Like most of you, I ceremoniously mourned the end of the river-running season by dedicating a warm October weekend to inventorying, cleaning, repairing, and organizing all my gear. With boats, sleeping bags, tents, kitchen equipment, and other various and sundry gear neatly put away until spring, I geared up for bird hunting season in western South Dakota. So, that is to say: a five-day late-late fall trip to one of the muddiest places on earth was not my idea.
It originated with Eric Johnson, who called me up when his Thanksgiving break from teaching was unexpectedly extended from three to five days. Eric knows I’m usually game for floating down just about any river just about any time of year. He also knows that I’d been working to reorganize my life in a way that would increase the likelihood I could drop everything at a moment’s notice when the scheduling, flow, and weather gods converged. Last spring, Eric and I came out of lockdown and floated down the Cheyenne River together for the season’s inaugural trip, so it seemed appropriate to book-end a seven-month season on the river together.
So, with two day’s notice, we dragged all our winteriest gear out for one last multi-day river trip of the “season.” I enjoy shoulder-season trips, but the Missouri River in northwestern Montana in late November is officially “elbow season.”
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is a desolate and stunningly beautiful stretch of badlands in northwestern Montana bounding 149 miles of the Missouri River and remains largely unchanged since the Lewis and Clark Expedition travelled through in 1805 and 1806. Broken down into three segments, each stretch of river possesses different scenic and geologic characteristics, wildlife, and historical sites. We selected the 61-mile stretch from Judith Landing to Kipp Recreation Area through the heart of the Breaks.
We brought an old canoe that strained under the weight of the mound of winter camping gear, water, and firewood we would need for a five-day trip. Of course, rafts are much better gear pack horses than canoes, so they are the natural choice for an elbow-season trip. But, late-season flows are always low, and, compared to a raft, a canoe has a far superior ability to make downstream progress against a stiff Montana headwind over flatwater.
The Breaks is a popular destination and a busy place during the summer and shoulder season. But, in late November, it was just us and the Bighorn sheep, which were enormous and seen in plenty on various hikes. At one point, two small Jon boats with hunters traveling up-river passed us, otherwise, we saw no one else in five days. We quickly fell into the usual rhythm of a multi-day river trip and the simple joy of having nothing to do and all day to do it.
Once the morning fire was blazing and the coffee hot, we would pile gear back into the canoe, shove off, and spend our days paddling, hiking, and exploring some of the dozens of derelict historic homesteads dotting the landscape. At the end of each short day, we would sit around the blazing fire, listen to the coyotes scream, and take turns reading aloud from Glenn Monahan’s definitive guidebook and its colorful history and detailed accounts of the daily lives, burdens, and pleasures of the Breaks’ earliest explorers and homesteaders. The next morning, we’d do it all over again.
Overall, the trip fulfilled our general expectations: frozen, rugged, a bit dark, desolate, and uncomfortable—but still amazing and a uniquely beautiful experience in near-winter. Inspired by our trip to the Breaks, I created an amateur, totally-incomprehensive collection of tips and commentary on what to pack and how to survive in relative comfort on an extended elbow-season river trip to the Breaks or some other frozen destination.
Whisky. Whisky has always been an essential element of winter outdoor exploration and recreation. It warms you and lifts your spirits in a way coffee can’t, but there’s also something historically and culturally significant about whisky’s role in the exploration of western rivers. Lewis and Clark carried it, and it was prized by early beaver trappers and mountain men. On a winter trip to the Breaks, being just 90 miles from the Canadian border as the crow flies, it is therefore essential to carry Canadian whisky to celebrate the spirit of the frozen north. Leave the Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whisky for summer sunsets on river-side beaches. In the Breaks, you should keep a flask of fine Canadian whisky close to your person at most times. Or, if you’re cheap dirtbags like us, a plastic bottle of Seagram’s VO will suffice.
