Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 100 – Fort Benton – Ackley Lake State Park: The Shonkin Sag

Wednesday August 27, 2014, 94 miles (151 km) – Total so far: 4,439 miles (7,143 km)

Today will be one of my favourite days on the bike tour. It starts super early, as usual. Mark groggily pops his head out of his tent to say goodbye, then ducks back in for a few more hours sleep. I roll down to Front Street where shadows of buildings still shade the road. I turn east and cross the bridge. The gentle climb up out of the floodplain begins immediately as the road curves north. The gradient steepens to climb between the river bluffs. A school bus with squeaky brakes and non-enthusiastic occupants rounds the corner. School went back last week. Summer is over. At least for some – I’m trying to draw mine out for about a month more 🙂

Now that is my kind of ‘to-do’ list. It appears achievable in the time allowed; it has a definite order in which it must be done; there are no competing priorities; there is no one around to change what I’m doing mid-stream. Today should be a good day. We, in fact, accomplish more than what is listed. Perfect day.

As the road sweeps through the bluffs, it deposits Verne, Kermit and me into another valley a step higher than the Missouri River floodplain we just left. A creek runs under the road and through a small farm. Have a look around. This was the valley of the Missouri River before the Bull Lake Glaciation sent it on a detour.

The climb from this valley to the glaciated plains is a little bit steep. It makes a sweeping left-hand curve, heads up over a blind crest, then the grade backs off as we find ourselves on the glaciated plains. Nothing like a bit of a climb to get the legs churning and the heart pumping first thing. Up here, there are various crops and pasture. The road undulates up and down over hilly terrain. We are traversing along the very end of the continental glacier that reached down during the Bull Lake Glaciation 170,000 to 30,000 years ago. It lapped up to the northern edge of the Highwood Mountains which are just off to our right. Then it began to melt. Because the glacier was fairly thin by the time it got here, it didn’t bulldoze the landscape as much as in other places. Consequently, the land still has a hilly topography that is made hillier by moraines and sometimes thick and sometimes thin deposits of glacial till. The number of long, gentle hills I have to climb this morning is a bit of a surprise. But I love it. And I love imagining this as the ice melted and the waters through the Shonkin Sag flowed.

Lots of climbing this morning through very interesting glacial moraines, fill and meltwater channels.
Corn! We haven’t seen any corn since eastern Nebraska. Good soils here!

The other thing I love is that the road is fairly smooth, it has a teeny shoulder, there isn’t much traffic, and what traffic there is on the road is very courteous. I’m even getting waves this morning. Eastern Montana was distinctly unfriendly. Western Montana was distinctly crowded. But all of the roads I’ve ridden in Central Montana, with the exception of Hwy 287 between Helena and I-90, have been quite good to ride. Today is no exception.

Oh, Montana… if more days had been like today with low traffic roads (with small shoulders), courteous traffic, outstanding geology and friendly locals, I would have liked you a whole lot more.

A little bit later the road descends and then climbs out of large valleys with tiny creeks. The valleys are much too big to have been carved by those creeks. Some of the valleys have lakes within them. The valleys are shallower to the left but deepen as they head south. The erosion on the valley walls is covered in vegetation now but hints at past torrents. They look a bit out of place. These are likely glacial meltwater channels that transported large volumes of water from the melting glacier to the Shonkin Sag just to the south.

This is one of the meltwater channels feeding the Shonkin Sag meltwater channel. The main channel is just on the horizon. The channels look gorgeously out-of-place in the landscape. Even if you aren’t into geology, you can’t ride past these huge, eroded channels and not think “Hmmmm…..”
To give you some scale for the channel – look at the house and trees down there.

