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

Rod Wellington portaging his kayak on Hwy 87/89 north of Great Falls. Click for full sized image. Photo Rod Wellington

By Rod Wellington

With a hand-drawn map, a prayer and healthy dose of determination, I set off from Dick’s RV Park in Great Falls, Montana on August 1 to tackle a mammoth 26-mile portage around five hydroelectric dams that block downstream passage on the Missouri River below Great Falls. Each of these dams are huge and, with the exception of Black Eagle Dam, the first of the five, inaccessible to paddlers. For this reason, a portage route utilizing urban streets and rural roads had to be mapped out. Wes Malchow, who along with his wife, Kathy Jutras, manages the Missouri River RV Park in the small town of Cascade, 50 river miles from Great Falls, was nice enough to drive me to four of the five dams and search out portage route options on both sides of the river. After hours of driving and scouting the river, we decided that a 26-mile route from the Broadwater Bay boat ramp in downtown Great Falls to the Widow Coulee boat ramp, downstream of Morony Dam, the last of the five dams, was the safest route to take. It would also be the most challenging.

Dick’s RV Park is lovingly nestled between a busy highway and a busy airport and is bordered on the remaining sides by a (thankfully) abandoned railway and the muddy, yet quiet, Sun River. In true testament to its name, the Sun River was a dappled fluid diamond in the early morn as I drifted beneath the old iron rail bridge en route to the Sun’s confluence with the Missouri. Morning commuters zipped across cement spans as I paddled leisurely across the Missouri’s width and took out at the Broadwater Bay boat ramp. With the heat already on the rise and the aluminum kayak cart and solid rubber wheels securely in place, I set off across the parking lot in search of my destination, Widow Coulee.

Here’s a sure-fire way to meet people: fill a 16 foot sea kayak with gear and tow it on wheels through the city of your choice. I guarantee that people will come out in droves to ask you what the heck you’re up to. It also helps to have your picture on the front page of the local newspaper a few days before you disembark on your journey. I got no further than the boat ramp parking lot when retiree Fred Berry, who was launching his newly repaired boat for a test run, asked me if I was “the guy in the paper”. I replied, “Uh, perhaps…”, hoping that he hadn’t confused me with an aging rock star or a serial killer.

After crossing a few busy streets as polite motorists waited patiently, I started north on 5th Avenue and ran into Jim Langert. Jim, who had also read the story in the Great Falls Tribune, struck up conversation from the front seat of his car. I learned that Jim, whose right leg is amputated below the knee, had lost 125 lbs over the last 18 months and that he works out regularly in a local swimming pool. He uses molded plastic devices that are specially designed to create resistance underwater. When attached to his arms and legs, he’s able to get a full body workout at the pool.

Only a few blocks later I was hailed down by Timothy, a friendly gentleman and fellow kayaker who, again, recognized me from the newspaper. Timothy, sporting a white “Pay It Forward” t-shirt, offered a wealth of paddling information about the section of the Missouri below the dams and where I could find help if I ran into trouble along the way. Further up 5th Avenue he tracked me down again, dropping off a photocopied map of the river section we had discussed.

Friendly Kelly, bearer of rice and chili mix. Photo Rod Wellington

Minutes later I was befriended by Kelly, a goateed Great Falls native who earns money collecting scrap metal. Having lived beside the Missouri his whole life, aside from stints driving transport trucks and working on fishing boats in Alaska, Kelly has always wanted to travel down the mighty river to its confluence with the Mississippi. I urged him to pursue his dream, reminding him that it’s never too late in life to embark on an adventure. Like Timothy, Kelly returned an hour later with several bags of rice, gifts from his elderly mother who had read about me in the newspaper. Fifteen minutes later, he returned again with a bag of chili mix and more rice, gifts from his sister this time.

Further down 5th I chatted with homeowner and retiree Don who was busy sprucing up the colourful garden that ringed his beautiful cedar sided home. Next it was a chat with potter Gary Doos and his grandsons, Trent and Tiny. Gary, a friend of Judy Erickson, who some of you may remember as the woman who ripped a hole in the crotch of her pants while offering to cook me dinner, had also read the article in the newspaper and nicely offered up his home as a place to stay next time I was in Great Falls.

A few blocks later I chatted with 5th Avenue resident Rob and his young son, Kade. Rob and some friends were excitedly gearing up for a week-long fishing trip on a nearby river and were eager to hear about my journey. I was also joined for a short while by a 7th grader named Austin who was riding around the neighbourhood on his BMX bike. Austin was looking forward to a new year of school and loved telling me about some of the summertime adventures he and his family had partaken in, most of them water-based.

5th Avenue, for the most part, was a gentle, but taxing, uphill portage all the way to 37th Street. Temperatures had risen to 90°F by noon. In the heat, an unfortunate issue with both kayak wheels was most unwelcome. Short pieces of metal wire that I had been using to keep the wheels on the axle had become jammed in the plastic plugs that allowed the tires to rotate on the axle. A sweaty roadside repair was necessary. Within ten minutes I was up and running again.

