- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

BILINGS, Mont. (AP) - When the threat of snow cooled the urge for a weekend backpacking trip into the Beartooth Mountains, we decided to venture south. The journey resulted in the discovery of a contrary piece of country as well as a reconnection to an older style of travel - the Sunday drive.

The two experiences - the exertion of carrying 40 pounds of gear into a mountain lake nestled at 8,000 feet versus a road trip in an air-conditioned car loaded with a cooler of iced food and drink - could not be more different.

Maybe it’s a sign of my advancing years, but I still had a good time on the drive. Or maybe it was a trip down memory lane. Remember when you got your driver’s license how eager you were to drive? The destination seemed unimportant. More important was the music blaring from the tape player or radio. Tunes set the mood for the adventure, fed the excitement and that euphoric feeling of blow-your-hair-back freedom.


Our destination was a small stream that eases into Montana at a slow lope just south of the coal-mining town of Decker. The Tongue River is born high in the wrinkled folds of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, just north of Highway 14 that winds up and over the highlands between Lovell, to the west, and Dayton, to the east.

On a map, the Tongue’s entrance into Montana is bordered by a bloody history - the Crow Reservation lies just to the west, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to the north. The U.S. Army’s fight against the native Cheyenne and Sioux (the Crow were allies) is memorialized at nearby sites like the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Rosebud Battlefield. Ghost riders haunt these hills and hollows.

The Tongue River supposedly gets its name from a translation of the Cheyenne word vetanoveo’he. One account says the meadowlark’s call repeats the word, so to encourage young Cheyenne children to speak they were fed meadowlark eggs.

About 2.5 hours southeast of Billings - roughly 130 miles - the stream creates the 12-mile-long Tongue River Reservoir, an impoundment that has become a hot draw for Billings and Sheridan, Wyo., anglers, boaters and campers. On Memorial Day weekend, the campgrounds are stuffed full of RVs and trailers. But drivers who continue past the reservoir on the north side and drop below the dam are treated to a much-less-visited area - a starkly beautiful landscape of high red rock cliffs, scattered towering cottonwoods and the winding, cool green ribbon of the Tongue River.

The roughly 265-mile-long river is lazy on its amble north to join the Yellowstone River at Miles City. Bozeman writer Dave Carty called it a “prime Eastern Montana float,” one very foreign to boaters more familiar with mountain waters. Hank and Carol Fischer in their book, “Paddling Montana,” called it a “true prairie river.” Shortly after its exit from the dam, the Tongue transforms into a warmwater stream, home to huge carp, some catfish, goldeye, the occasional walleye, trout and pods of smallmouth bass. But few anglers wet a line here since access sites are few. Camping is allowed below the dam, though.


We pulled in amid a cloud of brown dust to the state fishing access site just below the dam and gawped at the wind-shimmered cottonwood leaves, the river’s leisurely drift and the dry, harsh hills. Snow be damned, down here the weather was blue sky and temperatures pushing past 75 degrees. Rattlesnakes seemed a larger concern than frostbite. It became immediately clear that I was overdressed.

The urge to immediately snap together rods and wet a line was tempered by the temperature. We had arrived in the heat of the day, the worst time to fish. Better to wait until later when the thermometer was dropping than to flail away in the delirium of midday. Conserve energy; that was the plan. And maybe in the meantime venture a bit farther downstream to see what else the Tongue has to offer, view what’s around the next bend and explore some more. The teen gene was kicking in again.

Some people see no beauty in such a stark landscape, but to my eyes lands like this portion of the Tongue River valley are as endearing as your child. You love them because of who they are, with all of their quirks, as you hope they care for you for all of your faults and odd behaviors. Land like this is easy to love for those who open their hearts and minds. Its brittleness is cleansing. Its sharp edges are brisk. And in the winter the wind and cold will freeze your butt off.

But thoughts of cold have long ago vanished on this trip. Instead we marvel at an old iron waterwheel along a now dry side-channel of the stream, gaze into the river’s shallow depths in hopes of spotting feeding fish, and stop to snap photos of the scenery or a sun-dried and grayed crumbling log cabin. Where did those big logs come from, we wondered? Must’ve hauled them from a long ways away, judging by the surrounding sparsely timbered hillsides.

Line wetters

Finally remembering that this adventure was initially about fishing, we pulled over and strung our rods - me tossing a lure and my friend a fat hopper imitation. I spent most of my time picking moss off the hook, realizing that it would be better to visit later in the fall after some of that river grass had died and flushed downstream. Meanwhile, my friend caught his first smallmouth bass, a feisty red-eyed fiend. I admire the way smallmouth attack a lure, fly or bait. Like a bantamweight boxer, they punch way beyond their size. Then two canoers floated past, the fly angler in the back catching two bass at once on his two-fly setup, as if to say: “In your face!” Then they drifted out of sight.

We ventured back upstream, thinking that directly below the dam might be a better place to land a lunker. But by then our eyelids and feet were getting heavy from the heat. A siesta sounded more in order than fishing. Still we trudged on to a site where we had a great view of a woman across a small bend in the river reeling in fish as we cast and cast, experiencing the luck of rookie blackjack players - a big, fat disappointment. Nothing. Nada. The house wins again.


The disappointment heavy on my shoulders, we reeled our lines in, broke down the rods and set off for home. This time we decided to avoid the winding route of Highway 314 and instead drove south into Wyoming to intersect with Interstate 90 near Acme, Wyo. On the smooth, straight four-lane we blazed north again. Scanning the radio for the afternoon football game we stumbled upon a severe storm warning. Quarter-size hail and high winds were being predicted for the area we would have been in if we had driven straight north on Highway 314. Instead, we were skirting skyscraper cumulonimbus clouds that puffed out as if enraged by our escape. Lightning resembling an electrocardiogram’s heartbeat spikes ripped horizontally through the cloudbank. We oohed and ahhed, ducking our heads down to get a better glimpse at the clouds’ rippled edges through the car’s windows.

We had dodged the weather again, this time far south and east of what was supposed to have been the weekend’s mountain campsite. The idea of suffering through such a violent storm above treeline in an exposed cirque with only the thin nylon of a tent for protection flashed through my thoughts. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be a wuss every now and then.


The original story can be found on The Billings Gazette’s website: fhttps://bit.ly/1V86NGO


Information from: The Billings Gazette, https://www.billingsgazette.com

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