June 25th, 2016
At 7am, we awoke to the wind shaking our tents like multiple hands gripping the nylon fabric. The weather we had been expecting finally showed its face and we were thankful to have paddled when conditions were favorable. We decided to call it a wind-induced rest day with the choice made easier by being 2 full days ahead on our timeline. We had a relaxing morning drinking coffee and eating oatmeal, steak, and bacon (the meats provided by Orville and Frank) at a leisurely pace. Orville was fishing and Frank was telling stories of days past; a perfect river life moment. We spent the day reading, writing, napping, and Lisa playing her guitar. Around lunchtime, Orville caught a good sized cat fish! We proceeded to enjoy the delicious fish, seasoned perfectly by Orville. We were getting spoiled with all this meat and fresh fish. As the clouds started breaking apart and letting the sunshine through, Alyce sat reading and writing by the river, watching a bird give her self a bath. Working her beak to clean her feathers. An intimate moment shared in the quiet hours of late afternoon.
The sounds of Lisa’s guitar playing drifted in the air as she and Orville discussed education, politics, and what it was like to grow up in rural Montana as a person with Native American heritage. After hearing his first-hand accounts and the details he shared about his relatives’ experiences, it was apparent that to grow up here with any amount of Native blood was often cause for a lot of unkind and unjust treatment. This didn’t come as a surprise, given the gruesome history of the European invasion and seizure of the Native people and the land they thrived on. The stories that Orville told, however, revolved more around the mistrust and, at times, hatred that exists between those of 100% Native blood and culture, and those who have mixed Native ancestry. As we learn about the history of this landscape from books and interpretive centers, we really only get the viewpoint of the author. The words are written from the lens through which they see. Hearing first-hand accounts and listening to perspectives that are diverse and authentic provides a different lens through which to see how history has shaped the world we live in now. This is experiential education.
As the wind continued to blow, though lightening up a bit, we shared another meal with our new companions. It was a real treat to be able to combine forces in making delicious-tasting food. The menu included cabbage and apples sautéed in coconut oil and peanut butter smothered all over steamed rice and then topped off with a can of salmon. A truly a gourmet feast. Orville said it would have been a $50 dinner back at home. The backdrop of fire, river, clouds and golden sunlight was mesmerizing. The leaves of the trees alternated between a deep, shadowy blue-fish green and a yellow, kind of golden green. It’s easy to lose track of where you are, watching the leaves flap above you in the sky. All the elements worked together to create the perfect eating environment. With delightful conversation and jokes with Frank and Orville, we were having the time of our lives.
One of the running jokes in our party was how often Orville mentioned goods he’d purchased at the Dollar Tree. “There are only two places you need to go in your life: the Dollar Tree and,” he paused for dramatic effect, “Mardi Gras. You ain’t been nowhere until you been to Mardi Gras.” We will be sure to take that sage advice forward. As the evening crept in, we kept the fire going strong and Orville caught another fish! We had an after-dinner snack of small mouth bass! As the stars were coming out, the fire illuminated our hands working the fish apart, pulling out the bones so we hungry river raiders could feast once again. Just another day of pure, true river life.
June 26th, 2016
Time to get back to paddling. We bid adiue to Frank and Orville, exchanging email addresses and wishing each other safe travels. What awesome guys. The day went by in typical river fashion and around 3pm we had arrived at Cow Island recreation area. Not an island, but plenty of cows and a lot of mud. No bother though, given the benefits of an old homestead to explore, ample sage bushes to enjoy, and a beautiful view of the river. There was an old plywood table complete with a “Lord of the Flies (or Cows)” type weapon: a stick with a fork taped on the end, the middle prong bent inward, creating a speer. It was an interesting place, to say the least. We decided we must be the Lords of the Cows but we left the creepy weapon alone.
The overwhelming heat of the day and the aroma it produced on our bodies let us know that it was bath day! We went down to the river to wash as so many women before us have. As we cleansed our skin and talked and laughed with each other, we felt exhilarated by the cold water and notion that we were taking part in an ancient ritual. We imagined all the women before us, and the women still today, gathered at the water’s edge bathing, washing clothes, and collecting drinking water as a community. We’ve become accustomed to doing these things in the privacy of our own homes and bathrooms. In the wilderness, we have found the freedom to partake in these primal experiences without fear of judgment or reprimand. And we can share this platonic experience with each other, another form of liberation as we continue to become fully comfortable with ourselves and our bodies in the presence of another person.
