Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wet in the Water and Back in the Forest

Bike tires scratching down through the muddy and gravel of a gas station parking, the inevitable involuntary groans of pain escaping the hood of my rain jacket, the click of the kick stand snapping down, and the retching sigh as my legs move me toward the heat of the log building. Sounds.

Then, the grumbling roar of a diesel invading my personal space and that of my rather expensive boat, currently coated in mud. Into the space next to my dilapidated rig a giant black pick-up rips in, jacked up on mud tires with two aftermarket exhaust pipes curving up its sides. In the bed is a muddy ATV casually lashed down with polyethelene, and behind the truck a boat trailer with a small powerboat and a snowmobile cantilevered into and held in place with bailing twine. Needless to say, I was impressed.

The man who rappelled down from the cab was also rather large, bearded and grimacing in front of a disintegrating wad of chew. He stepped around and we both starred at each other, the oppostie standing in front of their rig as if in defence of a maligned stepchild. I broke the silence.

"So. You must be the motor lobby."

He squinted down at me- I'm 6'4" and few men have need to look down at me-, then grinned broadly and let his chew fall to the ground.

"And yer the human-powered bit if ever I saw it."

We stood grinning at each other for another moment, then he said; "I'm gunna buy you a sandwich, I am. Come'on."

So we went inside and ate an absurdly big meal and talked for a while about the woods and northern Minnesota- "Exclusive non-motorized use is bunch of bull-crap," - before I got back on the road to continue my portage, now a few hundred miles old.

I was just out of Roseau, home of the Polaris company- makers of fine snowmobiles, ATVS and other off-road vehicles. The holy land.


Minnesota has been a dream. I have left the plains behind and none too soon. No offense to North Dakota, but I was ready to get out. The flat farmland continued for a few dozen miles, but once out of the Red River valley the biome quickly changed to the mixed forest that at this time of year reminds me so much of home. For months I had been longing for this rendezvous with the far western off-shoots of the Northern Forest- that great biotic community that stretches in a thick, rich band from the Canadian Maritimes through Maine and over the mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York into Ontario before washing up over the far shores of Superior to engulf northern Minnesota and our own little sliver of rocky Candian Shield country. Now in this band, this stark reminder of home, I will follow it for 1600 miles to the Atlantic Ocean and the conclusion of my expedition- but not this year. The winds of November on Superior are the thing of legend, and I will happily be heading home from Grand Portage.

I've made good time despite bad roads, headwinds and cold rainy weather. Now I am in International Falls and plan to put in on Rainy Lake tomorrow to begin the journey along the old voyageur route to the shores of Lake Superior. Voyageur National Park, the Boundary Waters, it is one of the holy places in paddling and I am excited to experience it, even in this late season. I am 300 miles from Grand Portage, and they are expecting snow every day for the next week. Some old story, it seems.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Can-Do-It (Cheat, That Is)

I'm in a town named Cando right now- a town named that in 1884 because the pioneers wanted to make a statement that they "Can Do It." Settle the town and battle the elements long enough to bring up grain and cattle, that is. If the surrounding countryside is any indication, they could, in fact, do it.

I made it to Minot, North Dakota a few days ago and put in on the Souris River. Here I had crossed another of the Continent's Great Divides- I was in the Hudson Bay draingage now, and the Souris would take me north to the Assiniboine and through Winnipeg and the old voyageur route to Superior. I paddled the Souris with hesitation, moving 10 miles northeast for every 30 miles of oxbows and switchbacks, the current slack behind beaverdams and logjams and banks crowded with brush. It was a quiet, pretty river but spending a month of fighting my way into Canada was not in the cards. Winter hovers at my back, and the fickle weather of the northern plains in autumn could snap at any moment and send the prevailing forty-degrees-and-raining more toward the ten-degrees-and-ground-blizzard side of things.

So I decided to cheat. I'd been lugging my bike Taj around for the last 700 miles, might as well give 'em some use. Poor-Taj.