The Shonkin Sag is a spectacular geologic feature. I’ll only get a glimpse of parts of it today. (Later, I will somewhat regret not going to have a better look on some back roads, but nevermind.) When the Bull Lake glacier ground its way south, it blocked the flow of the Missouri River. This back-up created Glacial Lake Great Falls. The water at present-day Great Falls was 600 feet deep. Eventually, the water found a new path and went pouring over the landscape along the end of the glacier. The vast volumes of water eroded a path now called the Shonkin Sag. It is a huge, deep, dry valley with dramatically carved walls. We can see just the edge of it where the meltwater channels we are riding through meet the Sag. The Shonkin Sag is one of the most famous in the world and considered one of the top three to visit in the U.S. for nerdy folk like me.

An explanation of what I’m so excited about seeing today.

I pedal on through the rolling hills. There are no RVs on the road today. Fantastic! I reach the little town of Geraldine. It is surprisingly busy. Pick-ups come and go from the feed and supply store. The gas station and café has a parking lot full of cars. The main street is mostly one-story buildings and 21st century decay, but the little place is obviously still kicking. I head down to a nice, little park (would be great for overnight camping) to eat my bananas. I contemplate trying to ride some of the back roads to get a better look at the Shonkin Sag, but I don’t have a map, so I decide to give it a miss.

Geraldine Depot.

Back on the road, we edge closer to Square and Round Buttes. These prominent features are blisters of magma that formed along dikes 65 million years ago. They are composed of rocks called shonkinite and syenite. Shonkinite is plentiful in Montana, but relatively rare on the rest of the earth. The rock is named after a small town to the southwest of here at the edge of the mountains.

Square Butte and Round Butte – laccoliths (blisters of magma intrusions injected into layers of sedimentary rocks) formed 65-50 million years ago near the Highwood Mountains. They consist of dark shonkinite topped with light-coloured syenite. There is lots of shonkinite in Montana but it is relatively sparse elsewhere around the world.
Highwood Mountains – a volcanic center that features heaps of radial dikes. You can see some of the smaller dikes riding between Geraldine and Square Butte. The formation of all of these volcanic centers (including the Bear Paw Mountains, the Little Belt Mountains, the Adel Mountains and the Crazy Mountains that we’ve already ridden through/near) still puzzles geologists as to why they exist.
At the interpretive pull-out. This could have been better placed. You can’t really see many of the features described from here. Note my helmet streamers. I’ve had a headwind all morning. It will turn into a wicked crosswind and then a wicked tailwind later, then die off totally at dusk.

As we close in on Square Butte the valley opens up and lone sections of the mass of radial dikes spinning out from the Highwood Mountains can be seen. The rocks stand like dark stone walls in the middle of eroded ground. The Highwood Mountains have an incredibly dense mass of radial dikes – someday I’d love to come back and have a closer look. The road bike is probably not quite suited to that adventure.

Then, at the base of Square Butte, we can look up the valley to the west to fully see the Shonkin Sag. My heart beats faster, my nerdy heart sings. You can see the wide, deep valley and the steeply eroded walls. It looks so out-of-place, so beautifully odd in a beautiful spot. I stand there for quite some time looking up into the valley and putting all of the geology together in my mind. I’m sure I took a picture – but I must have gotten so excited and involved that I forgot, because there are none on my camera from this spot. Sorry! Please explore Street View and Satellite View after googling ‘Geraldine Montana’ and zooming out to trace the path of the former river.

As we ride on down past the town of Square Butte, the butte itself towers above as a dark and rocky mass. Gorgeous! The town has a two–story brick high school visible from the highway that hints at times past when the population was greater and small towns still served as centres of growth and commerce. These folks would all drive into Ft Benton or Great Falls now. The stone jail, made of the shonkinite rock, is also visible from the road.

We are now riding through the valley where all the glacial meltwater from the Shonkin Sag flowed to the east to meet the valley of Arrow Creek. From there, the glacial meltwater poured north down that valley toward the present-day Missouri River. However, back during the Bull Lake and later Pinedale glaciations, the meltwater continued flowing north and rejoined its pre-glacial route at Big Sandy and flowed around the Bear Paw Mountains to the north.

