The River Giveth and Taketh Away Part 1: Beaverhead River

May 26th, 2016

Clark Canyon Reservoir (CCR) – we finally got to start paddling our canoe! The feel of paddle in hand and the movement of the canoe over the glassy lake was incredible. The moment was sweetened by the flavor of a hard-fought battle getting here. With the blisters of our first two weeks of travel healing, the sun finally shining and a slight breeze keeping things comfortable, we felt like nature was sharing in our celebratory mood with perfect paddling weather.

Before launching, Viki helped us load our boat and the three of us did some much-needed processing of events and the emotions stirred up over the last few weeks. Intense travel, volatile weather, and the constant adjustment of expectations to meet the demands of the moment had taken a toll on all of us and we knew that in order to move forward as a strong team, we needed to take the time to air our concerns and work to understand one another’s perspectives. This was time well-spent and lent itself to an optimistic launch into the next phase of our expedition.

We made good time crossing CCR and arrived at the dam in about an hour. Our first true portage of the trip! After crossing a road and descending a steep hill, we got our first glimpse of the Beaverhead River. After three trips to haul our boat and gear around the dam, we loaded our boat and ourselves into the swift current that eventually leads to the Gulf of Mexico. We had what we call a “floating lunch” while anchored to the shore to avoid being pulled down a set of rapids ahead. Our usual lunch: tortilla, meat sticks, cheese, and spicy brown mustard. Yum.

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Alyce and Lisa, wearing the hats that were taken by the river.

The Beaverhead River was dotted with people fly-fishing, almost exclusively men. Where were all the women? We think we might have seen one woman out fly-fishing and would have loved to see more.  We wove through the gauntlet of fishermen, dodging line after line and exchanging smiles and friendly hellos as we passed by. We probably passed 50 or so people out fishing the short stretch of river!

The spring run-off gave us a swift current and decent water levels that made the initial descent of the river exciting. We were able to canoe over our first diversion dam and as we approached a set of rapids, a fisherman casting near-by advised us to portage around. Without knowing about our experience canoeing swift water in the backcountry rivers of Canada and our years of experience leading canoe expeditions for Voyageur Outward Bound School in the northern Minnesota wilderness, we were sure this fisherman’s suggestion was well-intentioned albeit totally unnecessary.

After a visual assessment of the rapids, we decided it was within our skill-set and therefore, a positive risk. Being our first day on the river, we employed a conservative approach and portaged our gear around the rapids in order to run the boat empty. This gave us a low-consequence way to get to know our boat, the river, and each other through the lens of whitewater travel. After executing what we will call a flawless run, we paddle-fived in celebration, loaded the boat, and continued on.

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The Beaverhead River.

The current moved us along quickly as we rounded bend after sharp bend. It took some practice to get the tight turns right in our 16.5 foot canoe. We had to fight the current to keep from being pushed into embankments and overhanging trees/vegetation (known as strainers). Most of the time we looked good drifting those turns and it only took one very unfortunate miscalculation of speed and angle and we ended up ramming through an unyielding cluster of willow. This strainer did its job and swept the hat with Go-Pro attached right off of Alyce’s head. Thankfully, Alyce’s head stayed on, but unfortunately the hat and camera were sucked under water in less than an instant. Frantic attempts to grab it were unsuccessful and as thorough a search of the river-bottom as we could do proved fruitless. 30 minutes later and wet from the waist down, we got back in the boat and had to fight the feeling of defeat.

As we paddled on, we discussed the lessons learned: tether the film equipment to our person and ensure that gear is securely fastened in the boat, even when the river looks benign. The afternoon passed in idyllic Montana fashion and around 5:00 pm we spotted an old homestead open to the public. We decided that it was time to camp. The 1905 Henneberry/Ney homestead was a wonderful campsite and we tested out a new system: 30 minutes of personal time to set up our tents, store our gear, and get comfortable before reconvening to start dinner together. It worked well and we felt a sense of accomplishment. Time management was starting to become an area of conflict for us as we were not setting goals about getting ready and would often take turns waiting on each other in silent annoyance and impatience.

Making a fire for dinner along the river was made easy by the abundance of dry driftwood. In no time at all we had a delicious concoction of sweet potato, coconut, onion, and quinoa. Enjoyed with a Bent Paddle IPA, fire and sun lowering itself in the sky, it was an evening filled with peace, music, and the magic of the historic setting. River life at its finest: great day on the river and in the tent before 10pm. A nice change of pace from the epic first phase of the expedition.

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Lisa’s guitar named Minne.

