Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Charles M Russell

Charles M Russell was a famous western painter, and lots of things are named after him around Montana.  This wildlife refuge is one of the largest in the world, over a million acres, and covers a long stretch of the Missouri River known as the Missouri Breaks, as well as a huge reservoir that was created to supply water to the surrounding communities by damming the Missouri.  This is the area where the Missouri River and its tributaries have carved vast channels through the great plains, leaving an intricate network of canyons and bluffs packed with wildlife and decorated with old abandoned cabins and ranches.  The area is not much suited for agriculture, so it is still mostly wild and dramatic.  It's quite remote, in spite of occupying so much of the great Missouri river - towns are very small, and few and far between.  Highways are reminiscent of Nevada - miles of open plains and little settlement.

We stopped in two spots there, camping out in the James Kipp Recreation Area and the Hell Creek State Park.  The former is along the free running part of the river, and the latter is on the reservoir.  This was our transition into the post-Labor Day world of RV'ing.  Now the summer crowds thin out dramatically and the RV parks are mostly empty.  We never have to worry about a reservation - we just drive in and look for a spot.  But later on, many of these parks will start to close, and there won't be any parks available.  So this was a good time to be there.

James Kipp first.  This was a lovely spot, with lots of trees, right by the river.  The campsites were spacious and little occupied.  There weren't any services - it's quite remote - but our RV worked fine - we had water and battery electricity, and propane for cooking and heating, so we were quite comfortable.  The only drawback was the bugs - mosquitoes were awfully thick sometimes and interfered with Ivy's plein air painting in a big way.  

We took a short drive in the car around the auto loop - a twenty mile tour of the area that is on the only safe road for a vehicle like ours.  The views are fabulous.  The biggest attraction nearby was the elk viewing area.  Elk hunting season had started, and large numbers of elk had moved down to the viewing area, as hunting is forbidden there.  It was also rutting season, so we saw some bucks having a spirited discussion about females.  The elk paid us little attention, so we could get some good photos and get fairly close.

In walking around other parts of the area, we got acquainted with another feature of the Missouri Breaks - the amazing Missouri Mud.  I'm from Seattle, and I thought I knew mud, but this stuff is quite spectacular.  Ivy and I took a short walk down a road that looked quite innocent to get a bit closer to the river.  After awhile, I realized that my feet weighed about twenty-five pounds each.  Looking down, I found what amounted to mud snowshoes attached to my shoes.  Every time you step on this stuff, some new mud attaches to the old and the mud appendage on your feet just grows and grows.  It's pretty hard to get rid of it - just stomping and shaking is only partially effective.  And it doesn't even come off easily when it's dry.  They have a lot of back country roads out here, and they are marked Impassable When Wet.  They aren't kidding.  I wouldn't even try those roads on a bicycle, as it had  been raining recently. 

One day, we took the car up to the Bowdoin Wildlife Refuge, a lake north of the Charles Russell set aside for birds and wildlife.  Oddly enough, it was there that I got my best photo of a pronghorn antelope, one of my favorite critters from this area.  They are very colorful and you see them all over the plains in this part of Montana.  There was one right next to the road at the Bowdoin, and he didn't have any qualms about being photographed by a tourist.  Most of them are not so friendly.

Then it was on to Hell Creek, a state park by the reservoir backed up behind the Fort Peck dam.  This park is rather remote, out at the end of  a 25 mile gravel road from the town of Jordan, itself not much more than a gas station and cafe.  The park is lovely, with plenty of camping spaces by the river and not much traffic.  The water levels had been falling due to increased demand for the past 25 years or so, but the recent heavy rains have raised the levels of the lake, and we saw drowning trees all around the edges of the water. 

This is also a well-known dinosaur research area and there are fossil digs every summer around there.  The fossil beds were closed when we were there, but we went for a walk along what they call the Paleo trail, which led us by some of the geological features that were so important there. 

But mostly it was just  fun hiking, riding bikes and driving the area.  I did some birding that was very productive, while Ivy did some painting out along the road.  It was such a relaxing visit that we extended our stay until it was just imperative that we move on to Miles City for our mail and email and the rest. 

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