In the 15 days I had been traveling through Wyoming and Idaho, one thing had remained constant—it had not rained a drop. Not only that, but I can barely recall even seeing any clouds during those two weeks. So when the concussive thunder clapped at 4am near Lolo Pass, my sudden awakening could not have been more shocking—not only due to the obvious audible assault—but also due to a complete unfamiliarity of hearing the sound of thunder and the accompanying rain drops pelting the Westfalia’s fiberglass roof. Fortunately, I found a certain assurance in my comfortable abode as the pitter-patter gained in intensity and was able to quick resume my slumber. When I awoke hours later, the rain had halted but the sky indicated that it would soon return. The distinct change in weather almost seemed an omen that my trip was at its end, but I knew that there was still more to come as I began the drive over the pass into Montana with the windshield wipers on high.
Highway 12 led to a place that I visited 14 years earlier on a life defining road trip that ultimately led me to move west. At the time, I was a brash 24 year old backpacking the best trails the National Parks could offer. After being thwarted and humbled by the snowed-in Tetons in June, I took a pit stop in the same little college town of Missoula that I now found myself in 2013. Back then, there was something about it that provided a sense of comfort after traveling through the wilderness that I felt again on my second visit so many years later. A light drizzle blanketed the city streets as I found a camera store for supplies and then a café for lunch and internet. As the clouds cleared, I found myself on the banks of the Clark Fork River in downtown eyeing a glassy surf wave. Almost on cue, Cindy and Stacey arrived and we formulated a boating plan for the afternoon.
But rather than hopping on the urban surf wave, we headed west on I-90 for about 25 miles to the Alberton Gorge section of the Clark Fork River. On paper, it seemed that Alberton would have the simplest imaginable logistics with access off of I-90, but when Cindy and I set off to shuttle our vehicles from the Cyr put-in, we found it to be anything but easy. We found ourselves lost three times due to a combination of our own incompetence and guidebook instructions that relied on relative directions (who uses street names anymore?) and roads that were previously unblocked by barricades. Eventually, we located a takeout but in the process wound up extending the short, 2-mile, rapid-packed kayakers stretch of Alberton into the longer, 8-mile, flatwater-sandwiched rafters version of the Gorge.
As we put on the water, we witnessed firsthand a small, lightning-started wildfire on the hill above but were assured that my van would be safe in its protected location across the river. About 4 miles of flatwater and small rapids served as the introduction before cliffs rose sharply and the landmark Three Bridges earnestly marked the start of the rapids. The trio of bridges crossed the river at a naturally constricted location which also corresponded to a quick drop of elevation and a big wave train. As with our Idaho rivers, the Clark Fork was running a bit ‘low’, but at 4900 CFS, it still served up waves and eddy lines that had a big-water feel. By that point, the sun had fully returned to the sky and we took great pleasure in the warm water as we surfed on the big waves at each rapid. We all commented about the high quality of whitewater on Alberton and how jealous we were of the Missoula residents who can paddle it all year long. The fewer than two miles of whitewater disappeared all too quickly and we were back on flatwater slowly floating to our takeout at Tarkio wishing that we could do multiple laps of the kayaker’s whitewater stretch of the run.
The return shuttle occurred quickly and without incident, but when we arrived at the Cyr put-in, we were surprised to see that the little wildfire had consumed the entire hill and was being battled by aerial assaults. If we had launched a few hours later, our float through the initial flatwater stretch would have been rudely interrupted by helicopters scooping water from the river. Fortunately, it seemed that the helicopter’s deluges and the planes’ fire retardant had controlled the fire and we continued on our way to dinner. A few miles east of Cyr, we arrived at one of the few dining establishments in Frenchtown—the Alcan Bar & Café. The roadhouse dive rarely saw visitors, but our kayaking trio quickly settled in and made friends with a few locals by swapping stories of Alberton Gorge. After a few cheap beers, a cheeseburger, and almost two hours, we emerged from the dark bar at 10pm to a sun that was finally and reluctantly setting in the northwest corner of the mountain time zone. Following suit with the sun’s disappearance, I said goodbye to the Forntrom’s for the final time and set forth to finish the roadtrip much as I had begun it with just River dog and my hot, loud Westfalia for company.
