Greetings from the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Montana! One of the last remaining nesting places for trumpeter swans, we have learned. We (Lisa, Alyce, Viki and Owa the Dog) are camped at the Lower Red Rock Lakes (LRRL) Campground today, May 17th, 2016.
We departed St. Paul, Minnesota on May 7th and spent 2 days driving to southern Montana. We had a fine support team along with us, including SOC artistic director and communications manager, Victoria (Viki) Carpenter, and friends, Anne Flory and Briana Patnode. Viki will be based out of southern Montana for the next three months as we, Lisa and Alyce, begin the expedition. Upon arrival, we spent two days preparing final details, including printing maps, organizing resupplies, handling random banking issues, and ensuring we had the proper amount of gloves for the cold days ahead.
The expedition officially started on Wednesday May 11th, 2016. Anne, Briana and Viki drove us down a rickety dirt road in the Centennial Valley of southwestern Montana. We got out of the car at an unmarked, even gnarlier dirt road, packs fully loaded, and over a year of preparing for this moment. Amid our collective feelings of excitement, nausea, doubt, awe, and a few others, it was passion to find the ultimate source of the 4th longest river system in the world that allowed us to take those first steps into the wilderness. Well, that and confidence in our skills, each other, and ourselves, as well as the comfort of all the support we had received so far.
After pictures, hugs, and some tears, we started hiking. The thoughts in both of our heads had been whittled down to “wow” and “we’re here” and “this is finally happening”. About 20 minutes of walking on the road and we found the old Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that would bring us to Lillian Lake, 4.5 miles away. The trail was easy enough to follow in the beginning, though as elevation increased, so did the snow pack.
With the trail buried under all that snow, we quickly had to start relying on our navigation skills. We quickly learned that screenshots of the topographic map that we printed at the library the day before were not going to be all that useful until we knew exactly where we were. We also had the GPS and map functions on our Delorme InReach. Before leaving, we had plugged in waypoints along the route including Lillian Lake and Hell Roaring Creek. Trying to follow those waypoints through the mountains wasn’t as straightforward as we thought earlier.
After scaling a steep and snowy section of wilderness, we arrived at the top of a peak and with daylight fading, doubt started to set in. Should we really be here? We had shelter, food, and the skills to build a fire to turn snow into drinking water and to cook, and ample experience camping in cold temperatures. We also had a stunning view of the sunset over brilliant snow-capped peaks. Yes, we should definitely be here. We made camp and decided to get our bearings in the morning. As we set up our tents and prepared food (rice, potato, curry, and extra butter) and water, a realization crept over both of us. All the months of dreaming, planning, preparing, the challenges, and sleepless nights thinking about details, all lead up to this moment. Being there, on that mountainside was a hard earned accomplishment. To celebrate, we dried our tired feet around the fire, split a K’ul chocolate bar and allowed the pure joy of being alone in the wilderness wash over us.
Camping on that mountain the first night, keeping a level head and using our skills to meet the demands of the situation laid an important foundation of confidence for the days ahead.
May 12th: 1st Full day of the expedition.
In the morning, we lined up all our navigation tools including our compass, map, GPS, and route notes from previous expedition in the area. Then we added what we had learned about the terrain the day before and the conditions we were facing and compiled all the information to conclude that we were now mountaineers. Abandoning the trail we couldn’t find, we established a route down to the valley where we would run into Hell Roaring Creek (HRC) and get our bearings again.
After only a few minutes of wandering along our newly planned route, we found the CD trail again! We were never that far off! This reassurance added vigor to our step and we were able to follow the trail through the snow for enough time to let our minds drift, only to lose it once again. The adventure unfolded essentially as such: deduce approximate location, make plan for where to check maps next, hike along (usually up, like UP UP), get a view of the valley, get confused, consult route-finding tools, hike down, cross a creek, hike up to get a view again, repeat.
It was an exhausting day of never really being lost (we made sure we could always retrace our steps back to HRC) but also not really knowing where we were going. After lunch, we found ourselves on a high ridge, getting farther from our goal (according to the GPS), and with clouds rolling in, we hit a big decision point. We only had so much food and energy (Alyce was menstruating hard) before our first resupply so we needed to make a judgment-call about continuing on or turning back to regroup. Luckily, making decisions under pressure is a skill both of us have honed over time and we were able to keep a level head and weigh our options. After talking it through, we decided to head down to the creek and follow it to the source. If we had to turn around the next day and hike out, we would. For now we would be cayoneers. We traveled as long as we had energy and made camp. That’s when we discovered we didn’t have all the necessary parts to our stove. Foiled again. We boiled water in our JetBoil (coffee maker), poured it over Ramen noodles, and went to bed.
