11-Sep-2003 -- When I first learned of the Degree Confluence Project, I was disappointed to discover that all of those in my home state of South Dakota had already been visited. I set my sights on 45N 106W in Montana. It was just one of two remaining primary confluences in the state. When I consulted some maps and read the report of another person's unsuccessful attempt to visit the confluence, I could see why. The confluence is located on rugged land close to the Montana-Wyoming border, dozens of miles from the nearest paved road. The closest town in Wyoming is named Recluse, if that tells you anything.
I was compelled.
With my dog, Gretel, I headed out from Spearfish, South Dakota on the morning of September 11th, which was perhaps a fitting day to discover and explore a beautiful, rugged corner of America.
I had concluded that there were two better ways to approach the confluence. One would be from the south, working up through varicose back roads in Wyoming to Fence Creek Road.
The other option was to approach from the north. Only that morning did I finally decide to try the Montana side first. Besides having to drive through the craggy pine stands of Custer National Forest, the Montana side offered more public lands to reach the confluence. The degree confluence itself is located on state land, and that block is bordered to the west by a long L-shaped strip of BLM (federal) land.
I enjoyed the drive through Custer National Forest, suppressing the urge to take photographs of the stark terrain so that I could save the batteries for the confluence visit.
The pavement quit about thirty miles north of the confluence. I was concerned because it had rained about an inch the day before, and slick roads had cut short another person's previous attempt. But after a wet spring this year, it has been dry in the region all summer long. Thus, the rain soaked in, and then it dried out so quickly on this partly sunny, breezy day with a high temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. So I had to navigate a few mud puddles, but I had good track just about everywhere I went.
My plan to approach through public land was thwarted when I encountered a sign that simply said "NO" at a cattle guard about ten miles northwest of the site. I learned later that the sign only applied to the land on either side of the road, and I still would have had the right of way on the road, which would have taken me to the long strip of BLM land I wanted to hike in from.
Instead, I headed east on the Sayle Road to an unimproved road that my good topographic maps showed could eventually lead me very close to the confluence. But there was private land between there and the state land where the confluence is located. I drove about four or five miles down what is essentially the driveway of rancher Dave Bliss. Dave was home, working with his horses. I told him he lives in a beautiful place. He responded, "I'm a very lucky man."
We went inside and laid out the maps on his wood stove. He gave me permission to drive the two-track road down to the confluence. I put my truck in four-wheel drive and headed out.
It was over six miles to the confluence from the gravel road outside the Bliss ranch house. The track took me across dry grassy meadows and sagebrush flats to a fence and gate that marked the state land. On the other side, the land started descending on either side in meandering, sparse juniper forest, dotted with yucca and cactus. The track mainly followed the ridge between two drainages that run down across the state line to Fence Creek.
It was a gorgeous drive, the trail was good, and now and then the sun would shine through the dramatic layer of clouds overhead, and illuminate the stunning landscape into even sharper contrast.
As the track started appearing even less travelled (Bliss told me it peters out just over the state line), I reached 45 North and parked. My dog Gretel and I crossed two small ravines before clearing into a grassy patch and located the confluence (within the 6 meter accuracy of my GPS). I had wondered what finding my first confluence would be like; the exhilaration I felt was just as much for the journey to the spot as the discovery itself.
I snapped photos (using a dead sagebrush plant as a tripod for some), and then just took in the beautiful place.
On the way out, I stopped back at the Bliss Ranch and watched Dave train horses in his corral. I drove home a different way, dropping down to Wyoming along the Powder River, meeting elk hunters and ranchers along the way. I saw mule and whitetail deer, turkeys, skunk, beaver and antelope. It was about sixty miles on gravel (with one flat tire at dusk!) back to the paved road.
I used to fight forest fires, and the single aspect I enjoyed the most about the work was how fires would take you to a corner of the country where you might never go otherwise, giving you an experience of unanticipated beauty. Visiting this confluence was just like that. I feel fortunate to have met Dave Bliss and explored this solitary piece of America.