Tom's Camping Journal
Missouri River Canoe Trip
Sunday July 2nd - Friday July 14th
The kids seemed quietly shocked and dismayed when we handed them the paddles. A year ago, almost to the day, we began a two-week canoe trip down the last 120 miles of the Green River in Utah, to the confluence with the Colorado. But there were eight adults and six kids on that trip, so the kids were passengers, paddling mostly for fun. This time it was just Renee and I in two canoes with our three kids, Felicia (10), Cassie (9) and Donny (5), plus our nephew Jeremy (11) from Connecticut. Donny was the only real passenger. The older kids had to paddle, with only one of them taking a break at a time, vying for the fold-up aluminum chair in the middle of the canoe.
According to literature from the Bureau of Land Management, most people average twenty miles a day through the Upper Missouri National Wild & Scenic River, completing the 108 miles from Coal Banks to the James Kipp Recreation Area in just five days. We allotted two weeks to the river, to travel at a slower pace with the kids, to spend some time and get to know the place, and to just enjoy being together as a family with few distractions from the modern world. At first the kids lifted the paddles with limp arms, but by the time we reached the end they were really pulling their share of the load.
Renee's mom and dad caravanned with us for the five-hour drive from home, helping to transport kids, gear, and one of the canoes to the river. We camped out on the night of July 1st at the city park in Fort Benton, along with many other floaters, then drove to Coal Banks Landing and launched the following day. We started in the afternoon and paddled only five miles before camping at the Little Sandy Recreation Area.
Given that the Green River Canoe Trip was our first canoeing adventure and this was only our second, Renee and I naturally compared one river to the other. On the Green we continuously endured searing hot temperatures and sunburns that penetrated our SPF 45 sunscreen, plus vast clouds of mosquitoes in the shade and after sunset. We expected a similar treatment on the Missouri, and planned to endure the worst. In reality, this river was a cakewalk compared to our experience on the Green. Okay, so maybe we didn't sleep for several nights in a row through terrifying lighting storms while the rain poured down all around us and bits of the tent blew away in the wind while we tried desperately to hold the rest of it together, but the rest of the time, yes, it was a cakewalk.
The Missouri, we decided, was wider but more shallow than the Green. Through the muddy water we could never tell if the river was ten inches or ten feet deep until we struck a paddle into it, but more often than not it was surprisingly shallow. Although both rivers are considered Class I, without any whitewater, the Missouri was even more gentle and easier to navigate than the Green, fortunately for us and our young crew. Other floaters indicated that the river was running about half its normal flow, due to the especially dry conditions this year. We really expected all the vegetation to be burned to a crisp by the dry weather, so we were pleasantly surprised to see how green it was. But we were especially delighted at the virtual absence of mosquitoes through most of the trip. Even when we did encounter a few bugs near the end, it was quite tolerable compared to what we expected.
We decided that the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River was not nearly as wild and scenic as the endlessly eye-popping red sandstone canyons of the Green, but after we got over the comparisons, we found that the Missouri had its own continuous subtle beauty and a few spectacular moments. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the pristine park-like quality of the Upper Missouri and the developed campsites built and maintained by the BLM for floaters along the river. We wondered what Lewis & Clark would have thought if they paddled up to a campsite with metal cooking grills and all new concrete outhouses with bright white walls inside, comfortable seats, and (usually) an ample supply of toilet paper! Canoe camping, we decided, was a lot like car camping, traveling from one campground to the next, except that we didn't have the problems of four bored kids confined inside the car and wanting to stop at every fast food restaurant and candy store!
Indeed, it was our intent to minimize distractions, so that the kids would find ways to entertain themselves, as kids have for millennia past, by playing in the natural environment. Keeping busy was no problem for the kids. The Upper Missouri was a hundred mile long swimming pool to them. I'm not sure there was ever a time where all the kids got bored and came out of the water on their own, without us having to go tell them it was time to be done. On the very first day they were already having mud fights, throwing great globs of mud at each other and bathing in it from head to toe. We found turtles, toads and live mussels at that first campsite, which we took pictures of and turned loose. I played tourist and shot up five rolls of film during the trip.
