Slow but steady progress for Wellington

Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes. Photo: Rod Wellington (click for full size)

By: Rod Wellington

At the generous and slightly silted-in mouth of Red Rock Creek, where it ends its journey westward and empties into Upper Red Rock Lake, I bid a temporary farewell to the many moose I had encountered in the creek’s willow thickets and, for the first time on the journey, set my sights upon a wonderfully wide panorama of towering peaks stretched high above the giant, mirrored surface of Upper Red Rock Lake.

Progress across the lake was slow in my small inflatable raft. The Yukon Yak, although nimble on the creek’s tight turns, was built for water white and swift, not glass smooth and docile. I pushed the boat’s bulk across the surface with great effort, each paddle stroke feeling heavier than the last, fighting off a strange feeling that the craft may indeed be sinking, which, of course, it was not. I’m glad to say that my watered down enthusiasm was buoyed by the fact that I was surrounded by an amazingly varied landscape that contrasted between beds of yellowy grass and the jagged northern face of the Centennial Mountains, their highest crests forming the unbroken line of the Continental Divide.

I camped that night at the Upper Red Rock Lake campground and was visited at sundown by Bill West, project leader at the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Bill, who, along with other refuge staff, namely Eric, Jim and Kyle, offered a tremendous amount of logistical assistance in the journey’s early stages, was there to lend me his GPS for the following day’s paddle. Not that I needed a GPS – I had my own, of course – but Bill, ever curious of the workings deep inside the Refuge, wanted a permanent record of my chosen route through the river marsh that connects Upper and Lower Red Rock Lake.

The next morning, with a group of camera-shy pelicans slowly circling on the lake’s smooth surface, I set off along the grassy shoreline in search of the lake’s narrow outlet and the channel that would connect me to the Lower Red Rock Lake.

Again, progress was slow, but surely as does water run downhill, I found the outlet. A wide channel lined long and abundant with knee-high green grass led me deeper into a maze of sloughs and ponds. At one point, needing relief of a bladderly kind, I happened upon a sizeable nest with four large eggs at its center. High above flew a bird, white and unidentifiable to my untrained eye. It circled and shrieked out a shrill call that made me wonder if the eggs at my feet were hers. Perhaps it was a gull. I’m not sure. Perhaps the nest had been abandoned by a goose or a crane. I took several photos and left the scene abruptly.

Back on the water, I stopped at a junction that, on my GPS, showed a narrow channel leading north and emptying into a large lake. This channel also appeared on my topographic map of the region. On this day, however, my chosen channel, one that would lead me quickly and uncomplicatedly to the lower lake, now only a short distance westward, was completely free of water with only a row of burgeoning cattails and chattering blackbirds calling the shallow trough home. Dismayed, I stuck with the main channel, its flow defined only by the slight, directional waving of the underwater vegetation, and continued south into a very large, shallow, motionless pond. Stubbornly, I propelled the reluctant boat across several mudflats until a wide channel revealed itself and I struck westward once more. Here, at eye level with grasses spiky and brown, my gaze sped onward to mile-high peaks and rolling, sage-covered hills alike. Here, in the middle of a perplexing and often maddening maze of channels and sloughs, I halted my progress and sat silently staring at a canvas of organic beauty. The landscape reigned simply and truthfully, naked to a judging world, unflinching and uncompromising, regal, proud and prudent.

“Look for the toilets.” Bill West had told me. And with squinting eyes against the blinding sun, I did just that. Sure enough, when I neared the campground on the lower lake’s west side, two blocky figures rose above the reeds and grasses like obelisks of relief, beckoning me with lids lifted in a grand salute and an odour of familiarity.

The 17-mile journey across two lakes and the lazy river marsh that connected them had taken eight hours to complete. Relief was mine, awarded with the friendly company of Refuge volunteer Jim Cheshire , whose fascinating life story will be related to you at a later date, and a beautiful sunset worthy of a state as great as Montana.

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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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