A Day on the lake
Upper Red Rock Lake sits at the heart of Montana's wild and pristine Centennial Valley. Protected as an important part of the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, this large, shallow lake is only accessible by 'row-power' from July 15th until the waters freeze. Lower Red Rock Lake, an even marshier habitat, opens to boaters on September 1st. Not only are these lakes interesting for their abundant bird life, the Upper Lake and Red Rock Creek are home to one of the only native lake dwelling populations of Arctic Grayling in the lower 48 states.
With the lake playing such an important role in the Centennial, and since it is just next door, I am sure it comes as no surprise a kayak / canoe exploration trip has been on our to-do list for many years. While the guys did float down Red Rock Creek and across to the Upper Lake Campground a few years back, this is the first day-long excursion we have managed to get in.
One of the challenges (besides the obvious - getting a day off) facing anyone interested in perusing this large lake is the wind. Located in a high valley with mountain ranges to the north and south, the Centennial Valley often serves as a wind funnel. With no natural wind breaks, the lake's surface can become a violent cauldron with little notice. Thus visitors do well to keep one eye on the weather forecast and the other on the sky as they prepare for their adventure.
Tuesday started off cool with clear skies in all directions. All in all, it was a magical day. Before breakfast early birds could watch fishermen navigate Elk Lake amidst fingers of fog.
Mid morning it was our turn. With the kayaks and canoe strapped aboard, we headed for the Upper Lake Campground. This is, perhaps, the only launching point on the Upper Lake (unless one chooses to float Red Rock Creek). However, I cannot image a prettier spot from which to begin a wonderful day. The weather was warm, but not unpleasantly so. By late morning, the sky was mostly clear and the wind, while noticeable, was not unpleasant. As we worked our way along the southern shore heading east, my eyes could not help but return again and again to the majestic mountain backdrop. Coming nearly to the lake's shore, Taylor Mountain is an impressive site.
It is farther across that lake than it looks! Believe me!
As we worked our way along the eastern shore, headed for what appeared to be a very narrow sandy beach, we were able to observe hundreds of birds. We counted several dozen swans, all told, and saw numerous duck species. However, compared to the birds on Elk Lake, these feathered friends were much more flighty.
After rowing for what seemed 'forever,' we finally reached a narrow sandy beach. Lunch and a little stretching felt great. The view to the west wasn't too hard on the eys either. For that matter, neither was the upclose and personal view of Sheep Mountain.
After lunch we headed around a narrow spit of land and took a much-to-brief gander up Red Rock Creek. While it is perhaps best known as the headwaters to the mighty Missouri, Red Rock Creek also provides a much needed spawning habitat for the lake dwelling Arctic Grayling and Yellowstone Cutthroat who call the Upper Lake home. Thanks the the clear water, we were able to see many large fish lurking in some suprisingly deep holes.
The beautiful views, young ducks hiding along the shore line, and white-tail deer sightings added to the pleasure.
The creek was delightful and amazingly calm after the breeze-tossed lake. However, a black cloud was building in the west, and we had yet to reach our goal. Too soon it was time to head back to the lake.
With one eye on the clouds to the west and one on the shoreline, we headed along the north shore, looking for the outlet from Swan Lake. At one point my hubby started wondering if we might have to portage a short way to reach the other lake. However, after sloshing through knee deep mud to reach the shoreline, he found not a lake but a big bull moose on the other side of the bushes!
Our persistence finally paid off. We found the mouth - a slow moving, muddy bottomed creek. Crossing the mud-bar we headed up the creek, wondering how many times we would twist and turn before we reached the lake. While the black clouds continued to build to the west, looking north up the creek, the puffy white clouds and brilliant blue sky made a gorgeous backdrop for the green and yellow grass-lined shore.
Goal reached! As I rounded a bend, Swan Lake spread before me. In fact, not knowing this to be anything more than just another turn on the creek, I was almost as surprised to see the two trumpeter swans a few hundred yards ahead as they were to see me. Although I froze, the birds knew this was not just an overgrown duck and away they flew!
Swan Lake was much larger than I expected, and much shallower. Even with a kayak which draws very little water, weeds still drug along my hull. Even worse were the weeds clinging to my paddle with each stroke. I would hate to try and navigate this large lake in a low water year. Nonetheless, our time was too short! I would love to have explored the area more. However, we could see rain just over the nearby mountain range - and it was heading our way! Thus, with a last look around, we girded ourselves for the long pull back across the lake!
It WAS a long pull, especially for tired kayakers after a full day. Thankfully, while we did not escape the rain, the wind did not kick up too much - just enough to keep us pulling hard on the windward side to keep our vessels headed in a straight line. Three miles (I must admit, as I crawled out of my kayak, I'd have said it must have been more like 300 miles) later, we beached our craft at our starting point.
What a day! What an incredibly beautiful and wild lake. For having spent an entire day on its surface, we were the ONLY people out there! No joke! While we saw hundreds, perhaps thousands, of birds, two deer, and a bull moose, we saw no other people - in fact, we didn't even see any sign of other people except at the boat launch. Where in the lower 48 can one experience such a thing? Maybe, just maybe, only here in Montana's Centennial Valley!
Lady of the Lake