On Day 2 we paddled only six more miles downstream. The kids were largely uninspired with the paddling, but we are all Star Trek fans, so the traveling became intermittently much more interesting when we adopted the lingo like "port and starboard", "warp speed", "come about" and "ramming speed", and then tried to overtake and ram each other in the canoes. The paddling seemed to stop whenever the games stopped.
For several days we tried fishing every chance we got, from shore or in the canoes. On the Green River the kids kept everyone fed on catfish using "dough bait" which we came to know as "stink bait". The Missouri also has catfish, and we brought along dough bait hoping for similar results. We really didn't care what kind of fish we caught, but we were really looking forward to catching something. We tried the dough bait and an assortment of other things we had along. Unfortunately, after several days of effort we only had a few bites and no actual fish. We finally gave up and existed on the river for two weeks with no fish other than the canned tuna we brought along.
The gray shale hills and sagebrush gradually gave way to white sandstone formations as we drifted downstream. We stopped to explore around some beautiful white cliffs that rose straight up from the water's edge, with a ravine cutting through between them. Meanwhile, an afternoon thundershower was building overhead. Lightening and rain soon followed, and we took refuge below some sandstone formations in the bottom of the dry ravine. Just when we thought the storm was ending there came a bigger more intense shower, and a small rivulet of water made its way down the ravine to our shelter. Fortunately, the kids found a better shelter higher up in a wall of sandstone, so we all moved into that shelter to wait out the rain. Soon the ravine was awash with a "flash flood" although the flood was only about four inches deep and three feet wide. As soon as the storm passed we rushed to the canoes and headed down river to find a suitable campsite before another storm hit. We didn't get very far.
It was evident that another storm was coming, so we stopped at the first site we could find, about 1/4 mile downstream. Much of the land along the Upper Missouri Wild & Scenic River is private, but the BLM has easements to use some of the private land for campsites. Floaters are encouraged to camp at the designated campsites, or at least on public land, but it is okay to stay on private land too, provided it is not posted and you take good care of it. This camp was on private land, and a magnificent site too, with many castle-like sandstone formations. We set up camp as quickly as possible before it started raining again.
All of us brought books to read, and I read Grandmother's Grandchild aloud to the kids. The author, Alma Snell, is a Crow Indian and a friend of ours. Her grandfather was one of Custer's scouts. Alma was raised by her grandmother Pretty Shield. Kids that were raised by their grandmothers usually learned more life skills than other kids, partly to help out, but also to be able to take care of themselves if the grandmother died. The Crow have a special name for a child raised this way, "kÔø‡alisbaapite" or "grandmothers grandchild", hence the name of the book. I read the book Pretty Shield by Frank B. Linderman to the kids a few years ago, and bought Alma's autobiography as soon as it came out. The kids especially liked the part where Pretty Shield chased the school principal around his office with a hatchet after he whipped Alma's hands with a length of rubber hose! We read a chapter or two each day until we finished the book.
As soon as the sky cleared in the evening, the kids ran back down to the water for another swim while I started the fire and Renee prepared burritos for dinner. She carefully planned out all of our meals before the trip, using fresh food for the first few days and dried and canned foods for the rest of the trip. We cooked over the campfire or on our propane stove, as seemed appropriate to each time and place. The tent was a little damp around the edges after the rains, but our sleeping bags and blankets were nice and dry.
Our Day 3 was the 4th of July. But we had our celebration with ice cream sundaes and fireworks at home on the night of June 30th, before our trip. Fireworks are not allowed on the river. I awoke early and went for a walk, hoping to catch some carp feeding on the foam close to shore. I botched one attempt to bomb a carp with a rock, and never got another chance for the rest of the trip.
