Thursday, May 20, 2021

Too much cold weather gear? I don’t think so!

Campsite inside Gates canyon
You may have noticed that this is the third blog update posted today.  As I mentioned in a previous post, internet coverage is spotty in this part of Montana and I don’t post if I can’t connect.  Lucky for you, it turns out that I currently have lots of free time to catch up on things!

I rose early and packed quickly to exit Black Sandy; largely to avoid an unpaid camp fee (sorry Montana!).  I made the quick trip to the Houser dam and had to unpack the entire boat.  It took a little effort to locate the best egress point as previous paddlers indicated to go under the wire and exit on the left shore at the dam itself.  Of course, all the signage shouts to go across the lake to the official site for safety reasons thus quadrupling the length of the portage.

After my Toston dam fiasco I made it a point to assemble all my bags on the shore, gather up all the loose items in the cockpit into my mesh duffle, and properly do a three pass portage.  I’m carrying a month of dehydrated food in a dry bag that has no shoulder harness.  Thus, it rides in the canoe with the mesh duffle and all other bags are carried through the portage.  When I reached the end and was repacking the canoe I noticed that a bottle of sunscreen had exploded in my clear dry bag.  It took about 45 minutes to clean up the gooey mess before I was able to shove off.

The scenery that day was pure Montana magic.  Mountain ranges on both sides of the river and few humans to be seen.  Two sites were on my “must see” list for this part of the trip; the Missouri Breaks downstream from Fort Benton and the Gates of the Mountains.  For some reason, I expected not to see the Gates for a few more days of paddling so when I rounded a bend and they loomed into sight I was thrilled. 

I took my time going through the Gates and the canyon and let the current push me along.  There is a gorgeous campsite within  the canyon and I stopped for lunch and seriously considered staying the night even though it was early in the day.  Several speed and large tour boats passed by with waving humans but that pretty much sealed the deal, it was too busy of a location and I’d push on for something less congested.

The run downstream didn’t disappoint and I enjoyed the Montana scenery.  I did have to deal with some wind on the “lakes” as dammed stretches of river don’t behave like natural lakes.  The water body is basically one long tube with enough fetch to create high waves across nearly the entire length.  I pushed on until late afternoon and then decided to call it quits just when a sweet campsite appeared.  After unloading and setting up camp I decided to hike up the ridge above me to get a good look around.  I’m glad I did, the scenery was breathtaking and many ways better than the site I gave up in the Gates of the Mountain canyon earlier in the day.

An early break of camp and departure the next day (May 19th) had me heading for the Holter dam and my last self portage in Montana.  Each morning I listen to my weather radio and I had been following the National Weather Service forecasts of a late winter storm expected to hit Montana.  The last weekend’s early estimates were up to 18 inches of snow and freezing rain in the mountains (basically my location).  That was pared down a bit to a foot of snow but still a worry. I wasn’t in a location where I can take shelter without some planning.  I shouldered on hoping to make it to a protected location where I could ride out the storm.  By late afternoon the rain had started and it was clear that I was going to have to shelter in place.  I stopped at a few spots mentioned in The Complete Paddler but ownership has changed and hotels have now become private lodges.

I reached Mountain Palace just as it began to pour.  I set up my tent quickly, pulled all my gear either inside or under the vestibules and waited.  Within an hour the rain changed to freezing drizzle then to a heavy, wet snow.  I was warm and dry but it quickly became clear that my three season tent wasn’t suitable to ride this one out.  Thankfully, I had cell service for the first time since my first night on the river and I began to search for a hotel with easy access off the river.  It turned out that the Prewett Creek Inn was a few turns down the river from my location (the campsite at Prewett Creek was my original destination before the weather turned sour).  I gave them a call and after explaining my situation to the owner, Joan, I booked a room for the next day (today, May 20th).

My wet home at Mountain Palace
All through the night the snow came down in wet, sticky gobs.  I soon realized that when it sounded like the storm was letting up it was because the tent was covered and sounds muffled.  I set an alarm for every hour through the night to wake up and bang the fly from the inside to lighten the load on my tent poles.  I feared they would collapse under the weight and then I’d be in real trouble.

When morning arrived I repacked everything from inside my cramped quarters and then dug myself out.  Just as I was hauling out gear and getting ready to take down the tent, Maddie from the private fishing lodge across the street yelled asking if I wanted a cup of coffee.  My mantra for this trip is to take offers whenever they are made so I accepted the offer even though I was in fine shape and would soon be indoors in a warm hotel room.

The coffee was good and I had a brief conversation with a few of the fly fisherman making their way into the lodge from their rooms for breakfast.  I finished my drink and departed to finish packing for the short float down to Prewett Creek.

The day has been spent drying clothing and gear and making the big decision as when to push on.  Part of my calculations are when I’ll arrive at Great Falls and whether the portage I arranged will be available.  After a number of phone calls I worked things out to stay here in Prewett one more day then depart on Saturday morning.  That will get me into Great Falls ether Sunday afternoon or Monday morning and then I can decide whether to take a room (Sunday night) at the portage landing or to go onward.  It would be wise to do some shopping and resupply my food stocks and to do laundry.

The one thing I won’t complain about again on this trip is packing too much cold weather gear.  It may be no fun slogging heavy packs over portages on hot and sunny days but being over prepared was critical when it was needed.  On the upside, I learned that wet bags slide easily into place in my boat.  I won’t ask for more snow but I will be using a little water from now on to “grease” things up.


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