May 27th, 2016

We started the morning using our new system of 30 minutes from wake-up to get our tents and personal items packed. With our time goal met, we moved on to the next step of our morning routine: make hot water for breakfast of Simply Native Quick-Cooking Wild Rice Cereal (we hydrate it overnight and add hot water in the morning: efficient, healthy and delicious) and Dunn Brothers coffee which we make in our French press. We ate, packed up, moved bags to river and loaded the boat. On the water in 2 hours and the sun was shining down on us. Already we were starting to find our new rhythm on the river and in the canoe.

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Lisa moving the canoe over a shallow section.

The river was flowing pretty high so we canoed at a fast clip, running small rapids and feeling the rush of going through that churning, swirling water with style and grace (most of the time).The day moved quickly, a little rain and sudden cold burst in the afternoon warranted a calorie and happiness recharge of Nutella-on-a-Stick (recipe: use stick to transfer Nutella to mouth). We were excited to get to Dillon, MT, for the evening as our friend, Erin McCleary, would be joining us there for an impromptu weekend rendezvous. We passed one campground on the south end of Dillon but elected to keep paddling as it was only 3:00pm. We paddled on, not sure yet where we would camp or meet with Erin. Eventually, we decided to call and when Lisa turned her phone off of airplane mode (we keep them on that setting to conserve battery), we got several urgent messages. “STOP! That is the last place to camp!” Erin had been in town talking to some locals and learned that all the land north of Dillon was private and thus, not camp-able. We were about a quarter of a mile past the last of the public land and the current was too strong to paddle upstream efficiently.

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Montana: horses, big sky and mountains.

We decided to walk the canoe back up stream. Alyce volunteered to drag the boat most of the way as her feet were already wet and this would save Lisa from having to spend time drying her boots out later. For Alyce, this brought back memories of dragging canoes up unnamed waterways in the arctic tundra of northern Canada when she was 19 years old. “We are dragging our canoes up the river. We got soul deep in our toes, even though they are froze”; this little song was made up in the tundra and flowed so naturally in the moment.

After about an hour, we found Erin and a spot to camp and what a welcome sight to behold. We unloaded our gear and were off in Erin’s car to Dillon for Mexican food and a stop at the Beaverhead Brewery. We also stopped at the Laundromat to dry out Alyce’s soaked clothes. 25 cents and 10 minutes later all signs of dragging the canoe were dry and gone.

May 28th, 2016

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Erin, Lisa & Alyce on the Beaverhead River.

Up and on the water by 9am, the sun was shining with some clouds in the sky. Erin borrowed an inflatable sit-on-top raft from a friend and spent the first part of the morning learning the nuances of a new boat on a new river. Positive risk-taking at its finest. We paddled all morning, encountering some fences running across the river. Usually easy to spot and negotiate over or under, it was still a bit jarring to round a corner and be met with the unfriendly site of barbed wire crossing your path. We had lunch in a field by a trestle bridge and had a lively conversation about inspiring women, unisnspiring men, expeditions, relationships, and how each of us have developed confidence over our lives.

We continued paddling and paddling and paddling. We didn’t intend to have a 10-hour day of travel but between enjoying our time playing in rapids and with our filming equipment, reveling in the scenery and each other’s company, and waiting for cows to cross the river, the evening crept right up on us. We were close to Beaverhead Rock State Park and it was unclear what the camping options were. We found an island that fell below the high water mark which is the legal exception to camping on private property in Montana. We got to setting up camp for the night with an epic view to the east of Beaverhead Rock, a key landmark for the Native people and early explorers.

Another splendid dinner of quinoa, sweet potatoes, onion and a curry sauce filled us up with just enough room left for a Trailtopia Rocky Road dessert, a delicious chocolate pudding with marshmallows and almonds. This was truly living as the sun was finishing her final descent in the sky and the laughter of uninhibited women echoed across the landscape. As the sun made her final dip, the first stars began to shine their light. The Big Sky state did not disappoint in the star department, that’s for sure. “Nighty-noodle”, our nighttime salutations, were exchanged as we disappeared into our tents to journal and set up electronics to charge overnight. The moon sang her lullaby for us and it truly was a magnificent evening.

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Long paddling days make for majestic lighting as evening sets in.

May 29th, 2016

What a day! 11 and half hours on the water! We were on a mission: get to Twin Bridges, MT and the paddler-friendly facilities created for through-travelers – mainly bikers. The day was a hot one and we experienced what we could only describe as a cow jam. This was when a herd of cows decided to cross the river in front of us with our only option being to pull over, watch, laugh and wait for them to finish their moseying. Reminiscent of being stuck in traffic on the freeway, yet not at all frustrating because, heck, we were in a canoe on the Beaverhead River.