The kids were playing in the water again, just as soon as we would let them. I've been studying birds intently this year, so I sat in the thicket of snow berry bushes below the ash and cottonwood trees and watched the birds. What a thrill to sit and do almost nothing! That is exactly what I needed from this vacation.
Most of the land here is covered in grass or sage, with only a narrow band of trees along the river, so that is where all the birds congregate. From the trees they can head out over the water for bugs or over the prairie for bugs or seeds. At times there were a half dozen species of birds within a single small ash tree. I recognized the yellow warbler, mourning dove, and the redwing blackbird. The kingbird was new to me, as was the northern oriole, and some others which I was unable to identify. The oriole was bringing food to its juvenile young, which were out of the nest and already flying some, but not going out in search of food. We found the nest of a redwing blackbird in the snowberry thicket, with two newly hatched chicks inside. I also found a morning dove nest, but did not look inside. High up in the branches of a cottonwood tree we could see a porcupine resting for the day.
Together we went for a hike up through the sandstone castles before eating lunch, packing up, and heading out. A mere three miles downstream we made camp at the Eagle Creek campground, possibly the most spectacular scenery of the entire trip, where both sides of the river are lined with white sandstone cliffs and dotted with short, scrubby ponderosa pines.
As often as possible through the trip I took the kids on a walk with their journals. Each of us found a "secret spot" to be by ourselves to observe nature. I feared that the kids would think it was a stupid idea, but actually they really liked it. The journals took several forms. Mostly the kids just listed everything they saw, heard and smelled, but sometimes they wrote poems, stories, or drew pictures. I sat with Donny and we worked together. At this place we saw two rabbits and a deer, plus many birds. We arrived back at camp by dark and celebrated the 4th of July by roasting marshmallows over the fire. Here is a poem that Cassie wrote:
A Secret Poem
I am sitting here on a sandstone and I see all the fluffy clouds. I see some ants, some sticks, some leaves. I feel the wind beneath my wings. There are hundreds and thousands and millions of bugs. I hear the crickets singing for love. I wonder if the mourning dove is mourning for someone above, for they will be resting forever over above, yes, forever above. I hear the birds chipping in trees and up there is the Lord praying on his hands and knees.
In the morning I grabbed the camera and headed up Eagle Creek to take pictures in the early light. The stunning beauty of this place was first revealed by Lewis & Clark in their journals, and later through many famous paintings and well-taken pictures. All that publicity gives the illusion that the sandstone formations must extend for fifty miles along the river. In reality there is more like five miles of truly stunning geology. The rest of the hills certainly make nice scenery, but the climax of the show is certainly at Eagle Creek.
There are unmistakable sedimentary layers all along the river, mostly bands of shale with a few bands of sandstone in between. The layers were formed when the region was under sea water from 80 to 70 million years ago. The shales formed at the bottom of the sea, while the sandstone layers formed along the shores and deltas. Changes in the sea level left alternating bands of one and the other. As you float down the river it seems that you are traveling deeper into the layers and back in time, but that is not so. Through the process of building the Highland and Bearpaw Mountains nearby, volcanic activity lifted the land and tilted the sedimentary layers, so that you travel through the oldest layers upriver and travel forward in time 10 million years as you go down river.
Another effect of the volcanic rock was the massive walls of black stone that run across the land starting shortly after Eagle Creek. Molten rock was forced up through cracks in the sedimentary layers. As the softer sedimentary layers are worn away the harder volcanic rocks are left in place. These natural stone walls look entirely human-made. We floated by many such walls on the seven-mile journey downstream to the aptly named Hole-In-The-Wall campground.
The other campgrounds are all placed in groves of cottonwood trees, but Hole-In-The-Wall is a developed site on a sagebrush flat. However, recent improvements to the site include new outhouses and some log cabin-like shelters that are entirely closed on three sides, with the fourth side open and a roof overhead. There are also about fifty newly planted cottonwood and ash trees. A hand pump at the site produces alkaline water which also contains bacteria, so it is not suited for drinking, but there are two five gallon buckets at the pump and a sign asking for help watering the young trees. The kids watered a few trees closest to the pump. I watered several trees near our tent, farthest from the pump. Later we would get so much rain as to make all our efforts quite unnecessary.
