North Dakota and Montana

14th - 26th August 2012

The 14th of August was to be a momentous day in several ways. Firstly the navigator had a birthday she'd rather not think about but more importantly we were to finally enter number 48 of the lower 48th states. This would mean we had visited every state in the USA except for Alaska and Hawaii! The majority of the day behind the wheel meant we covered around 400 miles, bringing us to the western end of North Dakota and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We feared we had arrived too late to call in the visitor centre for the obligatory fridge magnet for our collection but we hadn't taken into account the fact that we'd gained an hour by driving into a different time zone again.

Number 48 of the lower 48!

Momentous moment for Harvey too, he turned 144444 miles at exactly 4.44 pm

The friendly ranger at the visitor centre showed us the next day's weather forecast. At this point we decided that if we wanted to take a hike in the park, we were going to have to find the energy to do it that evening, if we wanted to stay dry. We quickly snagged a campsite and then drove onwards on the somewhat choppy 36 mile scenic loop road through the park's badlands until we reached the recommended trail head.

We planned to hike a trail along a creek into the heart of the park to get a feel for the landscape. The buffalo, however, had other plans for us. Stubbornly blocking the trail, they persuaded us that perhaps it would be prudent to select a different trail for our walk! We wove cautiously between the huge beasts in Harvey-the-RV until we reached safety and quickly headed to the Paddock Creek Trail Head instead! On this trail we had a taste of the desolation and remoteness of the area, so loved by Theodore Roosevelt. Our only company was the busy Prairie Dogs, who seemed to inhabit the majority of the park. The would squeak indignantly on our approach before scurrying quickly into their underground city.

Think you're walking along here, do you?

Prairie Dog guards the city.

Birthday Girl at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Next morning, as forecast, started wet and we were glad we'd managed to fit in a walk the previous evening. Nothing much else to do in the rain we hit the road again, bound for Montana. As we headed west we left the wet weather behind us and again managed to cover around 400 miles.

Running on fumes, we stopped off the Interstate at a town called Reed Point, just east of Bozeman. This tiny speck on the map was famous in Montana for its annual "Running of the Sheep", imitating Pamplona's running of the bulls on a smaller and safer scale. It was unfortunate that we were a couple of weeks early to witness the spectacle for ourselves. This was definitely an unusual event in a country where sheep seem particularly scarce!

We pressed on to Bozeman where we spent a peaceful and costly night in Walmarts parking lot. Nights spent for free in Walmarts parking lot usually end up costing more than a fancy commercial camp ground by the time we finish browsing through the store!

Monument to Reed Point's Running of the Sheep

Finally off the interstate.

Lake Alva Beaver Dam

We had been looking forward to returning to Montana, probably our favourite state. However our visit didn't start too successfully. We began by camping at Lake Alva, where Phil hoped to put his $70 fishing licence to good use. The area was beautiful but the lake windy, making the motive power department of the canoe grumpy. The fisherman soon had the grumps too as the fish were elusive. We decided to push on to Kalispell the next day, driving through an area where a forest fire was raging high up on the mountains. Christine did however spot a bobcat lurking in the woodland near the road, maybe trying to get away from the smoke.

We'd returned to Kalispell for two main reasons. Firstly to attend to Harvey's "both ends dripping" problem and secondly to float on our beloved Flathead River, which proved so rich in fishing fun last year. After the kindly folks at Spruce Park campground managed to squeeze us into the last available spot, we set off in search of remedies for Harvey. First call was to the RV centre to buy replacement valves for the grey and black water tanks. It was a simple task to install the new valves ourselves and an hour later, Harvey was only dripping at the front end. This problem was a little more serious than leaving a trail of washing up water behind us on the interstate.

It seemed that the pressure hose on the power steering pump was leaking. We paid a visit to the town's Toyota dealer, who had been so accommodating on a previous visit, however, they couldn't even look at Harvey for a week as they were booked solid, then parts would have to be ordered. We weren't planning to be in the town long enough for all of this to take place, so opted to keep topping up the fluid every day and try again in the large town of Missoula the next week.

Our next stop was to get prepared for a river float, to make sure we were armed with the right flies, we visited Snappy Sports. Here we were alarmed to hear from the salesman about the dangerous river conditions on the Flathead, where there had been fatalities, due to dangerous obstructions and "sweepers". He recommended that we float a higher stretch of the river, which left us with the problem of finding a ride to the town of Columbia Falls to launch our canoe. Luckily Stephen, son of the lady in the office at the campground came to our aid and next morning we found ourselves drifting warily and quickly down the Flathead river from Teakettle fishing access in Columbia Falls to Pressentine Point, where we'd left Harvey parked earlier. The float was lovely, perfect sunny weather to be drifting peacefully (between rapids) downstream. However the fish were uncooperative. As they say locally, the day that is perfect for floating is not necessarily perfect for fishing!

