Left Terlingua, Texas and the southern border in early April of last year. Spent a week with family in the Panhandle, and drove out of Texas around the 14th. The end goal was returning to Alaska for the summer, where I guide whitewater trips for a company called NOVA, primarily on the Matanuska River, which is about an hour east of Palmer, which is about an hour north of Anchorage, which seems to be about the only place anyone has ever heard of in Alaska despite the question I’ve heard about 200 times in the past month “Where at in Alaska?” (Point being, I suppose, if you’re a recluse that cringes at small talk, you should never drive around the lower 48 in a van with Alaska license plates…)
However, the main goal, the means not the end goal, was to see a few states I’d spent little to no time in, but have been interested in for several years. The two main ones being Nebraska and South Dakota, with northern Montana thrown into the mix somewhat spontaneously after visiting some friends down near Yellowstone. I also spent about a day in Wyoming, a half-day in Idaho, and a week in Washington before boarding the ferry in Bellingham and traveling by boat through the Inside Passage up to Haines, AK. From there it was a day’s drive through a sliver of Canada, and then another day of driving over to Fairbanks, where I met up with some folks to do a training trip over Memorial Weekend. That’s the basics.
Here’s the details: Just before I left Texas I decided to participate in some sort of organized run in either Nebraska or South Dakota. I’m somewhat into running these days, I suppose, mostly on trails and on my own, but occasionally I enjoy signing up for an event and spending an hour or two panting alongside a bunch of semi-athletic types who appreciate fitness and suffering more than most of the people I normally hang out with. Anyway, thanks to the interweb, I was able to locate a half-marathon in Arthur, Nebraska, which happened to be more or less on the way to the Niobrara River, the floating of which was my main reason for visiting Nebraska in the first place. And so it was decided, first stop, Arthur.
Left Texas on a windy Friday morning, pausing for coffee in my long forgotten hometown of Stinnett perhaps for no reason other than to write it here, and pretty much cruised right on up through Kansas stopping for gas once and swerving around dead badgers a few different times. It was windy there as well. Ended up staying the first night on Lake McConaughy, enjoying a sunset and the sounds of passing trains.
In the morning I woke up early, drove the remaining 30 miles or so to the town of Arthur, population 146 according to the sign outside of town planted next to a barbed wire fence with posts covered in disintegrating cowboy boots. We, collectively around 120 people I believe, met at the high-school at 7 a.m., boarded three luxurious coach model school buses, and rode out to the start point at a place called Sillassen Ranch. 13 miles never seemed so far as it did that morning with the buses creeping along slowly up and down hill after hill. At the starting point, the wind was whipping, though it ended up blowing from the west all morning as we runners headed east. It was cold, but had it been a headwind instead, the day would have been miserable. Before the race started, the organizers asked all military veterans to step forward and then made the crowd thank us for our service. Having been in the Army for several years, every time someone tells me that I wonder what nutless conservative douche started that trend in the first place. If you want to thank someone for their service, pick an environmental engineer, a teacher, your local collector of recyclables, or anyone working on the problem of overpopulation (which, I suppose, could grimly be considered to be a soldier after all, so whatever…). After that we all honored a flag someone had gone to lengths to station nearby, while a high school girl sang the Star Spangled Banner over a portable PA system. Finally, with hard nipples each one of us from standing in the cold wind for 30 minutes, the gun sounded and we started the run. I was tired from poor sleep, untrained, and underprepared, but ended up doing alright I suppose. I ran the entire time, at least, and even finished with a better time than the last one I ran in Anchorage a few months ago. The Nebraska sandhills got bigger and bigger mile after mile, with the steepest two falling at miles 10 and 11, but then the last couple of miles into town were downhill, with BBQ provided to all finishers at the end. A good morning overall, and a great way to start a trip in the Midwest.