So I rigged everything up, and here I am. The road literally goes straight from Towner, North Dakota to Minnesota, and I'm halfway there already. Lake of the Woods is not too far past there, and by portaging 300 miles across eastern North Dakota I cut almost 400 miles of slow, slow travel through southern Manitoba. It is cheating, but of a good sort. Portaging, even by bike, is a painful operation at best, and the bit of Manitoba that I miss now would surely have been beautiful with good water. But winter nips, and I'll take this chance as I get it.

In other news, I am smack dab in the middle of the main North American bird migration route, and there are ducks and geese everywhere. Tens of thousands every hour or two- it is quite a sight. The ducks seem to be of the weaker endurance, having to pause in farm fields and pothole lakes to rest, and inevitably fall prey to the hunters from around the country that arrive in droves to take in the season. The geese I do not see up close in North Dakota as I did along the Yellowstone- now they appear in honking chevrons a thousand feet up and eight hundred abreast, a sky-borne compass for me and the route I should invariably by nature be taking. Instead, I plod east, towards home.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Most Sincere Compliment I've Given About Someone's Camo

"Scare them this way, boy-o."

I just about fell out of my boat. I haven't seen or heard another human being for four days, and now the bushes were talking to me. I've gone completely crazy, and did not even have the mental fortitude to notice or enjoy the process. And there, the quickly turning colors of the cottonwood trees and the mixed sage and Russian olive around them were filling the void in verbal communtication for me.

I floated on, oblivious.

The slow water in this side channel would have been a haven for migrating Canada geese, of which I have seen more than ten thousand in two weeks, but all that sat on the water were decoys. As my brain lurched forward one full revolution the hillsides began to move and a shot rang out. A trio of white toothy smiles flecked out at me from the brush, and as movement broke and sharpened the profiles of their heavily camoflagued and face-painted bodies, I smiled at the eminently pleased hunters.

"Couldn't see you at ten yards!" I shouted, now moving away quickly from the militia, er, hunters.

"Thanks man!"

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

Photos from Wyoming & Montana

A few photos, out of order.

1.) Bundled up but enjoying a cloudy peak at the sun. Yellowstone River.

2.) The snow line the morning after my first storm. Yellowstone River.

3.) The portage from the Snake River to Yellowstone Lake. Gibson River.

4.) Paddling across a calm Jackson Lake with the Tetons in the distance.

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

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

Friday, October 2, 2009

My New Life as a Bison

"Now hold still. And smile for Pete's sake!"

Apparently, the tourists had found a bison that would take orders. Pedalling and paddling through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks brought me into contact with the last few retired tourists of the season and their insatiable desire to photograph all the wildlife they could find. In turn offs on the side of the road, the SUV's and Winnebagos clustered and emptied their passengers for a glimpse across the Hayden Valley or the meadows below the Grand Teton at that elusive elk or bison. But why spend time gambling on a chance encounter when the folks back home would be even more impressed by a lunatic on a bike hauling a canoe over the Continental Divide? So they made me stop, time and again, to take photos of the last talking bison and his mud-spattered canoe trailer.


I'm in Columbus, Montana now, 330 miles by bike and canoe from my start in Jackson Hole. The climb past the Tetons and up onto the Yellowstone Plateau was a bit of a slog, 3,000 feet up that was at least half dirt due to construction. The weather was incredible- cold every night and in the 70's during the day. I was lucky, time and again. The construction at the start made the going harder- but gave me my own lane to portage in. In Yellowstone, I made it through hours before a major fire closed the road, and most importantly of all, I made it off the Plateau and onto the Yellowstone River 30 hours before the first significant snowstorm of the season hit.

I woke up yesterday morning, October 1st, in a quickly yellowing cottonwood grove to a bit of sun poking through the clouds and the steady wind, heavy rain, and 38 degree temperatures that had pinned me down the day before gone, all gone. In their place, the butte beyond my little island and the Absaroka Range in the distance were print paper white with deep snow. The snow line was at about 6,000 feet, and I at 5,500 had ducked below the bar just in time. A day slower through the Parks, and I would have been snowed in on the Yellowstone Plateau. There is luck in speed.