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 Post subject: Milk River 2018
PostPosted: May 28th, 2018, 6:48 am 

Joined: February 10th, 2008, 4:41 pm
Posts: 329
When you tell people you go on canoe trips by yourself they look at you somewhat askance and ask, Why? It’s a good question and one I have spent some time pondering. It is hard work. There is discomfort and uncertainty. Perhaps that is part of the attraction. The day to day world has a sameness that can be stultifying to say the least and to certain minds horrifying to contemplate. So why not go canoeing? Gather all the useless crap it takes to sustain your sorry ass for a week or two, throw it into the truck and get the hell out of Dodge.

The Milk River rises in the US and flows north into Canada and then east across the furrowed plains of Alberta before returning south across the border and on to the Gulf of Mexico. Its flow is controlled by the US and can be fitful at best. It had been a big snow winter in the mountains that feed the watershed but the river flow data was disappointingly modest. I watched, hoping for the rise to happen but when the river stubbornly refused to co-operate I headed out. It was at 14cms. Reasonable paddling flows are in the high teens and low twenties. On the drive to the takeout I stopped and looked at the river where it flowed through Whiskey Gap not far from the foothills of the mountains. It was low and boney. Another foot of water would be a great improvement for all concerned. Unfortunately for me on the day they were handing out the allotments of stubborn and stupid I ended up in the line twice and received a double dose of each. Common sense suffers in consequence. Anyway, it’s all mind over matter. And if you don’t mind, it don’t matter.

A few hours later I said goodbye to my son and thanked him for shuttling me. It was a pleasant prairie evening ---- calm and tranquil. The river burbled on. I drifted down to the first riffle. There were horrible crunching noises as the rocks met the hull. I said some appropriate words. So it goes.
A few kilometers down from the Gap I made camp and went off to bed by the quiet river waking to light frost and a calm day. Mule deer watched from the breaks and a Meadowlark sang. The valley of the upper Milk is devoid of trees. It is home to a large population of raptors including Prairie Falcons and Ferruginous and Swainsons and Redtail hawks all competing for nesting space. Most nest sites are on cliff ledges or rock bluffs but some birds make do with little more than the brow of a hill. I found the remains of a Mallard near camp. All those appetites.

On the river the grinding and banging went on. I had to line some riffles as there was not enough water to float me and the boat together. I passed a large porcupine grazing in the brush. There was beaver sign and a dark mink ran along the bank and stared out at me from his refuge in an old irrigation pipe. A cold north wind came up increasing the work on the meanders. I like the metronomic pulse of paddling. I don’t like wind --- but then, I’m hard to please. I got tired and passed a five-star camp with flat short grass only to end up in a weed patch with a shite take-out of mud and ooze. How does this happen I wonder? The answer is obvious but hard to swallow. Boat repair. Supper and bed. The life of adventure.

The day brings more of the same. There are deer wading in the river and antelope on the hills. Raptors of all kinds wheeling in the air --- an Osprey with a fish and large dark fish fining in the rapids as well. Camp was made again on the open north bank of the river near an old abandoned cowshed. Inside the shed was a hawk’s nest constructed of sticks and the many rib-bones of cows. Ravens had appropriated the nest and inside were five gaping young. On the ground was the corpse of a porcupine. I climbed the high hill above camp and looked out over the vast prairie. Cows everywhere. I could hear them and smell them. Black cows.
Back in camp I inspected the canoe and found some bad news. The constant dragging over the stones of the riverbed had split the fiberglass skin down the centre allowing the water to get in and dissolve the glue that bound the wood. The bottom felt pliable and soft when I pressed on it. I propped it up and cooked it in the sun and then applied a patch of black duct tape along the axis. I then sealed the edges of the tape with waterproof sealant. To brace the bottom I found a piece of lathe weathering on the prairie and cut this to fit like a “T” in two pieces wedged between the seat frame and the floor of the boat. It would have to do or I would be walking. I like walking --- in normal circumstances --- I like it a lot. But now it would spell the end of the trip and I was just getting started.
In the morning the day dawned calm and clear with a soft warm light. I went out on the bluffs above camp to take the view. Birdsong rang in the air. I considered that perhaps a thousand or some years ago in this very place some old stager had wandered out on a morning like this, adjusted his gear and gazed in wonder at it all.