I awoke on July 9th in a creepy forest next to Mill Creek a few miles north of Frenchtown and was soon rattling down the washboarded National Forest road in search of coffee and breakfast. The Starbucks caffeine did the trick and I was back in Missoula again for one last kayaking session. Brennan’s Wave—the same spot I bumped into Cindy & Stacey the day before—was vacant of paddlers, but the sun was shining and I was soon surfing my kayak on the landlocked wave. The river location contained two islands which corresponded to three river channels. The right channel featured a glassy wave with an infrequent, irregular white foam pile while the center channel had a wave-hole and the left channel was absent of wave features. It seemed to me that the wave-hole would be easier to remain on than the glassy wave, but after several rides on each, I was surprised to find that the opposite was true. Fortunate for me, glassy waves are my absolute favorite and I spent an hour and a half carving back and forth in the heart of downtown Missoula. Before noon, I succumbed to fatigue, strapped my kayaked to the roof, and hopped back in the water with River Dog so he could cool off too. The whole time I spent in Missoula, I was enveloped with that previous feeling of comfort and belonging which led me to dream of a quiet life in the college town with nearby rivers and mountains and none of the urban congestion of the Colorado Front Range. But I knew that my vacation time was limited, so I awoke from the daydream and moved on following the same path I had 14 years earlier.
As I headed north through Flathead Indian Reservation, I reached the infamous location where my young self was admonished by an Indian Chief as he said to me, “I don’t know where you are from, but around here, we respect the dead.” I honestly didn’t do anything wrong back then, but this time I kept my speed in check just in case. A roadside stand soon caught my attention, and I uncharacteristically gave in to my touristy desires and pulled over. The little fruit stand was selling fresh, local cherries and I opted for the double pack that included both the red and the even sweeter rainier varieties. Upon reaching Flathead Lake, my GPS directed me along the east side of the lake which I only now realize was the slower, more scenic option. What had previously been a brisk, 2-lane highway all of a sudden began to meander north along the hilly east shore with cherry orchards and quaint cottages interrupting the waterside road that reminded me of Otsego Lake in New York. The great multitude of cherry orchards closely resembled high-end vineyards with large estate manors and gates proudly proclaiming the fruit that was grown on the premises, and I was suddenly very satisfied with my decision to buy the locally grown cherries that so clearly flourished in the lake environment. In retrospect, I wish I had heeded the call of Chance even more so and had camped at one of the scenic parks along the shore instead of continuing on to Glacier that evening. But I suppose that some lessons—stop and smell the roses—are ones that take time to really learn. I hope the next time I find myself unexpectedly at a special place like the east shore of Flathead Lake that I give myself the gift of relaxation and stop to take it in for a while.
I suppose there was a good reason I was so anxious to make it to Glacier National Park. On my previous visit, my backpacking exploits turned out to be the most dangerous of my life and I have yet to write about them or really share those experiences with many people. When I left the park back then, it was with a heavy heart and a sense of deep humility after having looked Mother Nature squarely in the eyes. At the time, I vowed that I would return under more pleasant circumstances and see the park in a different light.
I arrived at West Glacier by 6pm and soon procured a camp spot near Lake McDonald deep in the woods and tightly nestled between hundreds of RV campers. The national park scene was a stark contrast to the quiet camping I had grown accustomed to throughout the trip, and the campground felt more like a Walmart parking lot than a scenic retreat. Hoping to avoid the echoing sound of RV generators, I wandered a mile down the road to Lake McDonald with River dog on his leash to enjoy the sunset. In the day’s last light, I attempted to photograph the scene with an artist’s attention to detail that I rarely make the time for. My compositions of boats, lakes, and mountains were pleasing to my eye, but I came away once again with an increased appreciation for the work that artistic photographers create.
