Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 98 – Havre – Ft Benton: On the path of the pre-glacial Missouri

Monday August 25, 2014, 81 miles (131 km) – Total so far: 4,340 miles (6,985 km)

I’m riding my bike along what I think is the approach to Glen Canyon Dam. I start to ride over the dam wall but overbalance and fall over the edge, bike and all. As I’m falling I keep saying, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry’. Then I wake up with a start. I’m in my sleeping bag in a Super 8 in Havre, Montana. It’s been about 12 days since I had a very close call with the front end of a pickup. It’s not something that has haunted me whatsoever when riding. But for the first six days afterward, I woke up from biking death nightmares each night. In the last six days, the frequency of nightmares has diminished. I’m happy to report this one is the last one I’ll have. I guess my rational, daytime brain got over things quite quickly, but my sub-conscious took a little longer to process it all.

I get a super-late start today. The clouds are still threatening in the morning, so I hang around town for a bit. I stop by the tiny bike store to buy a second spare tube. The store is run by a guy who does lots of different things for work and who is wearing tight jeans and a cowboy hat. The shop is small and there are used bikes in all states of completion all over the floor. There are a few new bikes hanging from the wall and on racks. The owner is super friendly, and is impressed by my solo route. My MT meandering is so hard to explain that I’ve been tracing my route on a small map. For people like this guy who are quite interested in what I’m doing, I can pull out the map. On the map, I’ve also written a few words for different places to annotate the ride. The bike shop owner loves the map and all of my notes. Most of his visiting touring cyclists are doing the Northern Tier, but fewer people come through on routes of their own design. He thinks I’m a bit crazy but says he likes my spirit. Good stuff – give him some business if you are ever heading through Havre.

I also spend time waiting to get my thyroid script filled. I’ve still got some pills left, but all of my symptoms have slowly returned, so I think the prolonged heat must have cooked the pills and rendered them useless. Finally, I get on the road about noon.

The road to the south takes us through more high plains and wheat. Off to the left, about seven miles out of town, are the remains of Fort Assiniboine. It was constructed after the surrender of the Nez Perce nearby but never saw much action. There are only a few ghostly buildings standing over there now – most of the 100 buildings were razed after the fort was finally abandoned in 1911. Much of the fort’s land was eventually used to create the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. After much political wrangling, the reserve was created in 1916 for the Cree and Chippewa tribes. The Cree had been run out of Canada and the Chippewa had moved west from the Wisconsin area. These ‘homeless’ tribes wandered the plains and were eventually sent to the Blackfeet Reservation. The Blackfeet were quite unhappy with this, so the tribes became ‘homeless’ once again until this reservation was created. The Bear Paw Mountains create a scenic backdrop, and there is a new casino out on the highway, but sadness pervades here, too. I see three different groups as I ride near Box Elder that are standing on the highway trying to hitch a ride into Havre.

High Plains near Box Elder.

The entire ride today traverses an old river valley of the Missouri. It is hard to pick out the valley because it has been mostly filled by glacial sediments. However, prior to the Bull Lake Glaciation, which reached its maximum between 70,00 and 130,000 years ago, the Missouri turned north near Great Falls and flowed up and around the Bear Paw Mountains. The enormous continental glacier blocked the flow of the river and forced it to create a new path just north of the Highwood Mountains at the edge of the glacier. That path is the Shonkin Sag which we’ll be visiting a couple days from now. That path rejoined the pre-glacial path at Big Sandy to again flow around the Bear Paw Mountains. Still, I think it is pretty darn cool to be riding right up the old, pre-glacial path of the Missouri River.

More wheat. Bear Paw Mountains in the background – 50 million years ago an isolated cluster of volcanoes erupted the rock you see today.

Big Sandy got its start as an overnight stop for freighters travelling from Coal Bank Landing on the Missouri River to Fort Assiniboine. The town grew rapidly during the homesteading era as a wheat shipping point; the town boasted 1700 residents and five grain elevators at its peak. There is not a whole lot left to the town these days but there is a café, supermarket and a park where you could pitch your tent.

The tracks at Big Sandy. The museum isn’t open. The grocery store is decent. The interpretive signs in the park are good, but the trash bins absolutely overflowing. The official RV park in town is just a field with hook-ups. There is a cafe with wifi. And that is pretty much Big Sandy.