From Arthur, I drove up, over, and through further lengths of hills to north central Nebraska and the town of Valentine. On the drive, an odd coincidence occurred as the only station available on the radio was NPR, which was broadcasting the nationally syndicated program Radiolab. The minute I left town and turned on the radio, the show shifted to a story about the very area I was traveling through, which could easily be described as the middle-of-nowhere. It’s a place where there are no towns for long miles, and what small populations there are seem to be very small populations indeed. Not a place, in any event, that generates a lot attention from the national press. Anyway, this show was about one of those towns, or what was once one of those towns, with a populace of about 20 that proposed and then voted to unincorporate due to very opposing views as to what the town was about. Basically, from what I gathered, there were some folks who wanted freedom in the form of living like trashy shitbirds, and a few others who somehow got themselves elected into positions of power (again, in a town of 20 people) who wanted them to clean up their yards, lives, etc. In the end, the shitbirds won and the town was unincorporated. The vote was something like 11-9. As a result the no longer town basically lost all the services and rights once offered to them by the state, which seemed to be significant according to the story and recorded interviews, but no one was forced to clean up their yard. Also, in the end, my previously planned route took me to about 10 miles from what was once the town, and I elected to stick with that route rather than drive 20 miles out of my way to blink past a bunch of stupid people’s trash filled lawns, no matter how cool the coincidence seemed at the time.
Okay, maybe I’ll speed things up a bit from here on out, otherwise I’m guessing this is going to be much longer than the average internet user’s attention span (not that you, of course, my dear friends and family who have managed to follow thus far, are average internet users by any means..). Or, maybe I won’t. I’ll try, how about that? From the junction which led me away from the town, it was a beautiful backcountry drive into Valentine, where I planned on beginning a multi-day float trip on the Niobrara River.
Having worked on rivers for many years, I’ve always enjoyed asking clients about the rivers in their home state. Most folks from the Midwest (I’m hoping my geography is correct here in labeling Nebraska as such) generally guffaw at the question, though many will come up with something when pressed. Nebraskans always answer with the Niobrara, though pass it off as a canoeable stream generally inundated with drunken tubers. I’d heard several times that a 2-day trip was possible, and that it was indeed a beautiful stretch of water lined with waterfalls and wildlife, all this, mind you, by Nebraska standards according to Nebraska residents who often offered that caveat. As such, checking out the Niobrara served as the original impetus of this entire trip. And once I started looking into it online, about a week before I decided to go, of course, I learned that there is actually a 70+ mile section of river that is federally designated as wild and scenic. After a few inquiries to park service personnel and local outfitters, most of who encouraged me to only float the first 20 miles or so, I decided to canoe the entire stretch.
Oh yeah, speeding things up. Great trip. 4 days. Lots of waterfalls and wildlife, as promised. From the river I saw buffalo, beavers, deer, bald eagles, lots of turkeys (one recently killed and being eaten on by an eagle), ducks, pheasants, monstrous soft shell turtles, and more. After the recommended initial section, the river changed characteristics quite a bit and finding one’s way around sandbars became a slight challenge, though the river was high enough that it wasn’t generally a problem. The only hairy moment came when I took a swift-moving side channel and ended up having to charge across the top of a tightly strung barbed wire fence. Two days of excellent weather, one day of so-so haziness, and then a final night of violent thunderstorms followed by an afternoon of rain, upstream gusts, and chills. I ended up paddling 30 miles into the wind that day, arriving at the van around dusk just in time to chat with the friendly local sheriff who was checking up on the abandoned vehicle his deputy reported some days earlier (after sniffing around for a whiff of a potentially decomposing body inside). I had left it at a supposedly official take-out that apparently receives very little use, and the sheriff was actually so nice that he even said I could go ahead and stay the night there, which is what I was intending on doing anyway as it was past dark by then. Did not see another person on the river at all, which is always my definition of success as far as wilderness trips are concerned.
The next morning I drove a series of small highways up and into South Dakota. I ended up heading east for a few extra miles in order to detour over to Mitchell and the ‘World’s Only Corn Palace,’ a long-standing tourist attraction designed to keep the town alive way back in 1892 (and back then, it wasn’t actually the only corn palace, but more of a rip off of another state’s original). I don’t generally go out of my way to stop at tourist traps in general; most of the time, in fact, I avoid them at all costs. But when I first heard about this place 15 years ago, for some reason the idea stuck in my head: an enormous palace adorned with annually changing murals made from corn. Who could resist? From what I saw of Mitchell, it’s a good thing the corn kingdom (which really isn’t all that enormous after all…) still exists, otherwise that place might not. However, I must say I considered it worth the stop (though I wouldn’t drive more than an hour tops out of the way to get there, if ever you’re traveling through). This year’s theme, which changes each fall hence the double year date, was ‘Rock of Ages.’ The façade murals included Elvis, a nondescript woman belting out a tune, a weird corn guy rocking out, and then for some reason moonwalking Michael Jackson, Saturday Night Fever Travolta, and a prominently featured Willie Nelson (though who knows, maybe it was Dicky Betts – it was made out of corn cobs, after all). So not entirely sure about the Rock part of the theme, but did enjoy checking everything out and seeing all the photos of the palace themes over the past century plus.