In the afternoon it was just plain hot, as it always is before the storm, so we hid out in the shelter, reading, snacking and doing projects. I brought along flint & steel kits for the kids to practice starting fires. All of the older kids have started fires that way before, but they've never been in a situation like this where they could practice it every day and develop some proficiency with it. They all banged away with the steel on the flint rocks until someone caught a spark on a piece of char cloth. Then they transferred it into a tinder bundle and blew that into flame, adding sticks to make a real fire for cooking. They started just about all of our campfires during the trips, and usually started three for four extra fires each time, just for fun and practice. Cassie is especially proud of her fire-starting skills. Donny started a fire with a magnesium & steel kit. He was really thrilled about that.
The first cloudburst came before dark, while we were still hiding out in the shelter. When the kids had to go to the outhouse we didn't know if it was safe to make the run over there with the lightening crashing all around. We were probably not any safer in the shelter anyway. It was nice to have some moisture to wet the dry land, but we were glad when the storm passed.
We learned a few things about tents on the Green River. We were a little lazy about driving in the stakes there, but just held the tent down with lots of gear in all the corners. That mistake helped lead to a collapsed tent and shattered fiberglass rods. Partly it was the tent though, a cheap Walmart product, designed more to sell than to function. It was more like a kite than a tent, and it amplifies the wind so that from the inside every storm seems like a tornado! The zipper and the rods were toast with less than two weeks total use.
Unfortunately/fortunately, Renee's parents bought the same tent. I say "unfortunately" because of the flaws in the design, but "fortunately" because we already had a source of spare parts. We borrowed their tent for the Missouri River trip, since ours was no longer useable. One of the fiberglass rods was already cracked on their tent too, from the only time they ever used it, but we were able to patch it together sufficiently with duct tape. On this trip we drove in every stake, the way it was supposed to be done, plus we added our own guy wires to the top, staking it out forward and backwards. We still had to jump up in the night to hold the tent together in the wind.
The rods normally arch outward, but in the wind they bend completely the opposite direction, almost folding the tent inside out with us inside! That's the kind of wind that destroyed our tent on the Green River. With all the racket of the wind and lightening I couldn't hear which one of the kids was sobbing maybe all of them but it must have seemed like the end of the world to them. Nevertheless, we survived the storm intact to see another bright and sunny dawn. There were bigger storms yet to come.
Day five brought the need for speed. We covered only twenty-one miles in our first four days, so it was time to do some serious paddling, or we would never get to the other end. We set a course downriver fourteen miles to the Slaughter River campground.
The kids paddled a little in the first four days, sometimes with a burst of energy for a few minutes, but usually only half-heartedly. That was okay when we were just traveling a few miles. But this time we needed everybody to help out. Jeremy acted like he still wasn't quite sure what to do with the paddle, as if he didn't have a frame of reference to begin from. I suggested that he should try paddling ten strokes on one side, then switching and paddling ten strokes on the other. I was steering from the back, so it didn't matter too much which side he paddled on in the front.
So he started counting and paddling 1...2...3... up to 10 on one side and then 1...2...3... up to 10 on the other, until pretty soon it became this kind of hypnotic rhythm that we all paddled to. Jeremy became a real power paddler, setting the pace for the rest of us all day. In the days to follow he kept counting and paddling. He started counting how many paddle strokes it took to get from one point to the next. He counted to 1,200 in just four miles one afternoon. All of us were tired when we finally arrived at camp.
Like many of the other campgrounds along the river, this was a site used by Lewis & Clark on their journey of discovery nearly 200 years ago... only they were moving farther upstream each day than we were moving downstream!