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Erin teaching Lisa how to fly-fish.

The river was yet again cooking along and, using our Delorme tracking device, we were able to clock our speed: at one point we were going upwards of 6 miles-an-hour at a leisurely paddle pace! Incredible! We were making miles and decided at 5pm that we would just stay on the river until we reached Twin Bridges.

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Old, rusted cars dotted the river bank as we approached Twin Bridges.

About an hour and a half later the water tower proudly displaying the Twin Bridges name came into view. Another welcome sight. There is a magic in towns that exist along rivers and in using a canoe to get to them. We found the Bike Camp located on river left, immediately after the Highway 41 bridge. What a marvelous place. It was built by the community and local businesses and is maintained through donations. Water, a building with electricity, a shower and toilets were all available and it was just a short walk to the main street of Twin Bridges. What a great way to add value to a community, be friendly to travelers, and support the local economy.

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The Twin Bridges water tower! We made it!

The small town had a grocery store and several restaurants but our dreams of a hamburger were dismantled with our late arrival to the town (around 8pm) and the fact that it was a Sunday. These are things you forgot when you get into river time – the days of the week affect the schedule of businesses and eateries, whereas on the river the names of the days and hands on a clock become obsolete.

We opted for a Trailtopia stir-fry rice and added some Ramen Noodles to boost our calorie intake. We met another traveler by the name of Mark, who was making his way across the country by bicycle. He shared his travel tales with us including his experience of having to cut his first attempt at hiking the Appalachian Trail short. It took him 30 years to be able to go back and finish the attempt. What an incredible story of the power of a dream and passion to follow through. We stayed up for a while, as the stars illuminated the sky, sharing candy and stories of adventure and dreams. We were all ready for our sleeping bags when we finally said good night.

May 30th, 2016

A rest-day in town. We slept in a little today and had a slow-moving morning, with coffee and oatmeal and a congratulatory attitude over the two long days paddling days to get to this point. Erin hitchhiked back to Dillon to retrieve her car. Alyce and Lisa spent the afternoon processing the last few weeks, brainstorming curriculum ideas and making initial plans for the days ahead. It felt good to be ahead of schedule and we moved our next resupply in Three Forks with Viki up a day.

Erin arrived safely in her car with gifts and a new story. Her chauffer for the day ended up being the man who helped build the bike camp we were enjoying. Erin had picked up a few things, including a new red hat with fake pearls and rhinestones on the brim for Alyce to replace the hat taken by the river a few days before. She also brought blueberries and candy which we devoured before saying our goodbyes to Erin. A true River Angel and confident woman!

The rest of the day was spent reading and writing. Around 4pm Alyce ventured into town, finding the local Historical Association and had a wonderful time looking at old clothes, a large arrowhead collection and tea kettles. All the items had been donated and were from families in the Jefferson and Madison counties. There were binders of every obituary from those counties, dating back to the 1900s. For Alyce, the coveted hamburger was finally eaten at the Wagon Wheel restaurant, along with tater tots and ranch sauce. Bonus: free Internet! Lisa stayed back at the bike camp to nap, read and write. Times like these when we have ability to for independence, solitude, and choice within the expedition will be critical to harmony and successful completion.

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Front exterior of the Twin Bridges, MT Historical Association.

The night passed by quickly and with all electronics charged and gear packed up, we made a plan to be on the water by 8am, requiring a 6am wake-up time. We were excited to merge with the Jefferson River the next day and begin our experience with a new current, new twists and turns, and new views.

Though the river hath taken some material possessions from us, we have also received such an abundance that the losses become easier to swallow (yes, even the loss of one of our Go-Pros). Things can be replaced. The experiences that we are having with the landscape, with each other, and most importantly, with ourselves are the greatest gifts of the river and expedition life. To lose a camera, a hat, a water bottle, whatever, no big deal. To lose parts of the ego, limitations, inhibitions, doubt, now we are talking. In the loss there is room to gain. Space in packs, the thoughtful gift of a new hat from a friend, the presence of another spirited and confident woman, humility, honest, trust, freedom. The phrase really is true: the river giveth and she taketh away. Tune in next time for updates on our experiences of the Jefferson River!


Lisa, Alyce, and Erin in Twin Bridges, MT.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you ever been solo or one of just a few girls or women to participate in something? Did/does that impact how confident you felt/feel? If so, how?
  2. Describe a confident female role-model in your life. What makes her stand out to you as confident?
  3. What did Lisa and Alyce mean by “in the loss there is room to gain?”

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