That afternoon, I finally started heading west and made it over to Badlands NP in the early evening. Watched the colors change over the Big Badlands Canyon as the sun set, spied on a porcupine walking around on top of nearby formations for a while, and then drove slowly across the north part of the park through multiple herds of mule deer. In the morning, I woke up super early and did some route planning. For some reason, before I left that part of the world, I had to stop off at one other tourist trap, one that I’ve seen ridiculous stickers from for countless years now, as well as billboards galore all across the state: Wall Drug. Somehow, I arrived in the town of Wall around 7 a.m., which happened to be when a few of the shops started to open. One of the ubiquitous billboards on the way in advertised ‘Free Coffee and Donut for Military Vets.’ I don’t generally bother mentioning to most folks that I was ever in the military, but hey, a free donut is way better than the before mentioned ‘thanks for your service’ comment. And damn that freshly made donut was about the best I’ve ever had.
One thing I learned from my South Dakota trip is that I enjoy Americana much more than I cared to admit. I spent about two hours wandering around that place amazed at the success of the original concept, which was basically get people off the highway and make some money by inundating the potential consumer with copious and relentless advertising (still is) and enticing them with a few potential freebies. In the beginning it was, get this, free ice water. There was also a large hall full of articles written about Wall Drug in various mainstream publications spanning several decades, along with exhibits of vintage black & white photos and written histories from the Black Hills area.
With a full tank of gas and a couple dollars less than I came with, I left Wall mid-morning and headed back into the park. Did some scenic driving, spotted several big horn sheep, lots of pronghorn, and uncountable mule deer. A few hours later, I ended up in the main campground drying and reorganizing gear from the river trip. The sun was shining, a light wind helped the drying, and the songs of meadowlarks permeated the afternoon. That evening, I took the bike and rode several miles over to one of the main trailheads, where I got in some sunset hiking and marveled at the ever-shifting hues of light illuminating and then fading from the characteristic formations. In the morning it was a lengthy run on the Castle Trail, followed by a drive west across the park, buffalo and prairie dog viewing, and eventually finding a secluded spot to camp in a separate sector with amazing views from the rim of a plateau.
The next morning entailed a lengthy drive across the high desert and along many miles of dirt roads. A shortcut of sorts, I suppose, on the way to Wind Cave NP. Here I went on the morning tour of a small section of what is apparently an incredibly vast and mostly unexplored cave system (also one of the earliest national parks, and the first cave to be designated as such – who knew…) Not the most exciting tour, if you want the truth, but then again being stuck underground with 40 people in a foreign environment guided by a seasonal employee of questionable competence and going ever deeper into a place you could die a slow terrible death in should the lights go out and you get lost, has never been all that appealing anyway. I suppose I only went because it seemed as if you couldn’t visit Wind Cave NP and not actually go in the cave, plus, truth be told, it was National Parks Day, so the tours were free, which made hanging out in the dark with a lot of loudly whining kids and some completely capable seeming old man with his ‘service dog’ and its homemade vest only slightly more tolerable.
Back on the surface, things were much happier. Spent that afternoon hiking around next to buffalo, and the next morning going on a run that ended up being much much longer than originally intended. Also had the distinctive experience of running, inadvertently, next to a small herd of bison and six pronghorns at the same time, and later causing a near stampede when more and more bison joined the original group in ‘our’ run, eventually forcing me to stop, change direction, and sneak around yet another herd. Within the first two steps of resuming the run, I almost trampled a startled coyote in its den which bolted with a surefire quickness.
