Pictures and Words by Joel Beatty
The recreation area on the southern tip of Canyon Ferry Lake is not a secret exactly, it’s just hard to find, hard to get to, and when the wind is blowing there’s plenty of other A+ spots to kite board along the lake’s 76 miles of shoreline.
When Brian Literski, one of my fellow kiters from Helena Montana, called me and suggested we hit this spot up on a windy day, I knew right where he was talking about. I have looked the place over many times on Google Earth and through a pair of binocular from across the lake, only to wonder about its potential for kitesurfing. I even took a drive to find the place one time; winding my way through a series of country roads with no signs, past an old lumber yard I didn’t know existed, coming to what looks like someone’s private property boundary and crossing over a irrigation canal on a narrow makeshift bridge. I knew I was close to water because I was entering the thick maze of cottonwood trees, willows, cattails and other trademarks of a riparian wetland. Just when I thought I was lost, and probably trespassing, I drove into an open parking area with a locked gate that says Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area.
After meeting up with Brian and quickly stuffing as much kite gear as I could carry into a couple of kite bags, I grabbed my board, my camera gear and walked around the locked gate not knowing exactly what I was walking towards, or for how long. The first thing you notice is you can’t see anything, the lake seems like it’s far away, it’s dark and dead silent, which is weird because the wind was blowing the barn doors off the shed just a minute ago. A couple hundred yards in I realized it was a bad idea to not spray myself down with mosquito repellent. In another hundred yards I realize I better try outrun the swarm of tiny mosquitos that I can’t swat away because my arms are full, carrying every piece of kite gear that was in my Subaru. Another hundred yards, still no view of open water in any direction, and I started to contemplate questions like: “Can a person die from mosquito inflicted trauma?” A couple of mosquitos, no worries. A million, odds are there’s a diseased one. They clung to my skin everywhere: my ears, my nose, my mouth, the tops of my hands, my neck.’
“Is this worth it?” I thought as I saw Brian disappear around a stand of impenetrable willow bushes and a dark cloud of skeeters in front of me. But then I heard the wind. The tops of Cottonwood trees are making that chattering sound. Then I feel the breeze as the trail starts clear on one side and you see one of the drainage ponds that line the outside of the lake. Then I see open blue water and I forget all about mosquito bites and dying as the stiff breeze cools my skin. Then I’m just consumed by the kite paradise spread out in front of me and I can’t believe there’s not another soul around for miles.
“It’s worth it” I remember telling Brian as we dropped our gear on the empty field of grass a few feet from the beach. The only hazard I could see when pumping up my kite was one lone fence post that, Brian informed me, made a convenient tie-off to self launch and land. Perfect.
The main body of the lake was full of whitecaps and 4-5 foot swell. The trail we walked out on led us half way out of the deep bay that the Missouri River flows into, filling the reservoir. The wind was blowing Northwest and hard, a perfect side-on direction straight off the main body of the lake. Waves, built both in size and veracity from rolling down the 30 mile long reservoir, were rolling in one right after another. I could see them breaking and washing out about 200 yards from shore. A barely submerged L-shaped sandbar surrounds the east side of the bay and creates a huge knee-deep lagoon with butter smooth water and filled in with clean, strong wind.
After a second of taking it all in, the race was on to set up my kite. I launched Brian on a 8m kite and scrambled to get my harness on so he could flip my kite over on his way out to ride. There are a few obstacles on this end of the lake. Waves push driftwood, parts of boat docks and whatever else is floating around down to this part of the lake. Most of it ends up away from the launch area and further into the bay except for the 10 foot barrier of dry driftwood that lines the edge of beach for miles and marks where the lake recedes at full pool.
I was on the look out for rusty nails but didn’t see anything; one hop and I was over the debris pile and on a beach made of firm sand and smooth rocks. Stepping into the water I was surprised how warm it was still, no need for booties or gloves. A single stroke of the kite and I was off ripping through the flat water, and that’s when I realized what a rarity this little kite lagoon really is.