Beer. While we’re on the topic, if you do bring beer (which seems a bit silly, although did, on several occasions, prove delicious on this trip) make sure it has a high enough alcohol content to avoid freezing. A 6.5%, IPA is a solid choice. Low-alcohol Molson (although culturally and geographically appropriate) is likely to freeze and burst. Remember, to weigh your beer consumption against your bladder capacity. On the one hand, you’ll appreciate frequent pit stops to walk around shore to warm up those frozen toes. But, on the other hand, peeing is a monumental undertaking when you’re bundled up in a drysuit.
Cocktails. By the time cocktail hour rolls around, it’ll be cold and nearly dark, so you may want to rethink the margaritas and other traditional river cocktails and keep things simple. During trip prep, you will consider (as we did) packing the fixin’s for some sort of hot, spiced, holiday-inspired beverage. You should resist this temptation unless you already love these disgusting concoctions. Stick with what you know. It’s best not to experiment with butter, cream, and nutmeg in your whisky unless you’re already an expert in this area.
Food. With temperatures dipping into the teens at night, a proper cooler is essential to keep your food from freezing—yes, you read that correctly. Fresh veggies won’t fare well regardless, but they’ll be a mushy mess if left outside the cooler for long. In fact, all the meals you’re used to preparing on the river will become instantly cold. For a winter trip, prep soups, stews, and pastas at home for quick, one-pot, hot-and-hearty meals. Oatmeal makes a great breakfast. Eggs? Not so much. We filled small mason jars with cream, butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, pecans, and dates to dump into pots of simmering oatmeal and ate our meals from insulated containers, which kept everything piping hot. Serving meals in a plastic bowl like you’re on a desert trip will result in instantly cold food, which is pretty disappointing after a long, cold day of paddling and hiking.
Water. If the temperatures dip down into the teens at night, your water jugs are going to freeze. To prevent this, place them in the river and secure them to something. Make sure to fill some pots with water before bed. In the morning, you can throw frozen pots of water on the stove right away.
Cookware. Bring a serious camp stove, like a Partner. This is not the time or place for Jet Boils or miniature camping stoves. Your camp stove needs to fire up reliably and spew propane from multiple high-output burners. The ability to have hot water at a moment’s notice keeps spirits and body temps up. Bring double the propane you think you might need. Five pounds for two people was more than enough for a five-day trip. Pro-tip: You can easily find a little five-pound propane tank online. These are perfect for small-group trips like this and far superior to those little, green one-pounders.
Fire. Campfires are essential on a winter river trip for warmth and morale. Bring as much dry firewood as you can carry along with plenty of fire starters and a hand saw for sawing gathered driftwood into logs.
Clothing. You really can’t bring too many layers of warm, dry clothing. Pack a small dry bag like a 15L NRS Tuff Sack with a complete change of dry clothes, some fire starters, and an emergency satellite communication device and keep it within arm’s reach. If you end up in the drink, that bag should be the first thing you grab. Chances are, you’re not going to capsize, but it’s important to think about what your situation would be if you were sitting soaked on the riverbank watching your canoe filled with gear drift downstream without you. Speaking of getting wet, you won’t regret bringing a drysuit (and insulating union suit), or at least a hearty pair of splash pants. We carried all three and were happy to have them.
Footwear. You’re going to want some NRS Boundary Boots or Muck boots with numerous pairs of thick wool socks. Whichever you go with, make sure your toes have plenty of space to wiggle freely. Neoprene socks and your normal river shoes are not going to cut it. Don’t forget to bring a pair of camp shoes that can stay dry for the entire trip, like rubber-bottomed wool slippers or down booties. Or, if you’re dirtbags like us, Crocs and socks.