And that was only the beginning of that day. From there I drove north through Custer State Park and into the Needles, multiple ranges of huge granite spires seemingly transplanted from the southern Sierra into western South Dakota. Without much warning, the road went from ordinary double lane highway to climbing single lane asphalt, hairpin turns, and tunnels so tight the van barely squeezed through. My initial plan was to rest for the rest of the day, and then hike Harney Peak, South Dakota’s highest point at around 7200’, the next morning, but when I asked the gatekeeper of the park what the weather might be like the next day she replied: ‘Snow. For the next week or so.’ So it was over to the trailhead and onto the summit. The trail passed through miles of beetle killed trees, and next to great chunks of neatly eroded towers as I walked under ever-darkening clouds. The top culminated in intricately designed stairways and a huge stone lookout structure built by the CCC long ago. From the tower there were great views to one side of the ridge, and cold misty clouds blowing swiftly up and over the other.
Once back at the van I decided I should start descending, and realized I could probably catch a quick glimpse of Mt. Rushmore before the day was over. And I did. And again, something I had somewhat low expectations for, and no overwhelming desire to visit in the first place (I suppose because I equated the site with places like Wall Drug and the Corn Palace, touristy stops for unmotivated chunkers looking for something to do between meals (this one with an American flag sweatshorts patriotic bend to it…)), turned out to be pretty darn impressive and interesting after all. I was wrong to judge without empirical evidence, though I’ll probably never learn that lesson. I guess that’s all I have to say about that.
That night it did indeed snow, and several inches at that. I woke up around Lake Sheridan, motivated to cook up some coffee and breakfast burritos in spite of the white, and decided to head into Rapid City to figure out what I should do next. Spent the day there, later spent the night near Deadwood, and due to the snow elected to skip the couple of other things I would have liked to do in South Dakota and head west the next day instead.
Drove into Wyoming in full sunshine which quickly turned into a dense fog as I headed north from the freeway the hour or so to Devil’s Tower. Entered the monument having yet to see anything resembling the famous formation, which is usually visible from miles out. The parking lot and visitors center are at the base of the tower, where you still couldn’t see any rock at all despite being only a couple hundred yards away. There was lots of snow everywhere including at least 6-7” on all the boughs of all of the conifers making for stellar winter scenery and also neck freezing dump hazards when walked beneath the limbs (personal experience). After about an hour things cleared up enough to get some decent views. I walked the mile loop around the base listening to large sheets of ice breaking up and sliding off the columns terminating in small explosions. Saw a pair of peregrine falcons on the far side, and enjoyed the stroll through the quiet snowy landscape. Was nice to experience winter again after several years without.
The next day was driving into Montana across large swaths of green ranchland and through flurries of humongous snowflakes. Made it to Billings in the early morning, and spent a half-day there looking around town and going for a run on some trails down by the Yellowstone River. From there it was over to Livingston, which is about an hour-and-a-half north of Yellowstone NP and a half-hour east of Bozeman. Spent the next several days reconnecting with a couple of old friends that I hadn’t seen in years. They don’t know one another, and lead disparate lifestyles, but it was convenient enough to get to spend a few days with my friend Matt L, who I shared a house with for years in Colorado, and then head south to Emigrant to hang out with Sean H, who I know from the military and have kept in touch with over the past couple decades.
Matt, once a founding member of PETA when we were going to school at Ft. Lewis in Durango, now manages a mechanic shop, recreates motorized, and stockpiles guns. Full force Montana, in other words. He and the owner of the shop, Drew, treated me to a redneck weekend spectacular. We took off on Friday afternoon, drove across Yellowstone and over to Cooke City. Saw a couple bears along the way, lots and lots of bison, eagles, osprey, hundreds of elk, and plenty of early season tourists. I was quite surprised to arrive in Cooke City, the end of the road in the winter, and see that the mountains were indeed still packed with untold feet of snow.
Those guys go out on their snow bikes, a cross between dirt bike and snowmobile with one ski in front and large track in the back, almost every weekend and ride like banshees through the trees. When we arrived that afternoon, they gave me a conventional snowmobile with an absurd amount of horsepower and away we (well, they) went. I putted along behind somewhat nervous to see what the sled was actually capable of (this machine, by the way, had just been repaired since a throttle-sticking incident which ended up leaving one of their mechanics with a broken femur some months earlier). We rode around most of the afternoon, had a big fire and wild game BBQ that evening, and then went back out the next morning for a long ride into the mountains. While I still prefer to burn calories over fuel when in the wilderness, I ended up having a great time and kind of getting the hang of things as far as getting on the gas went. I also managed to avoid crashing into any trees and destroying myself or the recently rebuilt snowmobile, so success overall. Was also fun watching Matt and crew disappear into the trees and fly off the occasional snowberm.