For a kiter, finding the perfect kite spot is kind of like being in one of those bad 80′s movies where the virgin is desperately trying to find someone to have sex with, It doesn’t happen right away because you’re trying too hard. At first your looking everywhere for it, then you think you have a winner, but it ends in failure. Each failed attempt then results in a narrower definition of what you are looking for, you try even harder and get pickier as a result. The next thing you know it becomes a vicious cycle of desperation, trying too hard, failure and then finding a deepening sense that you will never find perfection. You conclude that you will either have to settle for the mediocrity of someone more your equal or it will be an awkward encounter with a friend that has always been there. You get frustrated and contemplate giving up altogether. Then you see it for what it is. You’re getting in your own way; and you are not that special anyways. You stop worrying about it and concentrate on other things to keep yourself from going crazy. Eventually, it happens and it’s usually with someone you already know but were not aware they were even an option for you. It’s almost never your idea either. Of course It’s awesome and you end up cursing yourself for not going for it earlier.
Not that this was my exact experience or anything, but that’s the feeling I had while ripping across the flat-water of this shallow bay in 30mph winds: I should have made the effort to find this spot years ago. This place was here when I began my kite surfing adventures 10 years earlier at the other end of the lake. You know, the popular end with all the people. All those days of sketchy launches, gusty winds bottle-necked between two mountain ranges and boat rescues in huge lake swell. Two summers, two kites destroyed and endless nests of tangled kite lines later, I learned how to stay upwind. Like everything else, I had learned kiting the hard way, on this same lake, only to find a simple perfect solution had been right under my nose. I guess there’s lots of paths on your way to find perfection, all it took for me was experience gained from searching for it, a few failures along the way, and a little encouragement from friends to keep trying.
Wait a second, where was I?
Charging across the flat-water lagoon on my favorite twin-tip and congratulating myself on finally getting to this place, I almost didn’t see the sandbar submerged just four inches below the surface of the water. I stomped on the tail of my board and floated over the shallows and into the deep water swell of the bay. The waves outside the break were rolling in perfect parallels and made even bigger by running straight into the opposite current of the Missouri River. I rode for hours on my first trip to the spot, working my way a few miles up each shoreline and across the big open part of the lake that is seven miles wide at its widest point.
That’s it. This spot has it all: A clean fetch of wind away from the mountains, the biggest waves on the lake, access to the main body of water, a huge shallow-water playground with butter water and giants trees, sandbars and willows to jump over. There’s a big grassy area to launch and land safely and if anything happens or you don’t feel like swimming, you can stay in the cove where you never be in more than chest deep water. To top it off, there’s a wind meter that you can get a live wind update just six miles away. Brian told me all he looks for is “any wind with a little North in it and this place is rideable.” For a Montana kiter, if this isn’t a perfect place to kite, your standards are too high. Of course the wind doesn’t blow all the time, but that’s everywhere…….There are those mosquitos though.
Between sessions, I was glad I made the effort to bring a few of my cameras along. The clouds were rolling through, the wind ramped up and the sun light was a hue only found in early fall before sundown. I snapped some shots of my kite partner Brian going for it on an insanely perfect afternoon to kiteboard.
But this is Montana, and wind shifted to straight North out of nowhere and a giant cold front rolled in with a wall of dark clouds. I helped Brian land his kite just as the wind gusts hit 55mph and we got stung by cold rain.We called it a session and packed up to make the 15 minute trek back to the parking area.
As luck would have it, the mosquitos were gone and so were my fears of dengue fever and malaria. What remained was a smile on my face from finding kiteboarding perfection just 30 minutes from where I live. Even though it’s been right under my nose for ten years, I can’t fully blame myself for trying so hard to find it in other places around Montana. I’ve learned a lot from trying to find perfection elsewhere and I’ve come so close too: Martinsdale, Tiber and the North end of Flathead. These are all really great options and perfect in their own unique way. I’m still up for adventures, but I found a better definition of perfection and it’s close to home. I didn’t go looking too hard to find it and now that I’ve experienced it, I’ll keep going back again and again. No strings attached. Perfect.
To read more about this kiteboarding location and many others around the state of Montana go to http://www.montanakitesports.com