South of Big Sandy we start to climb and descend long, rolling hills. The shoulder, which has been quite sufficient all day, gets super-wide and pretty smooth. I can imagine the glaciers shovelling and depositing all the rock and soil in these waves of hills. Off in the far distance, the current cleft of the Missouri River carves a deep and narrow path. After the last round of glaciers melted about 12,000 years ago, the river could not return to its original path. Too much glacial sediment and deep meltwater channels blocked the old path, so the river started carving its current course.

Looking back toward the Rocky Boy Reservation and the Bear Paw Mountains.

I love these rolling hills where you feel like the glacier just melted yesterday. The sculpted hills and the long views speak to my soul. The road roughly follows the extent of the Pinedale glaciation from about 15,000 years ago. The Bull Lake Glaciation reached further. I’ve had a moderate headwind all day today, but the sun, after so much rain, lifts my spirit. That big frontal system that brought five solid days of rain to most of northeastern and north central Montana dumped 11 inches of rain in some places. For a few locations east of Havre, it was the largest dump of rain from one storm system since records began. There is flooding downstream from all of it, but I’m pretty sure folks up here don’t complain too much about any amount of rain.

Riding high in the glaciated landscape.

Eventually we climb to a high point that overlooks the dissected plains where the Marias and Missouri River meet. There is a pull-out with interpretive panels here that explain how Lewis and Clark got to this point and had to decide which river to follow. They spent ten days in the area scouting both rivers. Lewis, or maybe it was Clark, went for a walk up onto the bluffs in this area to have a good look around. Most of the members of the Corps were convinced that the Marias was the correct route to follow. But Lewis and Clark both thought that the Missouri was the correct path, because it had clear waters presumably from snowmelt.

Looking down into the dissected plains where the Marias and Missouri Rivers meet.

I enjoy looking at the maze of tributaries, the rolling fields of wheat, the current Missouri River course to the south and north, and the Highwood Mountains in the background. There is a lot of natural and cultural history to contemplate from this stop. What a great day!

Then we go flying down into maze of tributaries. The road winds down between the steep bluffs, and like a river shuffling debris downstream, the road deposits us at Loma on the Marias River. There is a rock museum, a café and a small motel here in the lush floodplain among the tall cottonwoods. It is quite a scenic spot, and I can imagine it was a nice place for Lewis and Clark to be stuck for ten days trying to figure out which way to go. If they’d known about the long, hot portage of supplies around Great Falls that was about to greet them just upstream, then they might have just spent a couple more days kicking back under the trees here before tackling that difficult part of their voyage! Of course, Loma doesn’t always have this pleasant weather. This little town holds the record for most extreme temperature change in a 24-hour period in the United States. On 15 January, 1972, the temperature rose from -54F to 49F with a Chinook wind.

Downhill into the Marias River floodplain. Yippee! Pretty short but sweet.

On the southern end of this nice, sweet scenic spot, the Teton River flows through narrow bluffs to join the Marias. The road follows the valley upstream. High bluffs line the edges, irrigated pasture and tall cottonwoods line the creek. We then climb back out of this valley onto the plains before diving back down to Fort Benton. The town sits down along the river. After coming down from the bluffs it feels like you are in one of those basement apartments where the windows are all at ground level and you are looking up at the world.

River bluffs along the Teton River – part of that maze of tributaries we looked at from above.
Climbing out of the Teton River Valley. We’ll head back down to the Missouri soon when we turn off to Ft Benton.
Heading down into Ft Benton. You can see the Highwood Mountains way in the background and all of the nice, big trees in town.

It’s getting late in the day, and I desperately need to eat, so I don’t cruise around town. I just ask for directions to the fairgrounds from a gas station attendant on the main road, then head down to set up my tent and get serious about calorie consumption. I’ve expended waaaay more than I’ve consumed in the past two days.

Missouri River at sunset.
Guys at our campsite as the sun sets everything glowing.

The camping area is pleasant and there are only two RVs there. I pick a site that will have plentiful shade most of the day since I’m planning to stick around and explore town tomorrow. It’s been a great day – lots of natural and cultural history to ponder, great views while riding, and a good road shoulder most of the way. If only Montana could have served up this trifecta in greater quantities in other parts of the state!

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