Evidently, the rain that hit us at Hole-In-The-Wall the day before was only the edge of the storm. The campers at Slaughter River must have been miserable, judging by the water still on the ground. There was hardly a dry enough place to set the tent. The mud was three inches deep on the path to the outhouse, and any tent placed in the wrong spot (just about everywhere) would have been sitting in a mud puddle. The clay soils swell up when wet, so that no more water can penetrate, so it just sits there on top. Of course the kids actually liked all that mud. Donny especially, would get a running start and slide through the mud into the river. Jeremy also liked to play in the muddy water, and he was often the last one out of the river.
Later in the evening I walked up in the hills with the kids to find our "secret spots". I thought Cassie's spot was especially neat. The white sandstone rocks looked just like cloud castle, kind of like a petrified cloud. The shale mound beside it had bands of white and red and black, so that it looked like a volcano with lava flowing down the sides.
A college class also camped at Slaughter River, as did many other people that night. The river seemed to be getting more and more crowded all the time. We were eager to move on down the river.
Day six on the river would mark the end of the first half of our trip. Our rations for week two were stored in the van, so we paddled the twelve miles downstream to Judith Landing. Renee's mom and dad delivered our van to Judith Landing after seeing us off at the beginning of the trip. Although tired, the kids paddled very well all the way there. We raced part of the way. Every day we switched the seating arrangements to keep things interesting for the kids, but usually Renee and I stayed in the back of the canoes to steer. Our early experiments at letting the kids take the back and steer proved positively exhausting as we weaved back and forth across the water, hardly going downstream at all.
There were many rapids along the river, but none of them are whitewater rapids. It was always fun to find these fast-moving sections of the river. We expected the rapids to be shallow, where the water ran downhill over rocks, but surprisingly, most of the rapids were three or four feet deep, often the deepest parts along the way.
We arrived early at Judith Landing, but it was hot out, so we set up camp in the shade of the cottonwoods and did very little. Each of us brought along at least two or three books, so there was always plenty to read.
I continued with bird-watching and read to the kids from Grandmother's Grandchild. For my personal reading I selected the most boring looking book I could find on any of my shelves- something that I would never be able to slow down enough to read at home. If I got part way into it and didn't like it, then I would just throw it away and be done with it. My candidate for most boring book was Mark Skousen's Economics on Trial. In fact, it was incredibly tedious and boring to read, but a few ideas were sufficiently useful that I made myself read it all the way through. Reading was much easier once I got in the groove, about halfway through the book. I didn't feel like I compromised my vacation by bringing just one work-related text.
Our camp at Judith Landing was about a block from the parking lot. We resisted bringing the van over, or the kids would just want to play in it. But when evening came Renee and I felt like it would be nice to have a break from cooking, and we needed more water and to make some phone calls, so we loaded into the van and drove the twenty-six miles of winding dirt road south to Winifred. Of course we forgot to bring any money or checks from home, and nobody in town took credit cards, so we had to drive on to Hilger, and then all the way to Lewistown, sixty miles from the river, to get a hot meal and water, but we all enjoyed the night out very much. It was 11:30 before we made it back to camp and piled into the tent.
In the morning we needed to sort all our gear and get our rations for the second week. But it was very quiet at Judith Landing, and the kids were reading books and climbing trees. Felicia stalked up close to a rabbit. We spent half the day lazily cooking pancakes, with each kid making their own. It is kind of difficult to cook good pancakes on a propane stove, we decided.
I dug up some clay a few days before, which we mixed with some black sand Felicia gathered, plus some ground up cow manure to reduce cracking. The kids and I made some pots. The clay seemed to be a very high quality. There was no reason to bring the pots down river, so we packed them in crumpled paper for padding and insulation to slow down the drying process, then left them in the van. We will fire the pots at home sometime.
