NORTH OF JORDAN — The gates of hell may have fewer cautionary warnings than those given to travelers venturing into the prairie badlands surrounding Fort Peck Reservoir.
There are the obvious concerns like extreme heat and cold, and then there are the ones specific to this region of northeastern Montana — mud so thick your boots grow 6-inch gumbo soles, remoteness often requiring self-rescue, sinkholes big enough to swallow a truck.
This year, there is even more to worry about, thanks to the erosion and flooding caused by unusually heavy rainstorms and snowmelt runoff.
“Most of the refuge roads are still impassable,” said Dana Hardy of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge office in Lewistown. The 1.1-million-acre refuge surrounds Fort Peck Reservoir. “All of a sudden you are going to come to a giant puddle and you won’t know if it’s 5 feet deep or 5 inches.”
On a map, Fort Peck Reservoir’s rugged coastline looks like Minerva’s snaky hair — zigging and zagging in points, fingers and bays along its 1,500-plus miles. The reservoir was created by backing up the Missouri River in the 1930s as part of a Depression-era work project. A drive around the outside of the reservoir would take days on rutted dirt roads, and no one can say if there’s ever been anyone who has tried to boat around the entire shoreline in one trip.
Stark terrain can be as stark as any in the Utah desert. Buttes rise steep and tall as a Mayan pyramid. Scoured sandstones balance harder rock like a tabletop. Gray gullies run deep and steep, the soft soils gouged by flash floods.
Less thirsty sagebrush and juniper are the hardiest long-lived plants to grow here, but in shaded areas pine trees are found. In a wet spring like this one, the prairie sprouts green with grass and blossoms with a variety of wildflowers, everything from yellow sweet clover to pink wild roses. The steady wind is sweet with their essence. A coyote chorus serenades the sunset.
So why bother to come? What’s the attraction?
“God, it’s gorgeous in there,” said Rick Graetz, a writer and University of Montana instructor who has spent 40 years exploring the nooks and crannies of the area. “I like the mountains of Western Montana for the skiing, but I love Eastern Montana’s prairie.”
The other main reason folks venture into the region is to hunt big game in the fall. The refuge and surrounding lands are home to elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep. Beginning with the archery season in September and through the end of the rifle season in November, hunters scour the region in search of meat for the freezer or trophy antlers for the wall.
“From my perspective, boat hunting has become more popular,” said Nathan Hawkaluk, station manager in the refuge’s Jordan office. “I see a lot more boats moving around in archery and rifle seasons.”
Hawkaluk said paleontology is the other main attraction of the area. Museum of the Rockies curator of paleontology Jack Horner has removed some amazing dinosaur fossils from the Hell Creek area, including bones from a baby triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex and duck-billed dinosaurs. The finds are testament to the fact that the now-parched area was once part of a large inland sea, the climate more akin to present-day Florida with its swamps and ferns. (Collecting fossils on public lands requires a permit.)
The remoteness and the difficulty in getting to the refuge and surrounding public lands is the main attraction for some people.
“It’s wild, really,” Hawkaluk said. “It’s not like the Bob Marshall Wilderness (in Montana’s mountainous west), but you can still get away from things. There are not a lot of secluded areas like it in the eastern part of the state.”
That is due to federal land ownership around the reservoir, mostly the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the CMR Refuge. Some of those refuge lands are untouched enough to fall under consideration for wilderness designation.
To find one of the wilderness study areas is no easy task.
“The hardest part about this country is you’ve got to know where you’re going, because none of it is signed,” Hawkaluk said.
Signs marking the roads are frequent targets of vandalism, so Hawkaluk’s instructions to reach one remote place included such landmarks as: turn left at the propane tanks and take another left at the old blue car. The route may branch off through what looks like a rancher’s pasture, and that’s the better road. The farther one travels, the less well-defined the road until drivers are plowing through weeds so tall it’s hard to tell how deep the road ruts reach.
Just when you think you’re away from it all and all alone, a man appears walking along the two-track road with a lawn chair and a varmint rifle after shooting prairie dogs. Or Justin and Collin Rhine, twin 21-year-old brothers from Lucasville, Ohio, drive up in a refuge truck on a weed-spraying trip.
The brothers said the rugged Missouri Breaks country surrounding Fort Peck is not the Montana that they imagined before arriving. The two are working a second season for the CMR as bio-technicians, which in part required them to spray weeds with herbicides, a chore that can take them deep into Montana’s version of the Australian Outback.
“There’s a lot of interest when we show pictures back home,” Justin said. “But people are more likely to be jealous than think that we’re crazy for being out here.”