The first dead cow I came across was a fine black beast washed up on a sandbar. There is a theory that we evolved on the plains of Africa as scavengers feeding off remains left by large carnivores. As such we have a special facility for detecting the fragrance of putrescence. My olfactory powers seemed well in tune. The cow smelled just like you would expect two-thousand pounds of dead bovine to smell. My appetite on the other hand was a bit off.

I went along following the many bends past sluffing banks and over rocky shallows wincing at every noise of contact. Coyotes patrolled the hills. Geese and ducks were getting up and banking into the wind and circling about and setting back in. I came past the confluence of the south fork and the river picked up volume. It smelled like a stockyard. There were dead cows here and there. The banks of the river were thick with old bones eroding from the sediments. Buffalo bones. Skulls. The lost herds long gone along with the old hunters who slew them.

In the town of Milk River I bought repair adhesive and some stove fuel. A few kilometers further on I made camp on a river terrace below a farmer’s field and fixed the boat again. I was coming to the white-water section of the trip and was feeling apprehensive about it. I am not much of a white-water paddler. I prefer to watch the banks and take in the scenery while my mind drifts. Rapids demand attention to the task at hand. And there was the question of my injured boat. How much abuse could it take? I reckoned I was about to find out.

Next day I continued on past Gold Springs campground. The river continued to be shallow and rockier than ever. I paddled, lining where there was no passage. Horrible cracking noises emanated from the hull. I hit rocks and broached but somehow avoided swamping. My incompetence was trying on my nerves as I realized I was playing a game that could only end badly. Still I went on with many unlikely escapes swerving through boulder fields and jumping out and guiding the boat through narrow chutes where the water was shallow enough to wade.
I entered an area of sandstone cliffs that constrained the river closely. The saskatoon bushes were in bloom on the warm exposures and shooting stars and crocus flowered in the grass. Falcons stooped in the air and cried from the rock faces. I hauled out to camp in a scenic spot in the canyon a couple kilometers up from the Coffin bridge. Big thunderheads were booming and the wind came on suddenly in hard gusts. I tied everything down and walked the greening prairie along the canyon rim.

In the morning I was about to load the boat after yet another repair job when I realized with all the wit of the congenitally dim that the wind was too strong to paddle against. In truth I was tired. The previous day had taken it out of me. I went walking and then set up a tarp as I could see something was coming. Something indeed. It rained and blew --- hard --- for thirty hours with just the odd break for shits and giggles. I spent the time reading and drinking tea. It was cold enough that I had to wear all my clothing including rain gear so the tent became my refuge and home. Eventually, I entered a state of torpor like some animals do to conserve energy --- drowsy, napping for a time then more reading and listening to the rain pounding against the tarp. Supper was a big event. Breakfast was just peachy. At noon of the second day the rain increased to an all out effort. The wind drove it on but by some luck the tarp held firm as I had tied it to the canoe and various small well-rooted bushes in a complex series of anchors like a climbers belay on a wall. The river began to rise. How could it not? I stuck a crow feather in the mud to measure the progress. By late afternoon the storm was blowing out. I went up on the river terrace above camp and found an old ring of stones, a teepee ring sunk in the grass. A good camp then and a good camp now.

Morning brought calm and better skies. The river had risen but less than I expected. I passed under the Coffin bridge and was noodling along not paying attention to much when I ran on to a rock, swung sideways and swamped. I stepped out into knee-deep water and hauled the wreck to shore. The stove bag was full of water but otherwise everything was dry. I dumped out the canoe and my boots and loaded up again, feeling foolish and somewhat fortunate. I had known this was coming and now that it had happened it was a relief ---- the anticipation had been bothering me.