Finally, about midafternoon we got ambitious and loaded the canoes, parked the car, and headed downstream, just as a new afternoon thundershower was brewing. We made it three miles down the river, but that was probably farther than we should have gone. With the storm right on our heals, we all worked together as fast as possible to set up camp and transport the gear up the bank from the canoes. The kids always helped with some of the packing and hauling gear to camp and back to the canoes, but this time they were truly needed and they knew it. They were already wet from their swim and shivering from the cloudy skies and wind. Lightening lit up the sky and we felt the first drops of rain. We were in the tent in less than ten minutes. That's when a sudden blast of wind ripped the fly right off tent.
Renee and I rushed outside as the rain started pouring down, and we tied a tarp over the tent to keep it dry, but soon discovered that the tarp was no longer waterproof, and the rain was still coming through. We rushed back out and reworked the tattered fly and fixed it up over the tarp. We were soaked by the time we got back into the tent, but that was just the beginning of the storm.
So much lightening flashed across the sky outside just as it was otherwise getting dark, that it made a strobe-light effect inside the tent. We counted after the flash, "one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four... until we heard the crack of thunder. I always thought the distance was a mile per second, but Renee later read that the number of seconds should be divided by five to get the right distance. If there is five seconds between the flash and the thunder then the lightening was just a mile away. It was even closer than we thought and moving closer. The kids huddled in their sleeping bags on the floor as the wind whipped the tent back and forth and Renee and I tried to hold it together from inside.
Finally there was a brilliant flash of light and simultaneously a crack of thunder so loud that I instinctively dived for the floor. That didn't help the kids, and Felicia started wailing, sure that we were all about to die!
Eventually the storm subsided and we all went to sleep, a little damp and a little exhausted, but still alive. We awoke to a partly sunny day and took some time to dry out before packing and moving on. We were pretty lucky with our placement of the tent. Most of the ground around us was an inch or two deep in standing water and muck. Cassie found a rattlesnake curled up under a sagebrush, also drying out.
We might have stayed there longer, but it was evident that the afternoon would bring yet another storm, and we wanted to be ready for it. We looked for blackened trees nearby that might have been struck, but saw no evidence at all. Another group of floaters passed down river as we packed. They had a stream running through their tent in the night. We were on the water shortly after them. The water was as thick as mud. We were using it for cooking, but now it was just too soupy, so we cooked with our jugs of clean town water for several days.
Most floaters on the Upper Missouri go only as far as Judith Landing, after seeing the spectacular sandstone cliffs around Eagle Creek. There were fewer people and more primitive camping facilities as we continued downstream into the badlands. But the badlands are quite stunning too, and consistently too, for most of the sixty miles down to James Kipp Recreation area.
We covered 11 1/2 miles that day to stay at another Lewis & Clark campsite. There were many rapids in this section, so we moved along quickly. We crossed under the cables of a ferry, still operating as a free service to haul anyone across the river that comes driving down the dirt road.
The kids had a good swim at camp, then spent most of the afternoon playing in a fallen tree. We found another rattlesnake in the sagebrush. We used up most of our fresh foods during the first week, so Cassie cooked up a batch of ashcakes over the hot coals. We had some after dinner, but saved most for lunch the next day. Through part of the night we sat up once again, trying to hold the tent together in the wind and rain, hoping the cottonwoods overhead would not break off and fall on our tent.
On day nine we awoke to mostly sunny skies, and we needed it. All our gear seemed to get more and more damp each day, so it was good to put it out in the sun to dry. The kids were playing war, shooting each other with laser guns from handy branches all over the ground. Renee and I were right in the middle of all this, but I guess we were out of phase and therefore safe. I don't think there was ever a moment on the trip when they were bored or didn't know what to do.
But Renee and I were exhausted from all the packing and unpacking and taking care of everyone and especially from holding the tent together through those night time storms. I think the kids were ready for a break from paddling too. We decided it was time to find a more primitive camp and stay for a couple days. We traveled twelve miles down river, looking for good campsites along the way. But those sagebrush flats that looked bone dry from the river were more like sagebrush swamps with an inch or two of standing water and mud all over the ground. We feared that we might yet get eaten by bugs hatching out from all the stagnant water before we finished this trip.
