back and think about all that has transpired over the last 42 days, when I break it down into palatable chunks of time (24 hour chunks), dozens of wonderful experiences show themselves, experiences half-forgotten behind the blur of a natural coping mechanism that helps make this whole business of adventuring more palatable. Progress never happens fully during times of reflection. Progress is driven by routine. And it is within that routine that the beauty of those wonderful experiences become blurred. This is not a bad thing, however. It is simply a way of moving forward without forgetting the past. Little by little, I am beginning to understand this perplexing paradox.

I have now come 800km (500 miles) from Brower’s Spring, the source of this great river system. I have covered each metre, each foot of that distance under my power. I have portaged around countless obstacles manmade and otherwise, dealt with unruly wind and rain, succumbed to exhaustion at the end of long days, revelled in sheer elation when surrounded by swooping ospreys, been brought to tears by song lyrics that endlessly repeat themselves in my head, and have sat in silent awe staring at natural wonders that humble both my mind and the scope of this expedition. I have witnessed the untamed torrent of an ambitious mountain stream and have been lulled to sleep by the utter peace of a gently flowing river. I have drunk the waters of this great river system and have ingested its desire for motion. The Missouri now lives in me. Progress, no matter how subtle or profound, has become my daily routine, a willing and ongoing baptismal that sees me through the rigours of the day. Somewhere downstream lies an ocean, vastly divine beyond my comprehension. To it I descend, smilingly.

Several Waterfalls

The river below Great Falls has no less than five dams in the span of 20 river miles. These are fantastically large hydroelectric dams that produce a huge amount of electricity for the city of Great Falls. Although the river as we see it today has changed dramatically since the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, the remnants of rock, both in the exposed shelves over which water released from the dams now flows, as well as in the sheer canyon walls that tower above the river, are very much like what the Corps of Discovery would have seen all those years ago. Away from the flow, the incredibly arid landscape, dotted at times with sage brush and tall willows, has been worked and irrigated to produce thousands of acres of yellow wheat fields. It is past these fields, atop the gravel roads that bisect them, that I will pull my fully loaded, 16’ sea kayak, balanced somewhat precariously on a pair of solid foam wheels, 26 miles from the Broadwater Bay boat ramp in downtown Great Falls to the remote and not easily accessed Widow Coulee boat ramp north of the city. I estimate that the portage will take two days to complete. If I’m bound to lose body weight at any time during this expedition, this will be where it happens. I feel strong and confident that it can, and will, be done. Captain Meriwether Lewis, who, along with the rest of the Corps of Discovery in June, 1805, had to deal with the same problem of how to bypass the five great falls. When informed that the route ahead would be difficult, Captain Lewis replied, “Good or bad, we must make the portage.”

A sign found by Wellington and his friend Wes Malchow found after searching all day for the best route. Malchow joked, “We should’ve read this first!”
Photo: Rod Wellington

On Tuesday of this past week, Wes Malchow, a new friend that I met in the small town of Cascade, south of Great Falls (he and his wife Kathy run the Missouri River RV Park in Cascade), offered to come to Great Falls and drive me to the five dams with the intent of finding the safest and shortest portage route around the dams. It soon became clear that paddling between the dams was a near impossibility, given that access to the river is restricted in certain areas. Also, entering or exiting the river is greatly hindered given the steepness of the canyon walls and the lack of a proper portage route around each dam. To deal with this last issue, several members of the local paddling community offer vehicular shuttles to paddlers, dropping them off at the Carter Ferry bridge, 31 river miles downstream from the city’s center.

Ideas That Are Mad

After several hours of surveying the possible portage options, Wes and I decided that the Coulee Widow put-in offered not only the safest route, bypassing the numerous rapids below Morony Dam (the last of the five dams), but also the most challenging route. We laughed about it then, driving over the gravel roads that parted a sea of yellow wheat fields that stretched to the horizon. And I have to admit, as ridiculous of an idea as it is – who would seriously consider doing a 26-mile manual portage in 90° heat around these five dams? – we are still laughing about it, if only because it will make for great book content and media stories. Media thrives on ideas of the mad. Starting tomorrow, local newspaper readers and newscast watchers will have their interest piqued by a certain Canadian adventurer who is not only slightly mad, but also damn determined.

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Read Rod Wellington’s detailed accounts of his journey through the Mississippi-Missouri river system from source to mouth: exclusively on the CKReview. Track Rod on findmespot for his daily progress. Go to his facebook page for more pictures.

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