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HUNGRY HORSE RESERVOIR

Launch: Lost Johnny Point, a National Forest Service Campground on the west shore of the lake. Follow the west shore drive to the south.


Nearby campsites: Lost Johnny Point has nice campsites, and there are other Forest Service campgrounds around the lake.


Comments: Hungry Horse Dam is Montana's highest and the eleventh largest concrete dam in the U.S. It was completed in 1953. It is #11 in height in the US, and #66 in the world.
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HUNGRY HORSE RESERVOIR, MONTANA

A Little Background

------ Years ago, when our kids were young, we had visited Glacier National Park. We hiked and canoed in the Park to our heart's content, and then exited, bound for our home in Nevada, from the western portal. This route took us by a sign that read, Hungry Horse Dam. The arrow pointed provocatively to the left. One of the kids shouted, "HUNGRY HORSE,"pointing to the sign. "LET'S GO SEE IT." Kids rarely talk quietly, especially if excited about something. Isn't it wonderful, the joy of new discovery? All kids have it and somehow we get it flushed out of us bit by bit as we get older. The most interesting folks we know still shout, "LET"S GO SEE IT."

------Yes, we turned hard to port and we trundled down a small two-lane country road and arrived at the parking lot of a very high dam (10th largest in US {Check This}) We had a delightful afternoon at the visitor center and on a great tour of the dam (can't do that anymore, with Homeland Security in charge). Stretching off into the distance, around the bend, was a wild-looking reservoir as interesting in appearance as Bowman Lake, we had just canoed in Glacier National Park. "LET'S DO IT," came the enthusiastic shout from the back seat. Oh, it's hard to be a parent. "Sorry, kids, no more time - school's about to begin back in Nevada - no time for more canoe trips. We'll be back." ("Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if we should ever come back," I was secretly thinking, and the kids probably were also.


------Now, kids out of college, married and with kids of their own, El and I sat in the cockpit of Halcyon swinging on the hook in Flathead Lake. The sun was streaking the clouds a light pink and the air was soft. "No school for us this time," I ventured. El looked at me like I had slipped a gear.
------"What? Of course not, we stopped teaching 23 years ago. Fall doesn't push us back to the classroom any more. What are you talking about?".
------I grinned, and reminded El of the time with the kids at Hungry Horse Dam many years ago. "Oh, yes, when we took the tour through the dam?"
------"Yep - It's just a few ranges over to the east. The reservoir looked good then and I'll bet it still does."
------El noticed a chap paddling a dinghy close beside our boat, heading back to his anchored sailboat.-"We have some delicious chocolate, would you like some?" she called across the water. El knew how to interest a sailor, having been one most of her life.
------"Here I come," he shouted back and began to row more vigorously.
------This is how we met Phil, a local fellow on Flathead Lake. Once an engineer, once a third grade teacher at East Sound on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands, once a teacher in the Central African Republic, and now a retired fellow living and sailing on Flathead Lake. We had a great time visiting as the sky darkened slowly around us. "What's it like over on Hungry Horse?" El asked for a local opinion.
------"Go - You'll love it," was Phil's response. So we did.

Information

------Using our cell phone, El telephoned and chatted with a gal working with the Forest Service. She told El that the visitor center for the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of the dam, was closed for the season (school had just began) so it's lucky El called Forest Service. She answered El's questions with a nice smile in her voice - a miracle, at the end of the summer season for most folks. "Yep, lake level is almost full capacity."
--------"Best place to launch is Lost Johnny Point."

Visitor Center at Top, Lost Johnny, on South Side, Lower Middle

------"No facilities on the lake - have full tanks and larder."
------"Yes, plenty of wildlife, but you may not see much - it's a big lake, 35 miles long, and even bigger mountainous country on both sides."
------"See you tomorrow."
------We had a quiet night on anchor, and then pulled the boat at Flathead's Big Arm State Park. After saying 'good-bye' to the folks we met there, we drove to Kalispell, fuelled, fed, and got more provisions. It was almost exactly 45 miles to the Forest Service visitor center. There we met Ed. He looked like he belonged on a small boat fishing, and sure enough, that is his passion. "Nope, we don't have a chart of the lake. You can buy this map if you like."
------Our chartplotter did not have a chart either, only the straight-lined approximation of a lake. "Guess we'll just have to watch the best the chartplotter has and go slowly," I said.
------"Don't you need a topographic map?," Ed asked. "On second thought, that probably won't do much good on the water. Let me look through our general information handouts." We did, and found some 'maps' as good as a top. map would be at showing the shoreline.