All along the river banks were collapsing from the rain. Big slabs of sandstone had come down and tons of earth mixed with shrubs and grass the flowers still blooming on the bushes in the water. Even slopes away from the river were failing from the weight of gravity and water. There were several named rapids to run. I lined the ones I could not paddle and ran the others. I beat the boat like a rented mule and still it held up.
I stopped near Verdigris coulee to take in some scenery. Impressive sandstone outcrops defaced by the carved graffiti of the many who have passed by. The coulee itself is a broad open valley carved by water from the retreating ice sheets as is the valley of the Milk itself. The water from the coulee was clearer but it smelled like bull-piss --- but so did the Milk for that matter. “Well I’m an old cowhand, from the Rio Grand” I sang out to the empty wind as it whistled past my ears and for all I knew through them as well. I fought the wind all the way down to Writing On Stone park. Here I encountered culture shock as the place was crawling with humanity because of the holiday weekend. I squeezed my way through the hordes to a water tap and filled my jugs with strongly chlorinated water. Then I hit the road. Camp was in a cottonwood grove on a meander across from another sandstone cliff. I drank rum for the first time on the trip. It changes perceptions and I needed some of that.

In the morning as I pulled away I saw a cross fastened to the vertical rock wall and on the cross was the figure of a crucified man rendered in barbwire. It was done with some skill and great effort had been expended to place it there. It could only be seen from the river. I took a good look. Once was enough.

The valley now opened up into expanses of flat and rolling prairie. The river grew wider and there were sandbars to ground on. Going past a hill I spied a pair of ears and they grew into an antelope peering at me and it followed me for a time before running off in that flat steady gait that they have for gaining distance. I passed two bridges and a ranch yard being eaten by the river. For a long time there were no trees or shrubs, only grasses. Dead cattle lay on the bars in various stages of decay and the wind brought the reminder of the way of all flesh. I saw a beaver feeding on rootlets exposed by the washing of the water. An Avocet, one of the most beautiful of shore birds, fed delicately on an island in the stream. Eventually the cottonwood groves reappeared and I pulled in and made camp. It was hot and I wanted shade. Walking about the park-like meadow I came across the desiccated remains of a coyote in a snare. Life on the Milk might be hard but death was no picnic either.

The following day the river narrowed necking down at times to ten metres across. I came across herds of juvenile elk resting on the sandbars. They got up and stared at the strange apparition and then trotted off into the brush. There were deer in the meadows and geese and ducks and small sandpipers resting and feeding along the shores and the stream-side thickets were full of birds and their songs.
As I passed a hole in the bank a beaver emerged and shot frantically into the river followed by another and another until four had come rushing out in mad succession. Soon I came upon another group lounging in close comfort together in a nest on a sheltered ledge. A scene of wild Marx Brothers pandemonium ensued as they escaped into the muddy stream and dove from sight.

My last camp was a fine one at the base of one of the venerable cottonwoods. There was a sit down and stand up bar. I chose the latter and had a long conversation with myself as I drank some giantkiller and watched the river flowing past on its journey to the sea. Why do this? I had no good answer. I was tired and dirty and less than half-pissed. The natural world was beautiful, I could see that, or was it only my perception? It was filled with creatures that strove and fought and procreated and died in equal measure. The evening came down in long shadows through the trees. The birds became quiet. I scoured some of the filth from my face and hands and dragged off to bed.

There is a sting in the tail of the Milk. It doesn’t have to be that way. I could have taken out upstream and easily loaded and driven away without much effort. But I would have missed twenty or thirty kilometers of some of the finest scenery in the valley. So instead I went on through the meanders and bends passing the meadows that lay along the riverside and the fine groves of cottonwoods that grew in profusion in the valley below the badlands above. At long last I came in sight of the takeout and I could see the truck on the rim of the canyon --- look up, look way up and I’ll call Rusty. It was to be a kilometer walk with some steep elevation.