Back on land, another aroma caught our attention. In our opinion, the most glorious aspect of what’s known as the plains grassland of Montana is the abundance of sagebrush. A wonderful smelling, pale green plant that seems to sprout up everywhere. There are several varieties of sage that have been used for centuries in cooking, ceremonies, and as medicine. The practice of burning dried sage to cleanse or bless a person or a location was and is a common practice among many Native American tribes and this practice has been adopted and altered by western culture. We strive to be conscious and respectful of cultural traditions that are not our own and make sure that we are not perpetuating the appropriation of Native American culture. We decided to collect some sage to dry and burn as incense while being careful not to overstep our bounds in re-creating a ritual or ceremony that did not belong to us. Before gathering the sage, we did give thanks to the Mother Earth, the river, and the sage itself for our safe passage thus far. Then we took a small amount to be dried and burned throughout the trip as part of our own self-care ritual.
After the sage-collecting and dinner-eating, there was more exploring to be done around the old homestead nearby. It was composed of several fallen-down wooden buildings, sunken into the earth, swallowed up like so many dreams to this land. How many people traveled far and hard to come to this place and try to make it theirs? She is untamable and history shows it. These buildings turning back into the earth, over time becoming the dirt. That future no ones will inherit (because this section of the river is a national monument and can’t be built on.) And just like the old wooden shacks settling into the ground, another day on the river came to a close.
June 27th, 2016
A refreshingly cool morning greeted us as we yawned out of our tents. Bonus: no fresh cow poop! With all the cows in close proximity we thought for sure one would venture near. Turns out, they wanted as little to do with us as we did them. The glory of no fresh cow poop. Back on the river, we passed many more old homesteads. From the seats of our canoe, we took in the history of the land and of the buildings built with so much hope, now sinking into the ground. The wood going back to its roots. The tenacity and gumption it must have taken to come out to this harsh, unknown, untamed land and try to make something of it inspired us.
Early in the morning we ran into the group of men we had been playing tag with for the last couple of days. They hollered to us from shore that if we had been a little earlier, we would have gotten some pancakes. We shouted across the water about what we were doing and where we were from for a minute before we decided to pull over and extend the conversation. There on shore were three Wenona canoes, like ours, an indication that we might be talking to some Minnesotans. Indeed, the were all from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, just like us. A rare treat to meet fellow Minnesotan paddlers on a river in Montana. We learned they, a group of 5 men, mostly retired, were avid canoeists. Bob, Dave, Rolli, Mike and Doug had a lot of river experience including traveling big rivers all over the world, competing in canoe races, and instructing canoeing lessons. One of them even ran an experiential learning program through the school district he worked for, bringing students out on river expeditions as part of their education. Kindred spirits. We chatted for several minutes and then it was time to get back on the water. It wasn’t long before our canoe-racing friends caught up to us and passed us a few beers from their deluxe cooler as they passed us by. Cool refreshments have become a highly-coveted item out here.
The rest of the afternoon went by quickly as we paddled and swam. This was one of the hotter days and it gets exhausting battling the heat! All of a sudden we arrived at James Kipp recreation area where we sidled up to a boat ramp full of people. They were a group of teachers who had been on a 5 day float and were just loading their vehicles with canoes and gear to head home when we paddled up. Our Minnesotan friends had told them we were on our way and we exchanged enthusiastic greetings and inquires about what each party was up too. They called themselves the “Corps of Recovery”, a play on the Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, and have been doing an annual river trip together to celebrate the freedom of summer. As educators, they were very excited about our mission and we exchanged contact information to stay in touch. Then, these truly wonderful people donated to our cause by covering the cost of our camping fee! They also fed us sandwiches and homemade cookies and gave us a bag full of “river treats” they had left over. Thank you, again, Corp of Recovery! Y’all are awesome!!
We set up camp and jumped in the river again to cool off. These hot summer Montana days require several dips in the water with each one seeming more refreshing than the last! As we approached 50 days of expedition, our routines and systems were becoming more refined and this evening was a prime example of that. While Lisa did work on the computer, Alyce cooked dinner and organized camp. Bob, one of the Minnesota party, was waiting for his friends to return from shuttling back to Ft. Benton to get their other vehicle, so he hung out with us provided ample and entertaining conversation. It was a highly enjoyable evening.
When Rolli and Dave returned, the team packed up their gear as Rolli informed us of his winter plans to head to Finland, where his family originates, for the longest cross-country ski event in the world at 273 miles from border-to-border. This started the wheels in Lisa’s head turning as skiing is among her top three passions with paddling and music. Another adventure to throw on the back-burner. The men took off, some for home in Minnesota and Rolli for Oregon. The Missouri River has been an incredible place and we have been gifted the pleasure of so much kind, generous, entertaining and inspirational company. The guys also gave us a bunch of their leftover food, including cheese and tortillas, two of our stapes! It felt like trick-or-treating on Halloween with the amount of food we hauled in within a span of several hours. An evening swim was in order and provided the perfect cool-down for getting in the tent, reading and drifting to sleep. The sounds of the still active birds lingered in the air and the sun’s final light pierced the sky. Nighty noodle, as we say.
