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Milk River

Description: Named for its whitish color, the lengthy Milk winds through remote prairies and seldom-visited cottonwood bottoms alive with wildlife.

Vital statistics: 537 miles in Montana (21 reservoir miles) from the confluence of the Middle and South forks north of Browning to the Missouri River near Fort Peck.

Level of difficulty: Class I its entire length. Suitable for beginners except at high flows.

Flow: Annual mean flow: 656 cfs near Nashua. Floatable all year, except in its uppermost reaches. A 200 cfs minimum is needed below Dodson.

Hazards: Diversion dams, barbed-wire fences, mosquitoes.

Where the crowd goes: Nowhere. Dodson to Vandalia is popular with walleye anglers.

Avoiding the scene: Its origin to the Montana Highway 213 bridge (just before it enters Canada) is quite remote with clearer water.

Inside tip: An excellent choice for a long-distance float trip.

Maps: BLM: #17 (Saint Mary), #27 (Cut Bank),#47 (Chester), #56 (Havre), #65 (Harlem), #74 (Whitewater), #75 (Malta), #84 (Glasgow)
USGS: Cut Bank-MT, Shelby-MT, Havre-MT, Glasgow-MT, Milk River East, Milk River West

River rules: Tribal fishing licenses required for Blackfeet, Fort Belknap, and Fort Peck Indian Reservations.

For more information: BLM, Havre; FWP, Glasgow.

The paddling: While not a classic beauty, the Milk River contains some of the least-explored water in Montana. At first glance, the sluggish and turbid Milk might not seem as appealing as famous rivers like the Blackfoot or Madison. But those who seek solitude, wide open spaces, and excellent wildlife viewing opportunities won't be disappointed.

The Milk River country is a land of varied landscapes, ranging from rolling hills and badlands to low buttes and shallow valleys. It has a rough, primitive beauty composed of windswept plains once covered by glaciers.

Captain Meriwether Lewis noted the most salient characteristic of this major river while traveling up the Missouri in 1805. He wrote, "The water of this river possesses a peculiar whiteness, being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoonfull of milk." Always the astute observer, Lewis named it the Milk River.

While most people think of the Milk as a cloudy river, it flows out of the undisturbed slopes of Glacier Park as a clear mountain stream. It then enters Canada north of Cut Bank. After a 100-mile loop, the Milk returns to Montana a changed stream. The Canadians aren't to blame, however, as most of the siltation is natural. While it was once thought the Milk's bluish-white color resulted from glacial till, it's now thought the color originates from fine sand picked up in a deep gorge near Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta.

The Milk does carry a heavy sediment load in the spring. Some say it's so muddy you can see the deer and raccoon tracks float by. Others claim you can walk across it during runoff. Despite all the jokes about the Milk, it winds through beautiful prairie country that's teeming with wildlife. The river occupies a broad floodplain which geologists speculate was created by the Missouri River in pre-glacial times. The Milk doesn't have the rugged breaks of nearby rivers such as the Missouri and Marias. Tall cottonwoods and thick brush envelop the river, creating excellent habitat for deer, beaver, mink, and great blue herons. Sandhill cranes stalk the shallows, and white pelicans reside nearby. Heron and cormorant rookeries can be found along the more isolated sections. The Milk often hosts large concentrations of waterfowl during migration.

There are other once-abundant species now represented only by their ghosts. Lewis and Clark reported seeing buffalo, wolves, and grizzlies, but they all flickered out of existence around the turn of the century, as did the plains elk. The Milk River country was renowned for its thundering buffalo herds and the Blackfeet Indians who hunted them.

Most people who float the Milk are anglers. The Milk sustains at least 42 species of fish, including walleye, sauger, catfish, and northern pike. Limited trout fishing is available a few miles below Fresno Dam. Anglers often have good luck where tributaries such as Whitewater, Frenchman, and Beaver creeks enter. Probably the most popular section lies between Dodson and Vandalia, which biologists from the FWP rate among the best walleye stream-fishing in the state, frequently producing walleyes over 10 pounds.

The Milk is Montana's longest tributary to the Missouri, coursing eastward before meeting "Old Misery" near Fort Peck. For almost 200 miles, the river parallels both the tracks of the old Great Northern Railroad (Montana's "High Line" Railroad, often spelled "Hi-Line"), and U.S. Highway 2.

Because the river meanders so repeatedly, the actual river distance is over 500 miles. While the Milk never strays far from US 2, it's usually distant enough that the highway can't be seen or the motors heard. It's an ideal river for floaters seeking an extended trip away from people.

Floating on the Milk in Montana begins below Fresno Dam and continues to where the Milk meets the Missouri. It's all suitable for beginners. The only hazards on this meandering stream are occasional diversion dams and barbed wire across the stream. Watch for major diversions at Vandalia and Dodson. The Milk can get very high during runoff, which typically peaks in early May. Mosquitoes can be fierce along the Milk in June and July.

Designated access to the Milk is almost non-existent. FWP has one site west of Havre (Fresno Tailwater FAS) and one west of Hinsdale (Bjornberg Bridge FAS), and there are public parks at Hinsdale and Malta.

Excerpted from Paddling Montana by Hank Fisher
(Copyright 2000, Falcon Publishing, Inc.)

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