We found a lone cottonwood tree that was high and dry, with an established fire ring below it. For fear of lightening and wind, we pitched the tent a safe distance away from the tree, surrounded by tall sagebrush for protection from the wind. As usual, the kids started the fire with flint & steel. Overhead there was a nest of yellow-breasted chats. The young were pining away for food and the mamma kept bringing it as fast as she could.
I swore I would always take good care of my back, using good form at all times to avoid injury, but I did one dumb move while emptying water out of the canoe and felt something pop in my back, and then pain. I feared that I had ruined my back for life, like so many other 30, 40, and 50 year old men I have met. But I rested for most of the afternoon and the next day and felt much better.
Fortunately, all of our injuries on this trip were minor. Felicia had a scratch on her leg that opened up and got infected after she spent several days continuously in the water. We soaked a rag in a tea of sage leaves and strapped that on to her led for part of the afternoon. She said it hurt, but her leg was looking much better by the morning. My feet also started to "rot" after being wet so much. A colony of bacteria were literally eating the skin right off the bottom of my feet. Sage leaves in my shoes killed the bacteria, but also turned the bottoms of my feet all yellow.
Sage leaves make good toilet paper. It is best to avoid using real toilet paper in the backcountry, because it makes such a mess. Most people are not very receptive to the idea of giving up toilet paper though, so the public agencies advocated burning it for awhile. However, there have been many wildfires started by people trying to burn up the t.p., including two fires along the Upper Missouri just this year. These days people are asked to just bury the toilet paper. We didn't bring any toilet paper, so at least one aspect of the trip was truly primitive. The sage leaves also make a good disinfectant to kill bacteria on your hands after a potty break.
The kids brought a deck of cards and started playing a game Jeremy knew called Egyptian Rat Screw. I learned it too. It is a pretty good game. We also played Casino.
A giant moth landed on Renee, and she screamed, not knowing quite what it was until she got a good look at it. We set it carefully on some sage, but it didn't seem too happy there in the sun, so we moved it to a branch in the shade of the cottonwood and watched it all afternoon until it disappeared at dark.
I awoke early and took the camera up into the badlands. I found an easy route to the top and took a few pictures. In this place the tops were green with junipers, ponderosa pines, and lush grass. There were many birds and deer. I could not find a safe route back down though, and finally had to follow my original trail back to camp.
For our day off we mostly played games. The kids played war again, until it started becoming less of a game and more like the real thing. Then we all joined in a game of capture the flag. It was difficult sneaking back and forth in the sagebrush through the mud and cactus in broad daylight, especially not knowing if we might crawl face-first right into a rattlesnake. After more than an hour of play, Cassie captured the boys flag, just moments before I would have gotten to the girls flag. The kids wanted to continue their stalking skills, so each of us took turns playing deer, with everyone else stalking up to see how close they could get.
We also brought along some sheep wool for felting projects. Jeremy made a felt ball. Felicia and Cassie made potholders, but the wool wasn't felting together very well. Possibly we did not have enough soap in the mix. I made a felt bomb at Donny's request. The day was dry and warm and not too hot. It was nice to dry out a little.
After a day of rest we had the ambition to put on some miles. We put Felicia, Cassie, and Jeremy together in the red canoe, to give them a chance to work together. Renee and I and Donny drifted along in the green canoe. We watched as the kids paddled back and forth and back and forth across the river. If we did not paddle at all, then they could almost keep up with us. But I think they learned something about working together. Seven miles downriver we stopped near an old homestead for a lunch of summer sausage, crackers and cheese.
The day was very hot and all that stagnant water seemed to just disappear, leaving ground as hard as concrete. After lunch we explored the old cabins, which have been fenced in to keep the cows out. We made a big circle on the way back to the river, but by then the kids were all wilting in the heat. Both Cassie and Donny were turning bright red. We got them to the water as quickly as possible to cool them off.