As we ride through this arid valley, I feel like the luckiest chick in the world. The arid valley is all range and sagebrush dissected by a deep creek. White, sandy Cretaceous Virgelle sandstones erode into a rough and broken topography on the steep valley walls to the north. It feels remote and wild and rough – even though it isn’t really any of those things on a scale worth comparing to other places. But it is scenic and perfect and all that I ever want from a road. Yes, I AM the luckiest chick alive today. The bicycle has taken me to see some absolutely outstanding things over the years!

One happy chick today! It doesn’t get much better than this. Here I’m standing at the end of the Shonkin Sag where the water poured through an existing valley to Arrow Creek and then back to what is now the present course of the Missouri River. Nerd heaven today!

I follow the road and rail as we turn south and uphill. It is a gentle grade through a wide valley. Trees and greener grasses line the creek. The rest is dry and supports little but sagebrush. An interpretive sign describes the nasty hill ahead. I had been warned at the info centre in Ft Benton that they are working on this section of road up Arrow Creek Hill and that the road had been completely closed by all of the flooding rains. The road just reopened yesterday, but the info centre folks said it would be a very tough ride on the bike. They both rolled their eyes and the man said, “They’ve been working on the road for 40 years. It is very steep. It is on soils that easily erode, so the road has kept slipping off the hill every time they put it back on. It’s ALWAYS been a steep and bad stretch of road. But this time they are doing major work with deep culverts and retaining walls. So we’re hoping the road might actually stay on the hill this time.”

The interpretive board indicates it’s always been a bugger of a hill. From down the valley, I can see the dirt seemingly ascending at an incredibly steep grade. I look at the rail line curving along with a creek around the hill and out-of-sight. I ponder for just a moment what it might be like to take the bike along the tracks! Then, I start to mentally prepare myself for a very rough and steep climb.

You read that and think, “Well, I can see I will be riding in granny gear for a while.”

I pass the line-up of cars at the flagger (about three cars and two semis – the sum total of all vehicles which passed me in the past 30 minutes) and ask the woman if I should go on through or wait for the pilot car. She replies, “We’d really like it if you would wait and get a ride through with the pilot truck. The section is really nasty and dangerous. And there are a lot of heavy vehicles working. I know some of you people have to ride every single mile, but we’d really prefer it if you wait for the pilot. He’s been gone for about 25 minutes, so he should be back through in about 10 minutes.”

They are completely re-doing the road up Arrow Creek Hill. The road has been sliding off the hill for years, so they are doing major, major work with retaining walls and culverts. I’m happy they ask me to ride in the pilot truck because it is very steep, rough and bumpy through the construction. It would have been no fun whatsoever. Their last cyclist was one week ago – he refused a ride through and the pilot car driver laughed and laughed when he saw the guy really struggling and frequently stopping.

I wait. I snack. I reapply sunscreen. Then the young guy driving the pilot vehicle helps me hoist the bike into the back of the pick-up. My handlebars hang over the back of the tailgate, so Verne and Kermit get a close-up view of the road all the way through. It’s a good thing I took the ride – the construction is extensive; the road is extremely rough, steep and muddy. The pilot car driver is on his last day on the job before he goes back to college for the year. He’s a pre-law student. He is very articulate and explains all the politics involved with road construction that he’s seen this summer. He says they’ve seen about one person or group on bikes per week this year. I’m getting late into the season, so they probably won’t see many more.

Up at the top of the hill we pop out onto more rolling plains. Our headwind has turned into a crosswind. We head south toward the Little Belt Mountains which are still frosted with a covering of snow from the five days of rain we had up on Highway 2. There isn’t much traffic, and the vehicles coming from behind come in bunches every 30 minutes, so it’s a non-stressful cruise across a huge landscape of range, pasture and cropland ringed in the distance by various mountain ranges. The wind pushes me around a bit, but I’m loving this day. Please don’t ever let the bike touring end.

The road is living up to its name today. The crosswind is pretty crazy, but I’m going to use that as a tailwind once I get to Stanford.