The next afternoon we met up at Drew’s place for some shooting and basically blasted away for several hours. Target practice, skeet shooting, a fantastic tannerite explosion (look up on YouTube if you haven’t seen this (why is this legal? Not sure, but if you have some extra cash and a high powered rifle I’d recommend seeing it for yourself at least once.)), and some experimenting with Matt’s self-smithed black powder rifle. Crazy to imagine that people were once proficient with these weapons as you have to aim, fire, hope the flint ignites the powder, which it often doesn’t, keep aiming through the smoke when the powder does light, and finally hold steady once it actually fires. Anyways, hell of a weekend. Ye-haw everybody.
From Drew’s house it was a short drive south to meet up with Sean outside of Emigrant, MT. He bought an amazing piece of property some years back, and lives way up on a hill backed up by Forest Service land. Most of the ‘neighborhood’ consists of empty multi-million dollar houses owned by rich folks who are seldom home. The views are stunning, and with the access he has to the wilderness there’s almost no reason to leave the place on his days off as he can just walk around the hills next to his house and spot more wildlife than you would likely see in the national park. I only got to hang out there for a couple nights, but we did a lot of walking around and catching up. Also, thanks to Sean’s hospitality and hunting success, I ate a lot of elk meat. The second day we headed over to Tom Miner Basin to look for grizzlies, one of Sean’s hobbies along with wildlife photography and, again, Montana, shooting (both targets and in-season game). Still seemed a bit early for the bears to be really active, but we did follow some tracks through the snow for a while. Also caught sight of a couple moose, a herd of bighorns, and loads of white-tail and mule deer.
Sean works in the park and had to take off at dawn the next day. I followed him out and made it to Chico Hot Springs for an early morning soak before spending most of the day driving north. I had originally considered spending a few days paddling around Yellowstone Lake, but access was still closed in early May due to snow, and reportedly a lot of the lake was still frozen. As such, changed plans and decided to take advantage of my (relatively) close proximity to the Missouri River Breaks, a canoeing section of the Upper Missouri I’d only heard of earlier this year. Made it into Ft. Benton later that evening after a ridiculous misadventure on some incredibly muddy roads leading to a rural ferry operated by a surly old man with the nose of a lifelong alcoholic. I’ll skip the details. I’ll also go ahead and skip a lot of the details of the week long trip, which was awesome, but will tell you that it started with a lot of uncertainty as to how I could run my own shuttle and which sections I would be able to do due to limitations pertaining to that problem.
In the end, I elected to take a big chance and hitchhike on remote county roads for 150 miles across northern Montana. That allowed me to stay out of the treacherous mud as well as paddle the entire Wild and Scenic stretch of river, though, as before in Nebraska, most officials suggested I might just want to do the more popular sections of the run. They were right, of course, but most times I like to find out for myself. Woke up at 5 in the morning, left my canoe and belongings at the boat campground in Ft. Benton, drove to the take out arriving around 8:30. Sharpied up a cardboard sign and packed a possibilities bag, knowing I could be spending the night out there somewhere, walked across the road, tried to smile, and stuck out my thumb. In the end, I got super lucky. The first car that picked me half-an-hour later dropped me off at a junction about 20 miles down the road, and then, for the first time in my life, a slowing semi pulled over to let me in. The driver, Frank, told me that he was eventually going to Ft. Benton, however, first ‘we’, I was immediately part of the team, which was sweet, would have to detour a few miles in order to pick up a load of fertilizer, but that I could hang out if I wanted instead of getting off where I’d originally requested. I considered myself incredibly fortunate to be in motion at that point, and didn’t need to think about that one at all. On the ride, Frank told me all about the agricultural industry in that part of the world, ‘we’ got our 84,000 lbs. of fertilizer, I got to see a slightly different route than I’d driven that morning, and Frank dropped me in town around 1 pm. An auspicious beginning to the Upper Missouri.