June 28th, 2016
The morning started off with a our Delorme tracking device refusing to turn on. As we were about to head in to one of the most remote sections of our expedition, this was a serious issue requiring immediate attention. This seriousness of the issue was complicated by the fact that we were already so remote that we didn’t have any cell service or anyone on hand to help us out. We decided to divide and succeed with Lisa setting out in search of a phone and Alyce loading up the canoe. Lisa consulted the James Kipp map and found a little dot that indicated a telephone was nearby. She headed to the location and found a lonely remnant of the 1990’s – an empty pay phone stall. She headed over to the campground host’s trailer to inquire about the use of a phone but no now was home. A sign on the door gave the WiFi password, a totally unexpected and useful discovery. Well, as to be expected in a location with no cell phone service, the internet was pretty poor and Lisa spent about 45 minutes trying to email both Viki and Delorme. Just as she was getting ready to move on without a solution, Paul, an employee of the park showed up and offered the use of the landline. Lisa was then able to resolve the issue within minutes by calling Delorme and learning how to re-set the device. Super simple. Problem solved, nonetheless, and we were able to launch back onto the river. Dream Team at it again.
We spent the morning paddling, laughing, and talking in funny accents, the usual river life for us. Once we reached the Rock Creek boat ramp, we enjoyed a floating lunch followed by a swim and spa-like experience as we took a bath in the river mud and clay. We decided to practice embracing the mud, for we had heard tale of the muddy banks of upcoming Fort Peck Reservoir that can have you dragging your gear through miles of muck in low water. It was so much fun to roll around in the mud! Ft. Peck was going to be awesome! By 4pm we had paddled 22 miles and we nearing the end of the river, before the braided channels of islands and low water leading into Fort Peck. We knew we would lose all the current tomorrow and we were now one day and 7 miles ahead of the timeline. At this time, we also came up on Hutton Bottoms primitive campsite, with a vault toliet and old homestead. Although the shore was more sheer and high than the flat bottom land across the river, we couldn’t pass up the chance to hang out by this homestead.
It took a little longer to unload the boat on the steep terrain but the prospect of sitting in the shade of the homestead made it worth it. There is a notable absence of trees or any kind of shade along this stretch of river but this does have the advantage of allowing for beautiful vistas of the river, especially when we find ourselves camped on a bend such as this. One thing that can really make a person frustrated are the biting flies! The mosquitos haven’t been giving us much trouble (we’re used to a much greater volume being from Minnesota) but these ankle-biting little monsters will circle obsessively and land on the skin causing an annoying, painful little prick as they sink their devious mouthparts into the flesh. They pack a powerful itch, too. Even though we are trained not to scratch the bites to prevent the dirt and germs under our typically-unwashed fingernails from creating an infection, it can be hard to resist. Once you start scratching, it’s hard to stop. The flies were worse right by the water than in the shade of the homestead though, so we got a little break.
We explored the homestead and did a little photo shoot, played some guitar and ate some dinner as the sun marched towards the horizon line. We walked back to our tents and organized our gear, getting sweaty and itchy in the process. It is still hot at night and now the mosquitos were out with a vengeance. A nighttime swim was in order and it provided sweet relief from the heat and bugs. Running back into our tents, we each had a 360 view of the landscape as neither of us had attached our rain flies to the tops of our tents. We could see everything through the mesh fabric of the tent body; the sunset, the river, the old homestead, and all the biting insects that would have to find dinner someplace else. We drifted to sleep watching the last light rays of the sun sink in the sky as the stars popped into view. Around midnight we both awoke to far, far off lightning. It was a spectacular view: the powerful, illuminating moon, the fairy dust stars and bright flashes of light so far off they sort of look like firecrackers. The magic in this place is a 24/7 occurrence.
June 29th, 2016
Almost the end of June! These days on the river have been flying by! We still had some current to help us move along and we traveled pretty fast. We spent another morning laughing and talking about everything and nothing at the same time. The landscape and river began to change into Fort Peck reservoir, getting wider and slower-moving. The braided channel made it a little more difficult to know exactly where to go, but we really didn’t encounter any problems as many paddlers before us had.