Stanford is a tiny little place with a main street about two blocks long and about one block deep. Almost all of the buildings are one-story, wooden-frame that look like they could be relocated quite quickly if the town ever decided to move (again). The highway is a few blocks to the south. At the end of the main street, a huge stone courthouse imposes formality on a decidedly informal little place. Stanford, teeny town that it is, is still the center of government and the county seat for a county with a smattering of small towns and mountain ranges and a wealth of agricultural land.

I meet Mabel outside of the grocery store. She is short, mid-50s, with dark brown hair. She pushes her sunglasses up on her head when she greets me. She is a rancher who lives not far out of town. She has never seen a touring cyclist before. She asks a million questions beyond the standard six and is the most enthusiastic person I may have ever met. She thinks the idea of bike touring is awesome. She decides she will invent a way for me to charge electronics while I ride – but I tell her that has already been done. She laughs and says, “well there goes my millions”. She continues to come back to me several times in the store to ask more questions. Just when I think she is gone and I can get down to produce selection, she returns. Then she starts telling other store patrons all about how awesome she thinks I am. They all look at her like, “Yes, Mabel. That’s great. You never shut up.” After I’ve paid for my things and gone outside to pack them on the bike, she gets out of her car and says, “You know, you should move to Montana. You are the perfect kind of person to live here. You are tough and adaptable. You are a hard worker, I’m sure.”

I reply, “Yeah, but I hear it gets to -50F up here in winter. That is just too cold!”

She laughs and says, “Oh, it doesn’t do that all the time. Most of the time that is just windchill. And we get the Chinook winds here that warm things up after the really cold spells. Go 50-70 miles east of here and they don’t get the Chinooks, just the cold.”

“Well, that still means it gets that cold! No thanks, but I’m glad you think I’d fit in.” It turns out that she and her husband go to Texas for the winter anyway, leaving their sons to run the ranch in winter these days. She doesn’t even do the -50F anymore! But that was a fun conversation. I wish the world had more Mabels.

I go eat my food in the town park, check the weather while sitting on a bench outside the library on the wifi, then go next door to the county museum. An obnoxious, small terrier dog inside the glass door barks and barks at me as I park the bike. He jumps up on me, his claws scratching my legs, as I walk in. The elderly volunteer calls him off to no avail. Finally, on his own, he gets bored and ceases. The elderly woman welcomes me and tells me to have a look around and that there is more to see in the basement. The museum is awful. It is just tons of junk that nobody knew what to do with when they were dealing with their parents’ estate. For example, christening dresses hang next to World War II Army uniforms on an old clothing store rack. Sometimes I can’t remember if I’m in a museum or a flea market or someone’s attic. However, if you want to see a collection of 2200 SETS (yes, sets) of salt and pepper shakers, and a button collection that covers the entire ceiling of the basement (yes, you will have to crane your head back), then this is your place. If the bathroom had not been down there, I would never have even ventured into the basement.

The highlight of the museum, like many times, is the volunteer lady. When I come back upstairs and present a new threat to the obnoxious terrier who scratches my legs up for a second time, she calls him off, then starts asking questions. She’s spied my bike outside while I was looking around.

The woman is an incredibly spunky, direct and slightly crass 72-year-old. She’s outlived a husband or two, and I can tell you, I do not think a god could kill her. She will trundle off to death when she is good and ready on her own. She perks up when I reply that “No, I don’t have kids. I never wanted any. I missed the gene for maternal instinct. I’ve never felt so much as a cluck around kiddos.” She laughs and says, “No, children are completely over-rated. I never felt the need! Looking after a husband was more than enough!” Wow! Am I talking to my 72-year-old self? This lady is just so cool. It’s no big deal for me not to have kids, or want kids, or want a career or to be a fabulous housewife. But for her to buck the trend when she was my age would have been considerably more difficult.

The spunky lady goes on. She is sarcastic, incredibly politically incorrect, and tremendously refreshing. She keeps me laughing for our entire conversation. As I’m getting ready to leave, she hands me a set of postcards depicting dull, grey, frigid-looking scenes of the old high school in winter. She says, “We can’t sell them. Not even to people who went there, so you can have them to send to your husband to tell him you visited this shithole!”

