Kayaking Three Forks to Great Falls


Three Forks to Great Falls, Montana

246 miles

3Forks to Great Falls 002The headwaters of the Missouri River

Three Forks, the Jefferson River (upper left corner) is joined by the Madison (upper left)

and then joined by the Gallatin to form the Missouri (upper right).

My put in site was just to the right of where the Gallatin flows into the Missouri


About five miles outside Three Forks, Montana, the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson Rivers come together to form the headwaters of the Missouri River. Today that merger is marked by the Missouri Headwaters State Park and it also marks the spot where, on July 25th 2002 I began my journey along its course to St. Louis. But I started by kayaking the route from Three Forks to Great Falls, Montana. At the time, standing at my launch point on the river I couldn’t help but be a bit intimidated by the scope of the task I had set for myself. Over 2300 river miles lay between me and my goal at Arch in St. Louis. But, ‘if you’re not moving you’re standing still.’ These words that I had often used to exhort my companions in mountains I now turned on myself as I slid into my 12 foot kayak and shoved off.

3Forks to Great Falls 003Route of July 25th 2002


From the launch point the river runs along the left hand side of a narrow valley with railroad tracks and rolling sage bush hills to the left and the dead end road to Trident on the right. After about ¾ of a mile I passed the Trident cement plant on the right. Immediately after that point the river passed through a little jog followed close to the hills on the right hand bank. After about four miles of pleasant paddling almost due north the river passed through several small rapids and turned sharply to the southeast. The current here was very swift and as I came around the bend and was surprised to find a small dam across the river. I didn’t have time to maneuver to the shore scout out the route and so was swept over the three foot high dam. I managed to stay upright and fortunately there were no logs and only one or two rocks on the lower side of the dam which I scraped over safely. This was a little more exciting then I had bargained for and I wondered what other uncharted obstacles might lay ahead. 2002 was a very low water year and I think that in ordinary times this dam is covered by enough water that it doesn’t present a significant obstacle to paddlers.


About a mile past the dam I pulled over to the right shoreline and stopped for a rest before continuing on for another 5 or 6 miles of calm braided water with modest cliffs on the left and open rolling hills to the right. As I paddled on a thunder storm gathered around me and soon the winds and rain came. I pulled over to the right shoreline again and pulled my kayak up on the beach and sat under some small trees while I waited for the storm to pass. The thunderstorms in Montana seem to come on very quickly and in the days to come I would find out the hard way just how dramatically and water condition can change. Fortunately after the storm passed the winds dropped off again and the river returned to its slow pristine persona.


I continued on until the river entered a narrow slot and passed beneath an old abandoned railroad bridge at Sixteen Mile Creek and made a ninety degree turn to the left as it started around a big oxbow bend that would lead to Toston Dam. I passed a small island on the left and then worked around a sharp bend to the northeast. This area is known as the “Devil’s Bottom” and the locals told me that I was fortunate because high winds are funneled through this area and the water can be quite rough and dangerous. After twenty miles on the river I paddled through the calm waters of the small narrow lake backed up by the dam an soon reached the take out for the portage around the dam.


Shortly after I reached shore the campground host, Sonny Weldon asked if I needed a hand making the portage around the dam. I accepted gratefully and he drove me and my gear about a half mile down the road to the put in spot just below the dam. Since it was now about 5:30 I decided to pitch camp and spend the nigh here before continuing on to Canyon Ferry Lake some 22 miles further on. I had made 20 miles that first day in about five hours and felt that I was adjusting well to enduring long intervals of paddling.



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