19-Apr-2004 -- Imagine the largest gathering of GIS and GPS professionals in the state of Montana, and not one of them visiting a latitude-longitude confluence. Determined not to let that happen, I, Joseph Kerski, along with US Geological Survey fellow geographer Steve Reiter, successfully visited 46 North, 108 West, during the Intermountain GIS Conference. This five-day meeting in Billings attracted hundreds of GIS professionals from tribal, federal, state, county, and municipal government, academia, business, and nonprofit organizations in Montana and Idaho.
After setting up our GPS and GIS workshops and our USGS information exhibit, five of us from the USGS set out from Billings at approximately 2pm local time. Driving east on Interstate Highway 94 took us down the Yellowstone River, the longest river in the USA without a dam. After 30 minutes, we exited the highway and drove west on US Highway 312 to Bundy Road. We drove north on Bundy Road over the Yellowstone River across the new bridge that was noted by the previous visitor as under construction in 2001, but it was good to see the magnificent old bridge still there, complete with a goose nest underneath. We pulled over next to Pillar Creek, an intermittent tributary of the Yellowstone, but it was bone-dry. Our Montana USGS colleagues discussed that the area had not recovered from the drought of 2003, and from the looks of the ground that Steve and I traversed, the fire season might be a long one in 2004 as well. Our colleagues opted to explore the bridge area, leaving Steve and I to pocket the landowner request for access letter, GPS receivers, and cameras. At 2:45pm, we struck a course directly to the east toward the confluence, about .8 kilometers away.
After climbing over the first barbed-wire fence, which was a bit tricky wearing my good shoes and tie from the conference, we quickly realized that we would have to deviate from our east-bound course. The cliffs that the Yellowstone River was undercutting lay directly in our path. We found a spot where we could scramble to the top of them to the north, and tacked back to the east-southeast. We hiked up and down gently rolling hills on one of the south-facing erosional terraces of the north shore of the Yellowstone River. We climbed over the second barbed-wire fence and climbed up another bench, our suspense rising. After all, this was no ordinary confluence, but the boundary between UTM Zone 12 and UTM Zone 13. Our shoes sank into the sandy ground as we descended into the small valley where the confluence lay, and reached the confluence at approximately 3:10pm local time.
Big Sky Country, the nickname for Montana, lived up to its name. We had no problem whatsoever zeroing out the GPS receivers and had a magnificent view, particularly to the northeast and south. The southerly view under mostly sunny skies took in the entire Yellowstone River Valley to the far hills of the Crow Indian Reservation. The confluence lies on an east-facing slope of approximately 20 degrees, just 20 meters east of a small ridge that we had just come down. The elevation of the confluence is approximately 1000 meters. The valley is approximately 100 meters wide and slopes to the south, towards the Yellowstone River. The vegetation was typical of the semiarid west, with cottonwoods in the river valley, and yucca, juniper, and prickly-pear cactus in the uplands. However, about 2/3 of the terrain was bare, composed of fine-grained sand from the bountiful sandstones, and rock outcrops. The temperature was a pleasant 25C, and Steve remarked that this was probably the nicest time of year to be in this terrain, avoiding the winter winds and the summer heat. To our north and south is some of the most sparsely populated terrain in the continental United States, broken by the flat farmlands of the Yellowstone River Valley as the river winds slowly toward the Missouri River, hundreds of kilometers off to the northeast near the North Dakota state line. This valley is still the main route of transportation through the region, with I-94 linking Billings to the next major city, Bismarck, far to the east. The only signs of humans were the farmsteads in the valley, the distant vehicles on the highway, and the passing train.
We spent about 20 minutes at the site, enjoying the countryside. In addition, the flipping of the UTM zone from Zone 12 to Zone 13 was a special thrill to two geographers. One couldn't help but think of the Crow, the Native Americans who hunted buffalo and small game here, and of Captain Clark, who passed through here on his way back from the Lewis and Clark trek to the Pacific on 25 July 1806. Pompey's Pillar served as a landmark for these people as well as the fur trappers, soldiers, and miners who followed, and it was clearly visible to the south-southwest. I had previously been to 46 North three times: At 88 West in a Michigan forest, and two subzero prairie treks to 101 West and 103 West in North Dakota just two months earlier. I marveled at how different each of those spots along 46 North were.
We turned off the GPS units and did some dead-reckoning back to the vehicle, taking a somewhat different route. We rejoined our companions at approximately 3:50pm, slightly over an hour after we had left them. We all made a trek to Pompey's Pillar, where we examined Clark's inscription, visited with BLM Ranger Suzy Havener, and photographed the confluence site from the Pillar's top. We felt renewed for the week's GIS conference. Lance treated us to a song about Montana by Merle Haggard as a fitting end to our adventure.