Absolutely awesome! Stanford has just delivered me the most enthusiastic woman and the most sarcastic and jaded woman I’ve ever met on tour. And I’ve loved them both. If you are ever in Stanford, head into the museum – not for all of its crap, but for the hope that the woman with the terrier is working and that she’ll take a liking to you, and then treat you to the most interesting, hilarious and sometimes shockingly crass conversation you could ever to hope to have! Good stuff!

I head on down the highway, picking up that stiff crosswind as a tailwind and absolutely cruising up and down the sandstone hills and valleys. The road is busy but has a wide shoulder. I see a touring cyclist climbing slowly into that wind, head down and miserable. He doesn’t even see me until we are passing each other. We both wave. His head hangs back down and I sail east.

The wind pushes me into Hobson. I’d like to camp here as the day is getting long and the miles have stacked up. I stop at the tiny general store and buy drinks. I sit outside on the edge of a window sill, drink my milk and pick up the wifi from the library next door. The state park near here doesn’t have potable water, so I’ll see if I can camp in town. The general store owner comes out, and I ask if there is any place to camp in town. She doesn’t know, but tells me where the park is and where the mayor lives. “It’s the house about two blocks down that needs paint,” she says. I cruise down the street, but there are several in that vicinity that need paint! So I head down to the park. There are numerous No Camping signs. So I stop at the pool and ask the tanned and fit high school lifeguard if I can refill water. I did not see any taps in the park. She says, “Oh yeah, sure. But all we’ve got is the hook-up for the hose”. She undoes the hose for me and I fill up all of my spare bottles and my Camelbak. Let’s hope it’s potable!

Then I cruise out of town on narrow roads with no edge lines. There are few cars, but all of those that pass have drivers that wave. Wow – Central Montana, you are so different to the East and West! I churn into the wind along flat fields and very long views to the distant ranges. I turn south and pick up speed until I have to turn west into the wind again. This road is gravel but well-maintained. Churn, churn. I can see a grouping of trees in the distance, so I know that must be the lake I’m aiming for among the fields. I turn south again on more gravel.

The road out to Ackley Lake State Park turns to gravel, but it’s flat mostly and in good condition.

We arrive at the lake. The prices, as usual, are ridiculous, even with my parks pass. I decide I’m not going to pay unless someone comes to collect. I would pay if water was available. But no water, no money. It is already 5 pm, but there aren’t many people around. The campsites are spread out on a sloping hill next to the lake. The sites all have shade/wind shelters. Very nice! I pick one that has a tiny spot level enough for my tent next to the shelter, then erect ‘home’, eat dinner, then take the guys down to the lake for a round of rock-skipping. I’ve been a rock skipper since a young age and only quit when the flat stones run out. I go for quite a while until the beach is all shadow, the wind has settled down, and the sky is all clear.

Guys enjoying another waterfront campsite at Ackley Lake State Park.
Ackley Lake – the crazy wind has totally died down as the sun goes down. I skip rocks for quite some time before going to watch the sun set.
What a nice spot for after-dinner map reading. Long day but a fantastic one!

Then I climb the hill above the campsites and watch the sun go down. I don’t have my camera with me, unfortunately, because what starts as an ordinary end-of-day turns fabulous. The orb of energy slips slowly into the range of mountains to the west. The pinks arc up first. Then the oranges and yellows follow. The dark, silhouette of the mountains stands in solid definition against the radial rays which reach into the pink pastels and vivid oranges of the sky. As the sun sinks between the distant ranges, the golden grasses in the flat foreground go to grey and the purple sky behind me reaches from the east to the last light in the west. Stars begin to appear. Dusk lingers, as if it is afraid to let go, lest it lose the summer season to autumn in one fall of night. I cannot tear myself away. The flat foreground, the ring of mountain ranges, and the transition from day to dusk to dark is compelling. It has been a most fabulous day full of spectacular geology, good roads, courteous traffic and fantastic locals. I would like more just like this one, please.


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