At 37th Street I worked my way up a steep grade and followed 6th Avenue for a stretch before edging over to 7th for the rest of the walk to the northern outskirts of town at 57th Street. I looked out over wheat and barley fields that stretched to the horizon. After towing the boat through residential neighbourhoods and meeting hordes of friendly folk, this new territory looked desolate and daunting. There was no shade, no people and no end to it. Save for a scurry of activity at Malstrom Air Force Base to the west, and the endless rush of traffic along the highway, the bleak and foreboding landscape offered a sterile calm that left me feeling very tiny and a little ill.

A motorcyclist held up traffic at the highway intersection, which allowed me to cross without issue, and an army officer named Matt pulled over to offer me a lift. I politely refused, saying that I was doing the portage under my power. “But thanks.” I added.

Trucks sped by, stacked high with hay bales. I sweated profusely as I worked up yet another moderate grade and turned to see the city of Great Falls fading away in the river valley below. I was visited roadside by Laura, a woman I had met weeks earlier on the Jefferson River, upstream from Three Forks. She had led a group of teens on a day-long canoe trip, part of a week-long summer camp for youth. Laura and her friend Joe wished me well on my journey and continued on theirs.

As the temperature neared the mid-90s, blackflies hounded me mercilessly, biting through my socks and T-shirt every few seconds and preying on any exposed skin. I was delirious from the heat, stopping every hundred feet to rest. My feet were blistered and swollen, painful with every footfall.

Four anonymous motorists stopped to offer me a ride but none were as comely as sweet Jordy, a transplanted Californian who now wrangles horses at a ranch in the nearby town of Belt. Dressed the part of a cowgirl and sporting a friendliness that could have only arisen here in Montana, as opposed to caustic Los Angeles, Jordy’s infectious energy and undaunted encouragement boosted my sagging mood and made my afternoon a brighter place.

I left the highway at its junction with Highwood Road and decided to make camp in a carpool parking area. My Cascade friends, Wes and Kathy, showed up at around 7pm, bringing with them two gallons of water, one cold and one frozen. I sat in the air-conditioned comfort of their vehicle and related the events of the day. Wes informed me that I had walked eight miles, five shy of my goal of thirteen, half the distance to Widow Coulee fishing access. It was now obvious that completing the portage would take more than two days. My feet were not happy with the news.

As rural residents began their morning commute into Great Falls, I began Day 2 of this 26-mile manual portage by towing my kayak in the opposite direction, away from town, deeper into a yellowed desert of wheat fields shorn of their bounty. It was harvest season, which meant that trucks hauling grain and convoys of combines were the norm on the narrow, shoulder-less roads. Green mile-marker signs made progress somewhat tolerable and helped me gauge the distance remaining to Widow Coulee, my final destination, the spot where I would be reunited with the Missouri River.

I was taking photos of Homestake Ranch, along picturesque Box Elder Creek, when up pulled local resident Ron LaMotte. A former facilitator for Outward Bound, an organization that helps get city folk into the great outdoors. Ron gave me a quick 10-minute lesson in safety and survival techniques. His delivery was engaging and professional; his advice enlightening and useful. Ron suggested that I look up his friend Terri Baker who owns a thrift shop in Fort Benton, a river town that I would pass through after the portage. (As it turned out, Ron alerted the Fort Benton newspaper and I was able to meet with his reporter friend Walleyne Flanagan for an interview while in Fort Benton.) When told of my kayak wheel dilemma, which had acted up again, the ever-resourceful Ron went to his mini-van and promptly emerged with two large cotter pins that were a perfect match for the axle.

The steep road out of Box Elder Creek seemed never-ending in the morning heat. My fragile fingers, which had been gripping the plastic carrying handle on the kayak’s bow for more than a day, had become blistered and sore; their skin and meat squeezed into a painful position that resembles the numbing whiteness that occurs from carrying plastic grocery bags heavy with food for long periods of time. Every hundred feet I would switch hands until the discomfort became too great. Then I would take a much-deserved break, drink water, curse and resume the torture. The smiles in the accompanying photos seem to mask my pain.

At the junction with Salem Road, I left the pavement behind and rolled the kayak over rocks and dirt for the first time during the expedition. Also at this junction was a sign that read “Widow Coulee 13 miles”. I had reached the portage’s halfway point.

A stiff wind blew across the fields of barley and wheat, shorn clean by crews of combines that raced up and down the rows on each side of the road. Grain trucks and their subsequent squalls of choking dust sped by me in both directions, dumping their payloads in silver granaries that dotted the horizon.

I managed a total of 10 miles before making camp on a roadside strip of dead, spiky grass. Friendly Kelly, whom I had met the day before on 5th Street in Great Falls, stopped by for a visit. He was on his way to Widow Coulee fishing access, having never been there before. I admired his desire to seek out new places. Perhaps one day he will embark on his own Missouri River journey and tell his story to me over bowls of chili and rice. But for now, I listened intently as he related the plotline of a new Jennifer Aniston movie that he had seen recently.

For the second consecutive night, Wes and Kathy sought me out and brought gallons of cold and frozen water as well as warm water, Epsom salts and a plastic tub in which to soak my feet. Oh, the relief! They also gave me some blister medication which helped to heal toes that had been crammed into cheap running shoes and pounded over jagged rocks that littered the rural roads. Roadside visits do not come much more thoughtful than those of these three new friends. They had all gone out of their way to help someone who only days before had been a stranger. From them we can certainly learn anew lessons of acceptance and selflessness. I am eternally grateful to be surrounded by folks as awesome as Wes, Kathy and Kelly.

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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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