BILLINGS – Local man takes three-week vacation?
That’s how Missoula paddleboarder Mike Richardson, 35, jokingly envisioned the headline for this story about his fall trip down the Yellowstone River. After so many conversations, cold beers and invitations from strangers, however, he began to realize people were interested in his roughly 400-mile journey.
“When they figure out you’re doing something to challenge yourself, they want to help,” he said.
It’s not the first long ramble Richardson has undertaken. After high school, he backpacked around Europe for two months, mostly solo. He did the same in South America, not knowing any Spanish, for six months. He solo hiked the 485-mile Colorado Trail, laying up for four days after his calves and shins became so swollen he was bedridden.
“He’s not afraid to go off on his own,” said his father, Stephen Richardson.
Stephen and his wife, Karen, are unsure how Mike and his brother got interested in sleeping under the stars, since that wasn’t something they did when younger. Stephen said he preferred to stay in a comfy lodge .
“He always likes to take a trip out of his comfort zone,” Karen said of her son. “He likes to push himself.”
Richardson said on all of his long journeys he has reached a point that he refers to as trail (and now river) psychosis – a loss of contact with reality. He described it as a liberating feeling of freedom from expectations. It took him 17 days to reach that point on the Yellowstone River, just upstream from Miles City.
“There’s a next level of beauty and perfection,” he said.
As Richardson recounted his enlightenment, a large smile spread across his scruffy and sunburned face. Often the “psychosis” comes with a personal epiphany. On this trip, his realization was that he needs to slow down.
“I’m always busy trying to do stuff,” he said. “I want to do less with more time. That’s a goal for me going back.
“If I was to do this trip again, I would take twice the time.”
A good idea?
A long paddle down the Yellowstone River, carrying all of his camping and personal gear on a 12-foot-long inflatable board, was a roundabout decision. After floating the North Fork Flathead River for four days, he realized overnight paddle trips were possible. Originally, he thought about starting on the North Fork and boarding all the way downstream to Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho. But that would have required portaging around several dams. Then an acquaintance told him about the last major undammed river in the United States – the Yellowstone.
“There are diversion dams, but they are easy enough to deal with,” he said.
Some skeptics, including Richardson’s mother, questioned whether such a long float through often rural country was a good idea.
“But most people don’t know how nuts I am,” he said. “It became all I talked about with people.”
This year’s historic flooding that swamped the Yellowstone River from mid-June into July delayed Richardson’s original departure date. By September, he was worried there may not be enough water, but other boaters he contacted assured him it would be no problem.
Remains of the high water dotted his journey – lumber from destroyed decks and houses, mangled furniture, a fallen bridge and an eerie forest of uprooted cottonwood trees.
The weather was cold and windy on the day Richardson launched from just below the rapids in Yankee Jim Canyon. When he asked his friend, Matt Biesecker, if the trek was a dumb decision, Biesecker said it didn’t matter. “You’re going to do it anyway,” he told him.
The distance of the float was arbitrary, based on a calculation of paddling about 20 miles a day at an average speed of roughly 3 mph. Despite the many hours he spent on the river – leaving from Carbella fishing access site on Sept. 10 and arriving at the badlands town of Terry on Saturday – his favorite part of the trip came during the evenings. That’s when he would set up his tent, find a place to hang his hammock and relax while puzzling over a book of crosswords.
“This trip isn’t about crushing miles and covering distance,” Richardson said.
Rather than try to carry all of his food on an overloaded paddleboard, Richardson mailed packages of dehydrated meals, snacks and protein bars to strategic locations along the route. Each place was roughly four to five days downstream.
When Richardson went into the post office in Big Timber to pick up one of his packages, the postal clerk was excited to meet him and learn about his journey.
“Are you our paddleboarder?” Richardson recalled her asking. “We’ve been waiting for you and wondering how you were doing. She suggested he call, when finished, to let them know how the trip went.
“Everyone has been super friendly,” Richardson said.
In his final Facebook post, after taking out in Terry on Saturday, Richardson wrote that leaving the river felt “like leaving a home or a good friend.”
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