As Good as the Topographic Map

------ "Any special places to see, Ed?" I asked the guy who's head was full of local knowledge, but mostly about the best fishing holes.

------ "The whole durn lake - she's a beaut, if you like wild country. There are a few spots - along here's a natural salt lick, and it's a good place to watch for critters. You'll see where the soil has been dug up by hooves. Oh, and these two small bays - good places to anchor, since you might see deer along the shore in the early am, and since you are on the west shore you'll get the sun maybe an hour earlier than anchoring on the other side. Get up early and cruise quietly - might see one of our bears."------

------ "Any special concerns on this lake?" I asked, knowing that residents often have had experiences that are unique to a place.

------ "We have bears - both Black and Griz, but they aren't often seen." With that Ed looked up and saw El meeting a bear - "Oh, I see you are familiar with them so no problem. Now, for the other hazards ..."

El and 'Blackie'

------ "Ever hear of a pollen raft?" Ed said with a big grin.

------ "Nope," El answered with a furrow on her brow. "A pollen raft?"

------ "Well, sometimes the pollen is so thick on the water surface that it collects twigs and leaves. These rafts can clog the water intake of your engines." "Oh, and how about a larch ball?"

------ "A what?" That one really got our attention. We've heard of many boating hazards, but never a larch ball.

------ "Larch trees," Ed said with a grin, "are common along the shores. They have very sharp needles and are deciduous, and every fall drop millions of sharp needles into the lake. In a good windstorm, the needles are pushed with great force into floating pine cones - and the result is a larch ball. Sorta like the porcupine of the cone world. Don't step on one along the shore, or you'll know it instantly. That should cover it for you."

------ "And Lost Johnny for launching?" El asked.

------ "Yep, Red takes care of the place. Great guy and he'll take good care of you and safeguard your rig. One last thing - drive down the road behind this visitor center - when you see the first rust-colored power pole, park - get out - and take a look at the Devil's Elbow. Safe Trip."

History of the Lake

------First of all, the name Hungry Horse. As we said, the name caught the imagination of our kids when they were little tads and have never forgotten it, nor had we. Way back in the winter of 1900-1901, two husky freight horses, used for hauling timber and supplies, wandered away from their freight wagons in a winter storm. A month later, in belly-deep snow, they were found in the Flathead Wilderness country almost gone from starvation. Their owners lovingly nursed them back to good health. A nearby mountain and stream were named for the Hungry Horses, and later the town and the BuRec dam project.

------The first permanent settlers arrived in the 1860's. Flooding along all the forks of the Flathead River was notorious. Finally, during the 1940's, the government surveyed western rivers for sites for hydroelectric and flood-control dams. In 1944, Congress approved a 564-foot-high dam on the South Fork of the Flathead River for flood control and power generation. Construction began in 1945, after the war. Many of the workers were veterans returning after the War. The first work was building an access road and a water diversion tunnel. Just as construction on the dam was to begin a disastrous flood swept the entire Columbia River and its Flathead tributaries. Towns were destroyed and many lives lost. In 1948, construction was begun again on the building of the dam. In 1952, Pres. Harry Truman pushed the button to begin power generation at the dam, and construction was completed in 1953.

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The Dam

------The reservoir stores 3.5 million acre-feet of water. It produces enough electricity for a quarter million homes. During fall and winter, water is released to maintain the flow of the Columbia River below and continue power production on the lower dams. A drop of water leaving Hungry Horse must traverse 20 more dams before reaching the Pacific Ocean, so it has lots of work to do. In spring, runoff from winter snows is captured and the dam serves to control flooding in the Flathead as the reservoir refills to maximum level. The reservoir is about 35 miles long and has over 170 miles of shoreline.

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The Reservoir; The Columbia River System, in the US (See Hungry Horse? Farthest Dam to the East)

The Devil's Elbow

------We prepared the boat outside the visitor center and were set to go to the launch ramp. "First, the Devil's Elbow," El said, "whatever that may be." She had a skeptical look on her face. "Well, what with pollen rafts and larch balls, Ed might just have a wry sense of humor with out-of-town folks." But, after navigating through housing and construction areas, we found the road and headed off looking for the "rusty pole." Sure enough - there it was. We climbed out of the truck, looked over the edge of the chasm beside us, and saw - The Devil's Elbow.

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The Twist in the South Fork of the Flathead; the Gorge (see the truck by the rusty pole?)