Put in that afternoon and made it almost 20 miles before arriving at camp. Spent seven days floating 150 miles of river, doing a fair amount of hiking, and admiring all sorts of changing scenery and wildlife. Plenty of sunshine most days, but also got to see a couple big thunderstorms roll through, and experienced some major wind at times – though on this stretch of the Missouri the standard pattern actually results in the wind blowing primarily – and what seems like miraculously after all these years on desert rivers – downstream. The first 50 miles or so was mostly farmland and rolling hills, followed by the White Cliffs section, replete with its namesake formations (and also impressively juxtaposed intrusive black dykes) for the next 40, and the Badlands stretch for the final 60 miles. This section, though not as popular as the White Cliffs, was my favorite for its distinctive wilderness feel. The riverbanks also hold lots of history in the form of century-old homesteads to visit, and all along the way the guidebooks offer tidbits of information pertaining to the Lewis and Clark expedition which used the river enroute to the Rockies and beyond.
From the Missouri it was north again, and then west. A couple days later, I was in Glacier NP, most of which was still closed due to snow. Camped two nights, and caught a couple of sunsets from the banks of Lake McDonald. The one full day I spent there, I rode my single-speed bike 25 miles through the park, up over and down a steep pass, and then along the North Fork of the Flathead River on the western boundary to the locally recommended Polebridge Mercantile, famous for its baked goods, where I had a cup of coffee and a fritter before turning around and riding back.
Westbound now, I checked out White Fish for a morning, had some food at a brewery in Libby, stopped by Kootenai Falls for a while, stayed the night at Bull Lake, and then strolled around the Ross Creek Cedars before leaving Montana a couple days later. Did a run along Lake Pend Oreille and some shopping in Sandpoint, ID, and then kept moving. Ended up cutting back south after Spokane and taking a somewhat circuitous route which eventually led over to Tacoma via the Columbia Wildlife Refuge and Mount Rainier. I loved the refuge. Lots of streams and reed filled lakes/ponds, tall grasses, columnar basalt cliffs, and fantastic colors as the light shifted each evening. Stayed one night along the Tieton River, and then did a slow early morning walk through a grove of old-growth trees at the base of Mt. Rainier while sipping coffee the next day.
In Tacoma, I visited another old Army friend and stayed with him and his 4-year-old son for a few days. From there it was up to Bellingham to catch the ferry to Haines through the Inside Passage, a route I’ve longed to travel for years now, and am thankful to have had the opportunity to do so. Within an hour of leaving port, a pod of orcas swam within view, and that’s basically about how good the whole trip was in my mind. All sorts of weather, from dense fog to belting sun to pounding rain, and I loved every minute of it. Spent three days on the ship and slept each night in a tent on the upper deck. Lots of narrow channels, waterfalls, and marine life. Eventually managed to briefly transcend the solitary travel mode I’d slipped into and have some interesting conversations with some interesting people. The second full day the ship landed in several coastal Alaskan towns, Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg. Each time it stopped a couple of guys and I would grab our bikes and go tearing about seeing everything we could before having a quick drink at a local pub, and then furiously pedal back again before the ship’s departure. Three days after boarding we arrived in Haines and drove off the ferry. I did some short hikes there, and ended up camping out at a state park surrounded by glaciers with a few of the folks I’d met onboard. The next morning everyone went their separate ways, though we’d later pass each other a few times on the way through Canada and beyond. I stayed to run around the park trails a bit (back to yelling for grizzlies every few steps), then headed north again, this time up the Chilkat River, across the border, through BC, and into the Yukon. Camped one night in Canada next to a little creek and re-crossed into Alaska the next day. Spent the morning looking at birds in the Tetlin Refuge, messed around in Tok a bit, and then kept moving.
The last week of travel was a day at the Chena hot springs, north of Fairbanks, where I toured their thermo-generated power plant and impressive hydroponic greenhouse (9,000 lbs of tomatoes last year, along with a variety of greens and more, all used in the restaurant) before soaking for a few hours in the outdoor pool. The next day I biked around Fairbanks all afternoon, cruising around town and checking out the sandhill cranes on their summer grounds. Spent Memorial weekend on the Chatanika River doing some training with a company that runs trips in the arctic, hoping to guide one later that summer, though things fell through in the end due to cancelled reservations. People talk. From there it was south again, down to Denali to have dinner with my old boss at Denali Raft Adventures, and then further south still to Palmer, AK and back to the Matanuska. And then there I was, 5500+ miles later and hanging out at the NOVA camp getting ready to throw on a drysuit and run some whitewater…