Friday, October 16, 2009

La Tramontana

Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne me rendra fou...

The wind which comes across the mountains would drive me mad... (Victor Hugo)

Sometimes I turn the Pat Benetar up so loud I can almost, just barely, not hear the wind howling outside my tent at night; to my endless misfortune my iPod has not the vigor to out-do such a tempest. I began my descent of the Yellowstone River 17 days ago, and in that first week I felt the wind would be my most bitter enemy- and it was. But then into the stacked deck of ripping northerlies, easterlies, and southerlies was adding a dose of rain, and shortly thereafter a bitter cold.

The weather has been a bit interesting, with phrases like "coldest autumn on record" and "a truly bitter October" being bandied about by meteorologists and cow town old-timers alike. The most reasonable explanation I have heard yet was of the government dumping aluminum foil and rock salt into the stratosphere the week before. Very reasonable. I've been pinned down three times so far, all due to freezing rain. I can travel in 25 degree air and heavy snow- and I have- and 45 degrees and raining, both of these just fine if somewhat suboptimal. It is the 34 degrees and blowing sleet that is the real show stopper. So for one day outside of Livingston and two days outside of Billings, I hunkered down through the wet and cold. That, only to save myself for the truly cold.

I was a day out of Billings when I got the news from a fly fisherman; an Arctic front was barreling down the eastern edge of the Rockies and seemed to have ever intention of sitting on central Montana for the following week. For once, the forecast was right. I recorded temperatures in the low teens at night, with daytime highs not clearing the freezing mark for 6 days. Perfect river travel weather. Still, freed from the soul sapping manacles of the dense wet, I took off with a purpose, travelling hard through the chill days and frigid nights.

* * *

I've been managing some interesting repairs lately. During the wet snow/sleet bivouac outside of Billings, I woke to a gunshot at 4AM, and witnessed on my tent what in the medical profession they call a compound fracture; the snapped jagged pole end had punched through the fly and was now pouring a thick stream of snow the consistency of a half-melted snow-cone onto me. A chop job wire and tape fix gave me three more hours of sleep, and was followed that afternoon by a rather drawn out operation with file, pliers, wire, and a shim of aluminum I found under a railroad bridge near Forsyth, Montana. Good as new.

Then there was the Speedy-Stitcher operation on a failing bicycle tire sidewall- I think I'll avoid medical analogies here. Best of all, with the cold weather coming in two months ahead of schedule I bought a ragged old blanket at a second hand shop in Forsyth and sewed it into an envelope with cord running in lateral loops every two feet. I can stuff my puffy jacket and the rest of my clothes into it and tie it around my sleeping bag and pad, and voila- a packed out 20 degree bag becomes something significantly warmer. Still, upping my butter intake and switching to dry hands/feet were the best decisions in dealing with the cold.

The weather has not been all bad. For example, a few days ago my spare paddle kept sliding down over the exact spot on my map case that I was focusing on that afternoon. I did what any thinking man would do- I drizzled a bit of river water on the paddle and within ten minutes it was frozen in place, never to bother me again. Still, the 8 days without seeing the sun was a bit of a downer. Was? Is. Sun hasn't come out yet.

Now, with 530 miles of the Yellowstone River behind me, I concentrate on the Missouri River and my upcoming portage into the Hudson’s Bay watershed. I only pray that the Souris River is holding water this late in the season. I have felt winter’s touch already, and I took the warning. Onward, North Dakota.

As always, all photos and text Copyright 2009 Alexander B. Martin

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