Launching

------ Then we headed down the narrow paved road to Lost Johnny. As we pulled in, up came Red. Well, his hair has turned some shades of gray, but he doffed his hat at El and, sure enough, red! We chatted a bit and then headed to the launch. In a few minutes, we had the boat launched, the truck and trailer parked, and I had wet feet due to my need to climb into the boat without a dock. We settled back and headed south - on Hungry Horse Reservoir at last.

------ The first thing we noticed was a hazard common to man-made lakes. When the BuRec created the reservoir, the forest that was to be inundated was cleared. However, stumps 2-6 feet high remained, and some tree trunks 20-30 feet high were left. Cruising near shore held the threat of hitting a submerged stump or trunk with the lower unit or propellers. Such objects didn't show on the depth sounder until under the stern, where the sensor is mounted, and then the alarm would be too late. These stumps also were a hazard when anchoring, since the anchor could lodge in their roots and be unretrievable.

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Grotesque, on shore; Dangerous in the Water

------ We anchored in only two or three feet of water so we could see the bottom and any hazards through the very clear water. And, if we did wrap or hook anything, it would be easy to climb overboard and retrieve the anchor by hand.

Underwater Hazard for the Anchor, But No Problem When Anchoring Very Shallow

------ The next discovery was a wonderful 'find.' We had a map of the lake, and didn't know it! Remember, BuRec had no chart, our chartplotter had a bare (and innacurate map), so we were only cruising with a handout 'flyer' of the Recreation area and it was pretty simple. But, we had bought an iPhone before the trip to stay in touch with the Internet and use as a cell phone. It has a 'GPS' location that plots on an internal map. We were told by the Apple salesman that this worked by triangulating off cellular towers and wasn't real GPS from a satellite. Well, on the lake, I turned on the iPhone to confirm that there was no cellular coverage and there was no service. But, just for fun, I clicked the Map button to turn on the GPS locator - it worked! Bingo, we had our precise location on an accurate and highly detailed map. It was not a chart - it didn't show depths - but we had an outline of all the coves, creeks, islands - all the geographic features and we could plot distances and courses.

The Blue Dot is our GPS :Location - Our 'Techie' Chart

Geology

Bedrock

------Long ago (and when a geologist says that, you KNOW it was a long time ago) our proto-continent 'decided' to split asunder. Probably the churning of the hot moving subcrustal mantle goo surged upward against the overlying cool, thin crustal sheet and cracked the crust. We see this many mornings when we are making hot oatmeal on the stove. The hot 'stuff' below rises convectively and 'rips' apart the colder 'stuff' on the surface. Anyway, over one billion years ago, the crust ruptured and pulled apart. A steep-sided valley formed and thousands of feet of debris, eroded off the surrounding highlands and steep flanks, flooded into the valley making fine layers of silt, sand and gravel mixed with some limestone from ephemeral lakes in the central valley. Then, the forces that had ripped the continent and pulled it apart, ceased and our continent remained whole but with a great north-south wide debris-filled valley where the ripping had occurred. Through the later billion years, the rupture was buried by later sedimentation, both erosion debris and an ocean embayment with thick masses of limestone - and even some volcanic ash and lava flows. The weight of the overlying younger rock was tremendous, and compressed and cemented the valley fill. The 1.5 billion-year-old 'fill' is called the Belt Series, named for the outcrops in Montana's Belt Mountains.

Belt Series, Seen From Hungry Horse Reservoir

 

CRUNCH - The Rockies

------Then, about 70 million years ago, crustal blocks were again shoved by deep movement in the molten mantle. This time, instead of pulling the pieces apart, there was a head-on collision of plates. Far to the west, plates underlying the ocean, were heaved eastward against our continent that was placidly 'cruising' along to the west. The force was incredible, but the plate under the ocean was mostly composed of solid rock that was more dense and heavier than our continental rock. It was shoved under the continental margin, scraping off light weight islands and continental bits riding on the sea floor plate (these scrapings include most of Nevada, California and today's continental margin of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia). The collision force and friction then ruptured our continent, shoving layers atop layers like pushing against a deck of cards. Some of the rock layers have moved more than 75 miles to the east.

Earthquakes are still acive in this region. A more complete description of the formation of the Rockies has been written up under Flathead Lake.

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Fault Zone

Belt Rocks to the Right and Far Left are Almost Horizontal, Light-colored Belt Series Rock in Middle is the Crushed Belt Rock in a Fault Zone

(Note some Remaining Tilted Rock Layers in the Crushed Zone)

 

BRRRR - Glaciers

-----A short time ago, about a million years in the past (I warned you about geologists and the way we banter around time), climate changed and things began to cool off sharply. Glaciers formed on high mountains and in the high latitudes of North America. Ice covered Hungry Horse at least four times during major glacial advances.

