Making Friends the Hard Way – A 26-Mile Portage Around Five Hydroelectic Dams in Montana Part 2

Rod Wellington on a portage that recounts the historic travels of Lewis and Clark in 1805. Click for full image. Photo Rod Wellington

By Rod Wellington

My strategy on day two had been to camp within two miles of Belt Creek, the most formidable obstacle of the portage. Belt Creek, or “Belt Crick” as it is known in these parts, begins many miles to the northeast, beyond the townsite of Belt, which lies on its banks, and empties into the Missouri about three miles below where I intended to cross it by bridge.

From the fairly level prairie atop the creek draw, the distance by road to the bridge crossing far below was approximately ¾ of a mile. Climbing out of the creek would require a tremendous push, or pull in my case, up a steep gravel and dirt road that measured 1.2 miles to the level prairie on the far side. With 8.5 miles remaining in the portage, it quickly became obvious that day three would require a humongous effort to finish at Widow Coulee by day’s end.

Just before I began the descent into the creek draw, I revisited an oddly placed site dedicated to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-06. These early American explorers had arrived at this same site after months of travelling up the Missouri with a dedicated crew of military men and intrepid souls. Not only had they had encountered the numerous “Great Falls” and countless rapids that lie upstream, but they also had to contend with how to get across the chasm that came to be called Belt Creek. While reading the interpretive signs and seeing artists’ renditions of the hardship that the Corps of Discovery had endured, I felt both a sense of inspiration and relief; inspiration from their relatable accomplishment and relief in the knowledge that our hardships differed greatly.

I had roads and bridges to walk on and people to bring me ice water and foot baths at the end of long days! The descent by road into Belt Creek was nothing more than a simple display of gravity. The kayak travelled downhill mainly by its own accord, needing no coaxing or convincing. The steep walls of the creek draw were laced with layers of grey and rust coloured rock, their rounded tops dotted with fragrant sagebrush. The creek itself, like many in this badlands area, was a shallow, meandering ribbon of clear water, its contents curiously having more volume upstream than down. The closer Belt Creek got to its confluence to the Missouri, the less water ran between its banks. Thirsty land and rapid evaporation are factors that create peculiarity in landscape such as this.

rod Wellington’s campsite on Day 3. Rod is on a 4 day long, 26 mile portage in Great Falls, Montana. Click for full image. Photo Rod Wellington

Epic Portage

Once arriving at the bridge, I removed most of the gear from the kayak and hefted it in stages up the steep road. At a roadside spot I chose, based on the fact that I was breathless, I piled the gear and returned to the boat for another shuttle. Thankfully the lightened kayak climbed the hill easier than expected and I carried on over a stretch of easier grade, then positioned the boat in the roadside weeds and returned several hundred yards to the gear pile. Sweating and shouldering a multitude of waterproof bags, and grinning at the irony of carrying such gear in an area more arid than any through which I had travelled during this expedition, I continued on up the incline to its apex beside the aptly named Forder Farms. A lone brown stallion behind a wire fence stamped the dirt angrily and snorted at my presence, then whinnied and galloped out of sight, leaving me with a cloud of biting black flies and a long walk back to the gear pile.

After sorely heaving a duffel bag full of gear to the kayak, which was now positioned halfway between the two gear piles, I decided to place the bag in the boat and pull the works up the hill to the farm. This idea lasted about 300 feet until I nearly exhausted myself from the effort. I shouldered the bag and slowly waddled up the hill, well aware that my energy level was now waning.

With all the gear now at the top of the hill, minded only by an angry horse and hungry flies, I returned to the kayak only to discover that I had forgotten to switch on my SPOT satellite tracker while at the bridge below. I realized that if I turned it on now, there would be a gap in the tracking route. So I walked 20 minutes down to the bridge, switched on the device, said hi to a curious mule deer loitering in the sage, walked back to the kayak and pulled its reluctant bulk up to the gear pile. Winded, but relieved that I had overcome the obstacle that is Belt Creek, I packed the kayak and, in the words of Lewis and Clark, “proceeded on.”

The climb out of Belt Creek, a mere distance of 1.2 miles, had taken 4.5 hours to achieve. Owing to the fact that the portage had to be done in stages, I estimated that I had walked at least three times that distance. It was now 4pm and any progress that was to be made would be done with sore shoulders and ravaged feet. Even ascending the slightest inclines in the road felt like climbing mountain passes. Even more daunting was the fact that the road had taken a turn to the east to bypass a large wheat field. I felt as though I was being led further from the Missouri. Then, a sign appeared which read “FAS (fishing access site) 5.3 miles”. Widow Coulee, in fact, lay attainable and near. This fact buoyed my spirits and I carried on for another hour until the pain in my feet drove me off the road. I set up camp in the shorn stubble of a wheat field and waited on Wes and Kathy’s arrival.

Refuge Found In Foot Bath

Watermelon, lemonade, ice water and another foot bath were served up in the rear of Wes and Kathy’s vehicle, a virtual ambulance during this damnable portage. We discussed their upcoming road trip to eastern Tennessee to visit Kathy’s mother as well as the goings-on at In Cahoots for Tea, a Great Falls tea shop owned by the couple. Before their hour-long drive back to Cascade, they drove down to Widow Coulee so Kathy could see the Missouri in its badlands setting. Along the way they saw several mule deer and a coyote and reported that I had exactly 3½ miles left to reach my destination, which meant that I had walked a meager, but hard-won, 5 miles on the day.

Rod Wellington nurses his feet during a 26 mile portage. Click for full image. Photo Rod Wellington

It bears noting that this campsite was atop a gentle rise upon which I could see for miles in any direction. This site marked the highest point of the portage. In the predawn darkness I could see the glow of Great Falls and the lights of the air force base that lay more than 10 miles away. There had also been an alarming stillness at night. There were no sounds, not even the stirring of insects or the rumbling of passing aircraft. Here, nature had been muted by pesticides and agriculture. Here, nothing flourished except our incessant need to feed a planet overpopulated with hairless monkeys possessing little foresight and an abundance of ignorance. Perhaps when our greed finally exceeds the stockpiles of grain, the sound of hunger will be heard in the night, coming across the plains in the wails and cries of children, descendants of gluttons, burdened by generations of ignorance and irresponsibility.

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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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