Beautiful Flathead, Grumpy Fisherman

Survivors of the "treacherous" stretch of the Flathead.

Back at the campground, after witnessing the huge amount of other river traffic, some in inner tubes, who made it safely through the alleged dangerous stretch of the river, we quickly booked Stephen's services early next morning to float down again, this time from Pressentine Point back to the campground. We didn't really encounter any hazards to navigation which couldn't easily be avoided and again had a lovely time, despite only landing tiddlers.

Monday, en route for the West Fork of the Bitterroot river, further south, we paid a call to the Toyota dealer in Missoula. On consulting their database we were quoted $486.57 for a new pressure hose and $200 dollars plus materials for fitting. Ouch, they seemed a little proud of their spare parts! We'd already looked online ourselves and found what was, if not the exact part, a very similar one, advertised for about $123. We decided to head on to the small town of Darby near where we wanted to camp and check out our options there.

It's always hard to know which mechanic to trust in a small town, we had a list from the internet but on chatting with the lady in the Forest Service Office, were recommended to visit Greg at Sober Automotive. Just returned from vacation he was booked solid for two weeks, except he noticed he'd just had a cancellation for Thursday. If we could source the part and get it to Darby by Thursday, he'd fit us in. He sent us to see the knowledgeable and helpful Wendy at Napa, who went as far as walking out to look under the bonnet to check and then found us the right part for a whooping $56. If we wanted to be sure of Wednesday delivery air freight would be an extra $20. We were in business.

We headed to our favourite campground, Rombo on the west fork of the Bitterroot. We'd have to cool our heels here for a few days to get Harvey fixed, what a hardship!

The previous year we'd floated down from the Painted Rocks dam to the camp ground and with Dan, the camp ground host's help we set off to take the trip again the next morning.

This trip however proved a little more hairy than the previous one. The river seemed to be flowing faster, yet shallower, making it harder to avoid rocks just below the surface. Then we rounded a corner to be confronted with a tree blocking the whole river. We managed to stop in time, with Christine only getting one arm soaked up to the shoulder. After carrying the canoe around the obstruction we carried on but it seemed we were travelling too fast and worrying about too many obstructions to make fishing easy. We were happy to reach the camp ground again, it didn't take long, despite getting marooned on a large rock at one point! Perhaps our trusty inflatable canoe, Sevy Paddlesteerus wasn't ready for whitewater rafting yet!

Beautiful Bitterroot


Regrouping after our near miss!

We opted instead to take up bike-fishing. We rode alongside the river, sometimes through the rough woodland, mostly on the highway making regular fishing stops at likely looking pools. This method proved both safer and more productive. However when cycling back to the camp ground one evening, we almost got trampled by an elk stampede! The herd of around twenty elk were already on the run as we approached on the road alongside on our bikes, this just made them run faster in alarm. First we tried to overtake and get away, to leave them in peace but the faster we pedalled, the faster they ran. Finally we decided just to stop and hope they would calm down and head to wherever they were going. Sure enough, they pounded across the road right in front of where we stood waiting. It was an incredible spectacle to witness. Half a minute later they disappeared into the forest, you'd never know they had been there!

We'd been lucky to land our favourite camp site at Rombo and eager to return to the same spot after our repairs, paid for the night we'd be away at the Traveller's Rest in Darby. Greg wanted us to arrive on Thursday with Harvey's engine cool, so repairs could start quicker. Sure enough we dropped Harvey off at 8 am and wandered the streets of Darby, chatting to local inhabitants, regretting already having eaten breakfast, as the cafe was all that was open at that time. By 9 am we'd had a second breakfast and the shops were open. We visited the towns lovely tourist store and spent some of the $400 Darby had saved us on repairs! By 10 am, Harvey was fixed and serviced and good to go.

We headed back to Rombo to enjoy a few more peaceful days of bike-fishing.

Phil leaps into action at a likely fishing spot

Happy Bunny!

Obviously not content with the attention he'd already received, or perhaps reluctant to leave this idyllic spot, Harvey stubbornly refused to start, the day we'd finally resolved to drag ourselves away from Rombo. Luckily we quickly worked out that the issue was just a dead battery. Running around in the campground Phil managed to track down and borrow a set of jump leads. We'd met a lovely couple, fisherman Larry and his talented artist wife Judy, and they quickly came to our aid, giving Harvey the kiss-of-life with a jump start from the battery on their own camper.

We resolved to head immediately to Napa in Darby but on finally getting a phone signal, learned that they were closed Sundays. So, we started on the trip to the larger city of Butte, around 139 miles away, in search of a new battery. All we had to remember was not to stop the engine. Walmart in Butte sorted us out with a brand new battery and we were on the road again, bound for the famous Madison River.

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