Camp. A zero-degree rated sleeping bag and a thick sleeping pad are essential. Even though they’re bulky, we brought the NRS River Bed Sleeping Pad and a Paco Pad to keep us sufficiently raised and insulated from the frozen ground. Your summer-weight inflatable pad will not be nearly sufficient. Also, bring a wool blanket. While you sleep, the moisture from your breath is going to freeze to the inside of your tent and create little snowflakes that fall down to your sleeping bag and melt. A blanket draped over your bag will keep it from getting wet when that inevitably happens and will add a few degrees to its rating.
Finally, it’s an old trick, but placing a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag before bed is such a simple luxury on a winter camping trip. Every night, we each filled two Yeti Rambler Bottles with boiling water and tucked them into our sleeping bags. Not only did they help keep us toasty warm, but it meant we had pre-warmed coffee mugs in the morning. Nothing zaps the heat from your coffee faster than pouring it into a frozen insulated mug.
Doing your business. There’s no feeling of dread quite like waking up at 1 AM and needing to pee when you’re warm in your sleeping bag and it’s 15 degrees and windy outside. Guys, consider bringing a dedicated plastic bottle to relieve yourself into while in your tent and dumping it in the river the next morning. Do not mess up and accidentally piss on your sleeping bag. That will ruin your trip in short order. Ladies, I’m not an expert in this area, therefore, you should rely on your own experience and counsel in this regard. As always, make sure to bring Restop bags or your groover. Poop is less gross when it’s frozen—at least in my experience. Your results may vary.
Hike. No matter which western river you float during the elbow season, you’re likely to see hunters or hear the distant crack of a rifle. If you plan on hiking, bring some blaze orange. We also brought binoculars to spot elk and bighorn sheep. If the weather gets above freezing, expect the ground to be pure gumbo, especially in the Breaks. I advise hiking in the morning when the ground is still frozen.
Electronics. During elbow season in the northern hemisphere, it will be dark by 5 PM, and you’re going to be ready to crawl into your sleeping bag by 8 PM. You won’t want to venture out again until at least 7 AM. So, bring a book. It’s going to be too cold for your Kindle. In fact, the cold will kill the batteries in all your electronics. If a camera and GPS are important to you, consider a small Pelican case with some hand warmers you can rotate every six-eight hours to keep batteries healthy. In addition to a headlamp with extra batteries, be sure to bring plenty of camp lights to cook by.
After five days exploring the deserted Breaks, the float to the take-out was relatively solemn. We each experienced the mixed emotions occasioned by the end of every river trip. Honestly, if we hadn’t been out of food, water, and whisky, we probably would have kept going.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, and the trip provided a good opportunity for giving thanks—both for getting off the river and home safely to a waiting turkey dinner. But also for the relatively easy lives we lead compared to the early homesteading pioneers, who struggled to eek out their meager existences in some of the harshest year-round wilderness conditions imaginable. Heck, at times, even we struggled to be comfortable notwithstanding a sizable pile of some of the most high-tech and state-of-the-art outdoor and river-running gear on the market. Considering that, it’s hard not to admire the determination, fortitude, and grit of the Western Plains’ earliest river runners exploring (to them) parts unknown.
An elbow-season river trip allows you to experience a familiar stretch of river in a new and exciting way. There are no crowds; and the river, the scenery, and the wildlife are all entirely different from a traditional summer or shoulder-season trip. Yes, it will be cold and dark, and there will be some suffering. I think the old homesteaders would tell you it’s important to inject a little unnecessary suffering into your life on occasion to avoid getting soft. With a little flexibility, preparation, and the right gear, you can pull off an elbow-season river trip and extend your river-running season. It may mean dedicating another weekend to gear cleaning and storage, but that’s a small price to pay.
Editor’s Note: Guest Contributor Eric Davis lives in Sturgis, South Dakota, where he practices just enough law to fund his extensive river-running habit. In 2020, he took his Aire 143D on its inaugural trips down the Middle Fork, the Main Salmon, and Northgate Canyon and floated more than 450 miles of river for a total of 41 nights slept outside, which is a personal record he intends to destroy in 2021.