May 13th, We were up with the sun, too excited to stay in the tent, despite the colder temperatures outside. This was the day we would reach the source! All we had to do was follow HRC, up to 8,800 feet in elevation! It was beautiful, breath-taking, awe-inspiring, majestic, and tremendously challenging, with steep, slippery terrain, wet feet, swift water, and snow. When we finally made it to Brower’s Spring, we found ourselves on top of many feet of snow with no visible markers of where the Spring itself might be. We realized that we had failed to write down the exact GPS coordinates for Brower’s Spring! Though strangely enough we had cell phone service and called Alyce’s mom, Ann, to ask her to look up this information. We eventually got the coordinates and located the ultimate source of the fourth longest river system in the world.
We took pictures and interviewed each other about confidence. We took time to celebrate and reflect on what it meant to be a confident woman, willingly taking on challenge, standing at the beginning of a nearly 4,000 mile stretch of river. We can’t find words to describe all the feelings that came with this experience. We were living our dream, right there in that moment. Too quickly it was time to make our descent so we could get out in time to make our resupply with Viki, which we had already extended by one day. We followed HRC down into a valley, ate some more ramen noodles and peanut butter, nursed our sore feet and camped again. We enjoyed our last night in the mountain and felt a true sense of accomplishment.
We made it down HRC, traveling through the stunning Hell Roaring Canyon. As we bushwhacked our way down into the valley we saw Vicky and Owa (Vicky’s best friend, a Pomerian, and the 4th member of the expedition), waiting for us with camera in hand and fresh food! It was a triumphant reunion and we traded stories over hummus and pita chips. We did a quick resupply, as plans for Vicky to stay with us were foiled by several factors: impending rain. That meant the road could soon turn muddy, bumpy and barely fit for travel, especially for Viki’s VW Gulf with low clearance and front-wheel drive. We bid an abrupt farewell to our friends and hid our in our tents as the storm rolled in.
We were snowed on and rained on. We took our time getting out of the tent and on our way, relishing in our accomplishment of the previous days and trying to favor our blistered feet. We were at Hell Roaring Creek, and as we were not sure if we could paddle it the night before, we had sent out pack rafts and accompanying equipment home with Viki. So we did what we knew we could do and started hiking. We decided to scout the creek on foot and after a bushwhacking through willow, ducking barbed wire fences, and wading through the tributaries flowing into the creek, we decided decided it would be most efficient to take the road along the creek instead of following its banks. We would hike to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife refuge and come back to paddle HRC when Viki came back with the rafts. We knew we couldn’t paddle Red Rock Creek and Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes, because of the protection for the Trumpeter swans and other migratory birds, so we kept hiking. We stopped at Upper Red Rock Lake campground where we met Carlos and Carlos, two dudes biking from Seattle to Huston. After some story swapping, we ate more ramen noodles and passed out.
More hiking, more blisters, more plan-adapting. We hiked 4 miles to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and gained some local area knowledge that helped us further adapt our plans. Then we hiked another 6 miles to the Lower Red Rock Lake campground where Viki would meet us the next day for a much-needed rest and resupply of food and gear.
Viki and Owa arrived in the afternoon, with a resupply of food and the gear needed to pack raft Red Rock River, below Lower Red Rock Lake. We recharged all of our electronic equipment as well as our bodies and made (flexible) plans for the coming weeks. We inventoried our gear, resupplied food for the next stretch of travel and shot some great footage. We all camped out together, enjoying some great lady-time around a fire with the sun casting a golden glow on the now distant mountains.
As with all expeditions, plans change and being able to adapt and flow with the reality of the situation is a skill that can take time to develop. It can be especially difficult when you have spent such a long time planning and things you wanted to do can’t happen or they don’t turn out exactly as you had imagined. In this first epic week, we learned valuable lessons about ourselves, our ability to remain flexible and stay in the present moment, and the strength of our team.
We have yet to paddle Hell Roaring Creek and we don’t know if we will. We do know if tomorrow we will paddle the Red Rock River and get to where it connects with the Lima Reservoir. But we will try. We are well, safe, fed and happy. We are so grateful for the outpouring of support and encouraging words from friends and strangers. We hope to post weekly, though there are variables beyond our control, like limited cell service, weather and water levels, so be patient with us please! Thank you for following along!
Alyce & Lisa
- What are 3 positive risks Alyce and Lisa took on their way to finding the source of the Missouri River?
- What skills did Lisa and Alyce rely on most to find the source?
- Have you ever experienced a big change in plans? How did you feel? What did you do to handle it?
- What factors did Alyce and Lisa take into consideration when deciding whether or not to turn back on the way to the source?
- What did Lisa and Alyce do to overcome the “should we really be here?” their first night on the mountain? Have you experienced a moment of doubt before? What happened?