Due to the nature of a human-constructed lake or reservoir, the water levels are subject to substantial rise and fall. This can make low-water travel very difficult due to the muddy, mucky bottom becoming exposed but it also lends itself to some new and beautiful natural features. In the middle of some of the channels were groves of sun-bleached white trees appearing to grow right out of the water. They had an eerie yet beautiful mystique. It was a bit haunting paddling next to them; feeling, again, the history and imagery of the Sacajawea, Lewis, and Clark party traveling through this same spot.
Finding a nice camp spot on a shore lined in rocks and driftwood, we called it a day at 4pm. Before this, we had come upon a lot of mud and muck extending good distances from the more hospitable shoreline. Nightmarish conditions for camping, we were grateful for the fantastic camp spot we had found. We had paddled 25 miles putting us two full days ahead of schedule and buying us some cushion that we might need for the big waters and winds of the reservoir!
With those miles being powered with our arms as the current all but disappeared, plus the heat and ever-apparent lack of shade, we were really exhausted. We got camp set up, meticulously positioning our tents so that we could sit in the small amount of shade provided by our moving homes. We followed this with a swim to cool off (in this type of heat literally any physical movement causes sweat) and then napped for a good hour. We needed to figure something out for these afternoons! We can’t live like this! Being in the straight sun for hours and hours, the heat takes over and doesn’t leave you much energy to think, problem solve, or get along! We were just so tired! And always sort of red, though only in certain hard-to-shade spots like cheeks and hands. Alyce, in particular was experiencing dry, shriveling up skin from the sun and from swimming multiple times a day. Sort of just melting.
With the heat comes a loss of appetite, so we ate Ramen noodles for dinner. The best kind: quick and easy. A reading and writing evening followed. Thankful for the sun beginning her crawl to the other side of the planet. The temperature began to steadily drop and the reprieve from the heat was delicious. You know the feeling of drinking a cold glass of water on a hot and humid summer day? That’s the one. Finally feeling less hot and our skin slightly cooler to the touch, we drifted off to sleep.
June 30th, 2016
Happy 50th Day of our expedition and another month given to the river! We have given a lot to each other and this expedition and received so much more from the river, the weather, and the people we’ve met along the way, that today was a day to be thankful and celebrate! We got on the water by 6:30am and there were just traces of a current so we floated along, rather slowly, though enjoying the luxury of what would be our last floating breakfast making forward progress for awhile. We had a potentially difficult stretch of route to contend with: the UL bend. It’s a sharp bend that goes directly south and then north again, before continuing on an east and northeast trajectory. If the wind is strong coming from either direction, the paddling can be really tough. Blessed again by the river and weather goddesses, we had terrific weather, albeit strong with heat.
Lunch break was at a half-submerged cottonwood log, stripped of bark by the wind and water and bleached a chalky white by the sun. It was about 15 feet long and very round with brown and green slimy clinging to it’s underbelly. We enjoyed a swim to battle the afternoon fatigue and we got back in the canoe. A headwind had started to pick up at this time and we only paddled a few more hours before deciding to camp at 3pm. We weren’t making that great of mileage, we were tired, and now 5 days ahead of our timeline. There was no need to rush.
Finding a lovely little inlet on the north side of Fort Peck, we performed our daily ritual of unloading the canoe, setting up our homes, and swimming. The Rest of the afternoon was spent writing and doing a data dump from the Go-Pro memory cards via the computer to the small external hard drive. It’s a constant event organizing and storing all the footage we capture on a daily basis. The life of a documentarian.
After dinner was made and consumed, we sat down to reflect on the last 50 days. We talked about what we have learned and how we have grown; what we wish we would have known before and what we might have done differently. We reminded about funny events and all the people we have meet. We reveled in all of the support and kindness from folks who start as strangers and become friends. A key learning for Lisa far about herself, is how important relationships are to her. As a highly independent woman, the collaborative nature of this large undertaking has highlighted for her how necessary it is for her to balance her need for freedom with the care it takes to manage such a close relationship. For Alyce, a key learning has been in her now heightened ability to provide positive reinforcement for herself. Through writing and video-documenting her thoughts and experiences she is more able to recognize and appreciate her strength, accomplishments in herself. We won’t share any more here and now; you’ll just have to wait for the documentary to know more of our answers to these questions!
Retiring to our tents around 9pm, the sky was transitioning into pinks and oranges and a deep purple-blue. The water lapped, insistently rushing violently towards the mini-mud rocks that make up the shore line. They easily break apart in your hand. It’s what you would use for the landscaping around a Barbie dream house. The wind danced across the water, as sleep draped her blanket over us. Another day of many lives lived.