I started off with the boat and dumped it at the base of the steep stuff. I then brought the packs along in succession and continued on. It was hot and humid and I soon found the going hard. The relay distances became shorter as the slope increased until I was only managing forty meters a carry. I hauled the lightest load up to the truck and then returned and broke the larger packs down into weights I could manage in my feeble state. I drank water at every stop and wetted my head. I cursed my hubris and stupidity. Finally all that remained was the broken boat. No way to lighten it short of sawing it in half. I got it on my shoulders and went up the slope one breath and one step at a time. The wind threatened to turn it into a sail. I figured it if it got away and blew off into one of the hellish gullies it was going to stay there. A cloud came across the furnace in the sky and in the resultant shade I made the last few metres to the rim. I was well and truly baked. I loaded the reeking and mud-stained trappings into the truck, strapped down the boat and motored off across the wide and open prairie. The Sweetgrass Hills rose up like gods on the southern horizon. I felt a strong and compelling urge to one day go and climb them with the certain knowledge that the day better be soon.

280 kilometers
10 days ... t=3&page=1

Last edited by Stencil on May 28th, 2018, 12:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.

 Post subject: Re: Milk River 2018
PostPosted: May 28th, 2018, 8:33 am 
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Joined: December 20th, 2003, 9:27 am
Posts: 994
Thanks for posting. I've been thinking/planning for the Milk River for a few years so I really appreciate the write-up and the pictures. You went quite a long way in 9 days. Did you have long days or was the current quite strong?

 Post subject: Re: Milk River 2018
PostPosted: May 28th, 2018, 12:21 pm 

Joined: February 10th, 2008, 4:41 pm
Posts: 329
I was actually 10 days on the river but 2 were no travel days.
So 8 days paddling.
There was good current at times but not consistently. I had wind for and against.
The big issue is egress. You can take out at the Pinhorn ranch on the north side or at any of the bridges upstream.
Leaving a vehicle where I did in the Milk River Natural area is problematic too. They were posting a fire closure as I left despite the recent rain. Four wheel drive is a must.
You can also go the border route and deal with US customs but the logistics are daunting or were the last time I checked. But you get to see almost all the river that way.
If you like wildlife viewing the Milk is hard to beat.
Any info you might need I can supply.

 Post subject: Re: Milk River 2018
PostPosted: May 28th, 2018, 2:02 pm 

Joined: July 22nd, 2003, 6:52 pm
Posts: 200
Location: Edmonton Alberta
Thank you for the wonderful write up.

I head to the Milk for a trip most years always starting at Whiskey Gap.
Mind you on two occasions had the water turned off mid trip.
The wild life viewing as you say is the best. Saw Potter's wasps last time.
I'd say it is my most favorite solo tripping river with no trees in your way of the view or
long hikes up the ridge. And the night skies wow!

Later Laura

Have never seen dead cattle, had there been a grass fire earlier?
And until these last 4 years of severe drought, never saw cattle or bison upstream from town.
Or human or vehicle

This river is feed water via inverted siphons, state side, from the St Mary River reservoir. I was on it when they once broken down. The effect was immediate, dropping to dragging level while eating lunch. Another time it was shut off because rain fall in Montana had filled the Fresno reservoir upstream of Havre.
For these reason I do a two part shuttle, first town site then my intended take out.

Keep your paddle in the water and lean downstream!

 Post subject: Re: Milk River 2018
PostPosted: May 29th, 2018, 8:32 am 

Joined: February 10th, 2008, 4:41 pm
Posts: 329
The dead cattle issue.
Some were very freshly dead. Some were long dead. And some were about to be dead.
I think the newly dead had fallen in from the edge of fragile cliff banks. The river had been much higher and then declined.
The old dead had perhaps perished in a hard winter? I dont know if the cattle stay out on the range all winter but it seems some must.
I also saw cows that were obviously sick or injured and were going to die. Since there are hundreds of them some mortality would be expected?
I saw several dead porcupines. They were untouched by any scavengers. Is rabies a possibility? I saw a trap by a culvert that was labeled "rabies."
All the deer and elk and antelope were in very good shape.

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