Ice 'Tracks' - Horizontal Scratches Caused by Rocks Embedded in Ice Sliding Past the Bedrock Outcrop

------The most serious effect of glaciation for boaters (other than the erosion of the valley and the formation of the lake) is the fact that glacial debris fills the valley today. This is in sharp contrast with Flathead Lake, where most rock and sand transported by the ice was scraped out of the valley and the natural lake remains in the hollow left by a huge block of remnant ice. Here in Hungry Horse there was no natural lake of any size until the BuRec dammed the river draining the valley. The valley is chock full of lithic debris left by the ice.

------"So what? Why does that seriously affect boaters," you ask. Hmmm - like so many geologic factors that seriously impinge on us but aren't noticed or understood by most folks, this one goes unnoticed by most. The difference results in more difficult game-viewing at Hungry Horse. Let's look at the difference between the shores of Flathead and Hungry Horse:

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Here, on Flathead, deer graze on grass right down to the shallow sloping shoreline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, look at the difference in shorelines - this is Hungry Horse. A 'ridge' of boulders along the waterline and a steep bluff of sand, gravel and boulders above. This is definitely not attractive to deer and grazing animals.

The reason for the difference is geologic. Flathead formed in the 'hole' left behind by stagnant ice - little debris in the ice. The valley had been scraped free of most loose sand, gravel and boulders before that last remnant of stagnant ice was left behind.

Hungry Horse was an active glacial valley, but many small glaciers flowed into the valley from the surrounding mountain valleys - leaving the valley full of glacial 'garbage.' Now, with the 'artificial' man-made lake-water eroding the debris on the edges of the lake, the shores are steep and bouldery.

 

------There's another major difference cruising the lakes. This one affects your safety and that of your boat. Flathead is a natural lake, hence the shoreline was not 'cleared' of trees prior to 'making' a lake. The BuRec decided to 'harvest' the trees that would be buried and killed by lakewater, so loggers cleared the forest up to the high water line of the new lake. They left behind stumps and 'snags' that make cruising near shore in Hungry Horse a hazardous route.

And There Are Many of Their Cousins Under Water

 

Critters

------We followed Ed's suggestion - went to bed early, and after a quiet sleep, were up an hour before dawn. We sipped our piping hot coffee, pulled the hook, and cruised along the shore southerly, one engine up and the other at idle.

------While we ate our oatmeal, we glassed the shoreline and soon had spotted our first deer. It soon became obvious that game viewing would not be as easy as we had anticipated. Because the flooded valley was filled with glacial outwash, a thick layer of loose sand and gravel underlay the lake. Since the construction of the reservoir over 50 years ago, lake erosion has chewed at the banks and created steep slopes of sand or gravel right down to the water level. Waves winnowed out the fine sand and left a residual pile of cobbles at the shoreline. These steep banks of sand and gravel were not conducive to the growth of vegetation. Hence browsing animals would remain in the higher meadows and only go to water for drinking. But, we were lucky.

Dawn Deer

------Late one afternoon, I spotted a black lump in the water a hundred yards ahead. At first, I thought of those Larch Balls, but it was slowly moving through the water. Then, the thought was a loon - a black and white bird we had seen earlier on the lake. But, a loon is elongated in profile and this was a black ball, so I grabbed the field glasses - "Bear!" I shouted to El, two feet away. We stared in wonder at a Black Bear swimming across the lake. We sped up to get a better view, but not to block his exit to shore. He turned nonchalantly to look at us and continued on his way. Soon, he got to the beach, we took a hurried picture, and watched him climb briskly up the gravel slope. He then stopped, stood briefly behind the screen of a tree to watch us, and then in a moment, all that remained of this experience was a wet track leading up the beach from the water marking his exit. We stared at each other in wonder.

------When we told Red about it the next day, his comment was, "Unbelievable! You guys were so lucky. Been here for over twenty years and no one ever said that to me before."

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Swimming Bear; Heading for the Hills Leaving a Wet Trail; See Her?

------Birds were not abundant. It seems that we saw one of a variety of species, but not many of any one kind. The eagles and ospreys caught our attention, due to their size and beauty.

Watching Eagle

Tributary Streams

------Some of the most interesting cruising, on lakes, rivers, or salt water, is on the coves that occupy the valleys of tributary streams. There are some beauts on Hungry Horse. Here are a few photos:

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AA Morning Cruise, Complete with Coffee

(09-09)

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