We switched seating arrangements and paddled into the evening. I gave Felicia a turn steering in the back of the red canoe. I gave instructions from the front to help her along until she got the knack for it. We covered a total of sixteen miles by the time we reached the Lower Woodhawk campground, just as another storm was brewing. But this storm never materialized. There were a few mosquitoes and biting flies at this site, but certainly within tolerable levels, especially after the kids started a smoky fire to keep them away. It was nearly dark when we ate our meal of tuna casserole. Afterwards we went straight to bed.
On day twelve we moved a little slower. I guess we paddled so hard getting to Lower Woodhawk that we were ready for a break. We cooked pancakes over the fire. That worked much better than our last attempt on the propane stove. The morning was intensely hot. We let the kids go swimming for a "few minutes" to cool off, but then we let them stay out until they were sunburned. It didn't take long in that hot, hot weather.
Finally we packed up in the afternoon and headed downstream. Cassie steered the red canoe with me in front and Donny in the middle. She seemed to have a real skill for it.. However, it was so hot that we just couldn't stand to be in the canoes. Getting wet only helped for a few minutes. After only five miles we got off the river into the shade of a cottonwood tree and set up camp. We had a fancy French vanilla-scented hand and body lotion and used it on everyone's sunburns. In the hot wind our whole camp smelled just like a cake ready to come out of the oven. After the trip we heard that the temperature was more than 100 degrees that day.
When the sun disappeared behind the clouds we allowed the kids to go back into the water to cool off. Jeremy discovered many, many mussel shells living in the mud near shore. All the mussels stood on end, half buried in the mud. I had no idea they were so acrobatic! There would have easily been enough mussels there to feed all of us, but mussel populations are at risk in Montana due to agricultural runoff, so it is illegal to harvest any.
A storm threatened overhead, but passed by with only a huff of wind and no rain. A second storm came in the night and kept Renee and I up until dawn. There was no rain, just wind. It blew and blew and blew, but we were too lazy now to get up and hold the tent together, so we just laid there wide awake and hoped for the best. As is often the case, the last gust was the strongest. It came right at dawn. Two of the fiberglass rods shattered into tiny splinters, collapsing the tent, and that was it, the storm was over. We wondered why we hadn't just collapsed the tent on ourselves hours before. Then we might have gotten a little bit of sleep!
We were ready to leave camp the moment the storm ended. We could see another hot day was looming, so we wanted to finish our trip and get off the river before it got to hot. The kids played inside the flattened tent for a few minutes, then we loaded everything up as quickly as possible and paddled downstream just as the sun was coming over the horizon. There were thirteen miles to go to get to our end point at James Kipp Recreation Area, and we wanted to get there in record time. Jeremy, Donny and I took the red canoe, with Jeremy steering from the back. We activated our secret weapon, the felt bomb.
Soon we were engaged in a full-scale battle, paddling up on the girls canoe at warp speeds and launching our water-soaked ball of wool at them (it was really a photon torpedo). Then we had to use evasive maneuvers to get out there before they launched the bomb back at us (it was an environmentally friendly warhead, 100% recyclable). Unfortunately those girls have good aim, so we took some bad hits, but we went a few more rounds with some phaser fire (paddle splashing) and a few canoe rams. We covered eight parsecs of galactic space in record time without anyone realizing how hard they were working! Finally, when everyone was hot and ready for a break, we launched our reserve missiles. That would be Donny and Jeremy cannon-balling out of the canoes into the river.
The last five miles were a piece of cake, and we made it into camp before noon. Speaking of cake, this was also Felicia's eleventh birthday, so my mom met us there later in the day and brought cake and ice-cream and presents. Wow! What a way to end a trip!
Renee and I made the four hour trip over to Judith Landing and back to get our car. We were very tired when we made it back to the group at 11 pm, after getting essentially zero sleep the night before. On Saturday the fifteenth we tied the canoes on the cars, loaded up all our gear and headed for home. On the way Cassie confided in Grandma that she was sorry the trip was over with. That's kind of funny, because she complained the most about going on it before we left!
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