I arose before dawn on the 10th of July at the advice of the camp hosts. They implored me to make haste over the Going to the Sun Road across the park to the Many Glacier Campground where I would be rewarded with some of the most stupendous views in the park. Given that the campground was the starting point for my epic backpacking journey 14 years earlier, I took their advice to heart and set off at 6am hoping to grab one of the precious few sites that usually disappear by 10am. After a brief stop at the Lake McDonald Lodge for a cup of coffee, I pushed on wishing that I could instead laze the morning away on the porches of the Swiss chalet while gazing at the peaks across the lake. With such an early start, there was nary a car on the road and I quickly ascended the switchbacks of the legendary motorway. As I neared the top of Logan Pass, the Weeping Wall and the narrow, cliff-hugging sections of road indicated that I reached the crux of the engineering marvel and I delighted in knowing that no RVs would be joining me. Unfortunately, the early morning light cast the mountainsides in deep shadows that contrasted with the early morning sun making photography all but impossible. Instead, I enjoyed the view with my eyes for a few minutes and carried on.
Well before 10am, I arrived at the Many Glacier Campground hungry from having skipped breakfast and tired from having arisen early. I made my way through the maze of campground loops but much to my dismay, no sites were available. In an attempt to diffuse my frustration, I left the campground, ate a bowl of cereal, and then resumed my search for a spot. I was fortunate to bump into the camp host who quickly escorted me to the last remaining spot which I thankfully accepted and promptly used for a much needed nap. I awoke an hour later groggy and hot as my van baked in the noon sun. Somehow, among a hundred sites in the heavily forested campground, mine was unable to provide midday shade but also lacked any of the spectacular views I had been promised. With frustration still clinging to me, I begrudgingly left River dog behind due to the silly park rules, and set off on a short hike up the valley. Half an hour later, I reached Redrock Lake and spent the next hour and a half admiring and photographing the scenery that the camp hosts had so highly recommended.
Returning to camp, I attempted to read in the shade of the pines, but the biting flies were determined to keep me from enjoying my stay. Poor River dog was faring just as poorly with flies harassing him from every angle. My campsite was hot, fly-ridden, crowded with other campers, and didn’t even offer the promised views. Previously throughout the whole trip, I had thoroughly enjoyed myself in all of the camping destinations, but something about the national park scene in Glacier really irked me. Whether it was the Walmart crowd running their RV generators, the lack of freedom to let River off the leash, or those damn biting flies I don’t know, but something pushed me over the edge and I knew that I had enough—my vacation was over. Before 5pm and despite having paid for the site for the night, I left Glacier and began the 1000 mile drive home. For the second time in my life, I departed Glacier with a sense of internal conflict and frustration and wondering if I would ever visit the park under better circumstances. I left the park and pushed hard for almost 7 hours before pulling over to sleep in the back of my van in the geographic center of Montana.
By 6am on July 11th, I was on the road again headed southbound and determined to make it home in the evening. The day started off cool, but by 10am, the temperature had climbed to 100 degrees and I realized I was in for another suffer-fest. As if that weren’t enough, the Wyoming winds returned in force and somehow managed to steer themselves on a northerly course intent on blocking my path. I felt completely cursed as I pushed my tall, heavily-laden Westfalia square into wind, but I also knew that when I returned home, I would be greeted by my cool A/C and my own bed. So I carried on and made the best of the situation by listening to an audiobook with volume turned up to 11 to combat the 125 decibel roar through the open windows. And when the book finished and I found myself with many hours of hot, windy driving to go, I decided to not let my emotions be tossed about like the van in the wind and instead reflected on the journey that I was completing.
All told, I traveled over 3200 miles from Colorado up through Wyoming, into Idaho, then Montana, and almost to Canada before returning home. And during the almost 3 weeks on the road, I kayaked 16 days and even more impressively, kayaked 14 new stretches of river! And just as important as the stats and the kayaking, I was blessed to spend the time with great friends and my faithful companion, River dog. So when I finally arrived home in Boulder at 7pm, I did so exhausted but grateful for having fulfilled my dream of a Rocky Mountain kayaking road trip.
Check out a sampling of photos in the gallery below: