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Cool Water Hula by the Berkeley Pit
Basking in the Boulder Batholith
OXO

Meanderthals: Flatwater Paddling in Montana
by George Everett

Montana has 81 different rivers and at least as many types of people who use them throughout the year. With so many rivers, there is room for all kinds. Get out on any given river and you'll see anglers wearing sun hats and flak jackets, bobbing in johnboats as they cast flies at riffles; rafters stumbling over their coolers as their bulbous rubber crafts slip over submerged rocks; kayakers wedged into Lycra suits and plastic helmets, rolling in the foamy whitewater.

These river folk are equivalent to rock climber, heli-skiers, and sky diver, all seeking the heightened awareness and visceral challenge of measuring one's mettle against the elements; evaluating their character against the river's; feeling the power and the satisfaction of meeting the river with their skill or spirit.

Then there is the altogether different kind of river rat--the flatwater paddler sets out to relinquish the "self" for a couple of hours, an afternoon or a few days. Flatwater paddlers move to the rhythm of the current and the weather, with the lofty goal of avoiding all impediments. A primary objective is to doze, propped against a paddle, to be awakened gently when the canoe scrapes lightly across a gravel bar.

This attitude describes a whole class of river runners: "meanderthals" those slothful and ambitionless souls who set out with the best intentions of getting from Point A to Point B, but remain content to fall short of the destination if there is some distraction along the way.

Meanderthals are among the same class of subversives as baitfishers, honyockers, doodlebuggers, and Wobblies. Flatwater paddlers don't like wind, rocks, rain, or spring runoff. A strong steady current is welcome but whitewater rapids are not. The craft of choice for most flatwater paddlers is a canoe, that poetic parenthesis of design that requires balance and prompts an illusion of grace and beauty, even when conveying a sunburned sack of potatoes dressed in baseball cap and lifejacket.

As a meanderthal, I have long considered myself and my friends the human equivalent of herons in their river society - watching the water ouzels and ospreys bob in the spray or soar and circle around us. We notice as they zip by or cast shadows over us, completely focused on their hunt or quest, but we do not veer from our own persistent focus on watching the river and what it will reveal if we pay more attention to it than to ourselves. We try to become a part of the river with the hope that this will make the river a part of us. The following are a few favorite stretches of Montana rivers for the benefit of would-be meanderthals where flatwater paddling is most expertly practiced.
 
RED ROCK LAKES

In a remote corner of Southwest Montana, excellent flatwater canoe paddling is available on Upper and Lower Red Rock lakes where you can paddle along, or drift with your back to a mild breeze while watching pelicans catch the wind and wheel around in the distance. Or, head for the marshes as a coots flush and cloud the view from the bow.

Getting to Red Rocks Lakes is an adventure in itself. There is one gravel road from Exit 0 near Monida south of Lima. It's the original entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Stagecoaches would carry tourists from Monida to the Park until modern highways elsewhere made the approach unpractical. Traveling 28 miles to the lakes on the washboard road, too, it's not to hard to imagine what those bouncy coach rides must have been like. Along the way though, the remote route offers up rare rewards. Beyond the fenceline, skittish antelope bolt in the lavendar bloom of sage in the open Centennial Valley. The valley has an abundance of smaller mammals, too. You might spot a badger crossing the road with a prairie dog between its jaws, or a fox pouncing in the grass after a deer mouse. Otters are fond of the lakes, too. Mountain bluebirds and hawks take flight from fenceposts along the road. In fact, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, 14,000 acres big, is a birdwatcher's dream. At least 258 species of birds visit or live in the refuge's more than 40,300 acres. Species include hawks, hummingbirds, grebes, chickadees, nuthatches, kingbirds, herons, grouse, sandhill cranes, and the rare and beautiful trumpeter swans who nest here and dawdle in the security of the marshes and cattails all year round.


BIG HOLE RIVER -- WISDOM TO WISE RIVER


Mountain trappers called the big flat areas between mountains "holes" The more common name these days is valley but hole has stuck in a few spots such as Jackson Hole and the Big Hole southwest of Butte. (Editor's note: for some reason, the area between the mountains near Butte is known as the Big Hole River near Wise RiverSummit Valley, not the Butte Valley and definitely not the Butte Hole.)

The Big Hole River is fed by high lakes and mountain streams. It trickles out of the southern end of the Bitterroots and trundles along the floor of the ancient valley before hooking south and then north again to join with the Jefferson, Madison, Red Rock and Beaverhead rivers at Twin Bridges to feed the headwaters of the Missouri River.

The river is mostly flatwater for more than 50 miles until it reaches the narrow canyon below Dewey. If you are a flatwater paddler, or if you have any common sense, you won't float the canyon beyond Dewey in a canoe. There, the water is forced into a narrow channel where the trout hide behind large rocks and fishing and navigating gets serious. Really serious. Don't go into the canyon unless you are adept at dodging rocks. Big rocks.

JEFFERSON RIVER --- TWIN BRIDGES TO THREE FORKS
 
Trips of varying lengths can begin at the Jefferson's beginning--at Twin Bridges at the conflunece of the Beaverhead and the Big Hole Rivers or a few miles downriver at the bridge at Silver Star. Beavers have worked this stretch and the biggest challenge is deciding which of the several channels have enough water to float your boat. A couple of diversion dams require portages, like the one at Parsons Bridge that can be tricky in high water.
 
One of the most visually rewarding stretches (that means you ooh and ahh a lot) comes when the river flows through the narrow canyon at Lahood and past the hills that hide the Lewis and Clark Caverns.
 
LOWER FLATHEAD RIVER -- RONAN TO DIXON
 
This quiet stretch of river below Flathead Lake has wonderfully aromatic mint plants growing on the riverbanks there solely for your enjoyment when you step on them putting in or taking a canoe from the river.

The current here is calm unless dam operators upriver decide to adjust the amount of water being released; the river can rise dramataically at these times. Canoes left carelessly tended on the river's edge have been known to disappear downriver as the rising river dislodges them and carry them away.

This stretch of river can take two to three days depending on how much you paddle and how much you let the slow current do the work. Meanwhile, watch for ospreys, coyotes, and at least one heron rookery along the way.
 
BITTERROOT RIVER -- STEVENSVILLE TO TRAVELER'S REST
 
The Bitterroot River crisscrosses the narrow valley between the Sapphire and Bitterroot mountain ranges south of Missoula, flowing through the birder's heaven of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. It also flows through a curious stretch of river known locally as Tin Can Alley.

In an era of hands-on management in the 1950s that resulted from a lot of dams and levees around the country, the Burlington Northern Railroad acted to deter the river from changing direction near one of its bridges. They lined the river banks with junked cars. Stacks of old cars were scavanged from junkyards and lashed together with thick steel cables from the copper mines in Butte. Today, rusted, pancake-flat automobile carcasses line the banks as riprap. In some places, the old cars line the bottom of the river as well. The riprap has actually done its job well, holding the banks in place against erosion and floods. And a mini-ecosystem has evolved around the old cars, providing shade and shelter fro lunker trout who in turn feed a variety of lurking birds.
 
MADISON RIVER -- SOUTH MADISON VALLEY TO ENNIS
 
Somewhere along the road north of Hebgen Lake, unload your canoe, pile in the supplies and put in for a two to three day float through the Madison Valley.

The Madison has several good camp spots along the shore along the way to Ennis. The river can be crowded during the day with guided floaters and anglers in johnboats, but the nights are for canoe campers. By the campfire you can listen to coyotes bounce yips off the moon and watch the outline of the Sphinx illuminated in the night sky in the Madison range to the east.
 
Canoe camping offers the opportunity to pack in the whole kitchen if you want: iron skillets, eggs, and all. Only mule or llama packing--where you can haul the kitchen table, couch (and Serta mattress if you like) to a mountaintop without breaking a sweat--offers more potential for overindulging your appetites.
 
YELLOWSTONE RIVER -- PRAY TO LIVINGSTON
 
The Upper Yellowstone is one of the last rivers unfettered by dams and if there is a water god out there it will remain that way. Flowing north and then east, the Yellowstone carries water from its origins in Yellowstone National Park through Montana and into North Dakota before joining the Missouri River on its travels to the Gulf of Mexico. Downriver and upstate the river is famous for providing habitat for Montana's exotic game fish: paddlefish, shovelnose sturgeon, walleye pike, catfish and sauger. In the upper part of the river, the name of the game fish is trout: browns, rainbows, and cutthroat. This mostly calm stretch downriver from rapids and upriver from Livingston's city bridges is also prime trout territory.

The river flows through the Paradise Valley at the base of the Absaroka Mountains. Unfortunately, a lot of folks have found paradise here and the river gets a lot of fishing and floating pressure in the summer. The river is also a draw for famous and nearly-so so don't be surprised if you encounter a box-office star in sunglasses and hip waders. Ultimately, there is more glamour here in the soft pink light that bathes Emigrant Peak at dusk and the soft honking of Canada geese than in all of Hollywood.
 
MISSOURI RIVER -- VIRGELLE FERRY TO McCLELLAND FERRY
 
For redeeming one's soul, recharging one's batteries, and retreating long enough to regroup to fend off life's next banzai charge against your sensibilities, there is no comparison to the Mighty Missouri River.

Although it has its drawbacks, such as low-flying military jets and more cattle along the shore than some cowboys see in their dreams, the Missouri River still retains the power and the glory of one of the planet's greatest, most epic waterways. Miles and miles flow through pristine country that would still be familiar to members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

This particular part of the Missouri River is designated as a part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. The only other river in Montana with this designation is the Flathead River--portions of the North, Middle and South Forks of that river system are also protected as wild and scenic rivers.

In one of the most glorious stretches of any river, the Missouri River flows gently through a tall canyon of tall sandstone bluffs the color of white chocolate. The bluffs have been shaved and shaped by centuries of weather.

While this part is ideal for propping against a paddle and letting the current do the heavy lifting,some flatwater paddlers prefer the less strenuous approach: they tie a tarp to a paddle and sail the canoe downriver. Either way, about the biggest worry on the Missouri is bumping into a napping pelican.
 
Before You Go
 
Engineering the shuttles can be almost as big an adventure as the float; the shuttle is often a major part of the planning forany river trip. Flatwater paddling requires as much attention to roads as to rivers. pay attention to what is paved and what local humorists call paved. Avoid gumbo and gravel when you can, but accept the fact that usually you can't.

To study any of Montana's rivers before a river trip, guidebooks are available that can head off a few surprises. Overall, my favorite is Floating and Recreation on Montana's Rivers, by Curt Thompson. Hank Fischer has put together a good one too -- The Floater's Guide to Montana.
 
For information about specific rivers try Montana's Yellowstone River, by Bill Schneider and Montana's Missouri River by R.C. Gildart.

For the Big Hole River and the valley and people around it, try
Montana's Last Best River: The Big Hole and its People, by Pat Munday.

For information about the health and well-being of Montana's rivers and rivers around the country from a national perspective, visit
American Rivers.
This site is designed and maintained by George Everett.
© 2003 by George Everett. All rights reserved.

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