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One boat, 1500 pounds of gear and four woman having an adventure of a lifetime

An incredible journey combines floating and camping over 570-miles on the Yellowstone River.

September 4, 2023 | Park County Dugout

By Jeff Schlapp

In my hometown we used to celebrate Founders Day with a town barbecue and a float down the Fox River. It was the highlight of the summer as folks would decorate their canoes, rafts, dinghys, tubes and boats and get judged by the crowd, standing above on the bridge that led into town. We would usually join in with our inner tubes, just soaking up the sun and risking our lives, as you didn’t know what toxins the river carried from the Dial Soap factory, which had its waste poured into the river. But it was fun. And it was about three-miles long.

I can’t imagine floating over three-weeks, 570-miles, in a 14-foot boat, carrying 1500-2000 pounds down the Yellowstone River. But that’s exactly what Celesta (Cece) Hallam-Barwick, her daughter Michaela Horn and their friends Shari Smith-Holley and Virgina Ely did from July 24th – August 18th.

“We’ve been planning the trip for about two years,” Hallam-Barwick said. “I’ve known Shari for over 20-years so I asked her to go with me, my daughter said she wanted to come along and she invited her friend Virgina to join us so that’s how the group got together. My sister lives in Louisiana I thought it would be cool to float my boat all the way to see her, but then I started doing the math and it was gonna take about 392-days and I thought I’d rather do something more exciting than living on a boat and being homeless for a year. So then we just decided to do the Yellowstone. My daughter and I have done the Smith River together, which is about a five day float-camping trip, so we knew what we were getting into, but just the same this a trip for the memory books.”

The woman came from South Dakota, Alaska and Hallam-Barwick is from Livingston, where she is the manager of the Owl Lounge. What does one pack for a 28-day float-camping trip?

“Mosquito spray”, said Hallam-Barwick. “Each person had a list of things to provide, with each person being in charge of their own cots and sleeping tents and stuff like that. I did the solar chargers and the stoves. But we brought so much gear that the boat probably weighed 1500 to 2000 pounds. A lot of beer can underneath our feet. We launched July 24th in Gardiner. We had pre-determined drop off points for supplies, which my dad brought in, but besides Bug spray, we’d go through two bottles of sunblock a week and we had bear spray and we brought along a pistol. We had a 8-liter water filter we’d refill when it got low and we purified water every night and fill a 5-gallon jug. We’d usually start every day around 9:00 a.m. and float until about 6:00 p.m., until we located a good island which to camp and we’d set up camp for the night.”

Each person was responsible for being a cook, Hallam-Barwick told me. They would take turns, a week at a time cooking breakfast and dinner, with the ladies eating snacks and sandwiches for lunch. The bright side of being the cook was that the cook didn’t have to clean up.

The women started marking the days spent on the river on a flag that flew from the boat and they met a lot of people who struck up a conversation with them. They never encountered any bears but they did see them. The trip also took its physical toll as well.

“Oh yeah, we saw bears,” Hallam-Barwick told me. “We saw almost anything everything you can imagine. Deer, elk, bear, and a moose walking near our campsite and even a coyote. There were plenty of snakes which I could’ve done without, but the wildlife stayed away from us thank God. There were only about two days that we didn’t float, when the wind was blowing over 35-mile per hour. and I already have some calluses but they grew really big. For me the humidity and rowing in the rain, they started peeling off, so I just put moleskin on them and tried to toughen them up. I think we are the first group of women who have made such a trip without staying in a hotel at night, just using are tents.”

The trip, as anyone can imagine, created memories for a lifetime. The trip ended at the confluence where the Yellowstone meets the Missouri, in North Dakota. I asked Hallam-Barwick if she do it again – yes in a heartbeat with the same group. But not with different folks.

“Its an endurance trip,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable, a lot of mosquitoes, the land flies are on you all day, and a lot of wildlife, including those pesky snakes, so I think not. It was also emotional and very empowering for me. To do it with my daughter was very special as well. We may stick with floating as many different rivers in Montana for our future adventures.”

Story by Jeff Schlapp | Park County Dugout


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