Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Urness On The Yellowstone

Al and Magic City at Billings
Day 2 (1/8/13)
At 9 o’clock Sunday July 27th 1952 Al Urness set out from the east bridge on Harding road, Billings Montana to start his adventure up the Yellowstone and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. In the kayak named “Magic City” he plans on floating to the Gulf of Mexico and then sail on to Miami, Florida. He made his 8 ft craft out of salvaged aluminum with a width of 20 inches and a weight of just 40 to 90 pounds (depending on the article). It is equipped with two air tanks as flotation devises one mounted fore and one aft. Urness is depending on the kayak to also serve as a life preserver and has mounted ropes on the sides to hold on to in the event of capsizing. Again, depending on the article, he was either a good swimmer or couldn't swim at all. Apparently, he was able to try the buoyancy of his kayak on his trial run when he ran into a car body and a tree that forced him underwater but was saved by the built-in air tanks. Unfortunately, this wasn't the last time he was going to need the flotation devises. In the Billings Gazette from August 1 1952 he reported that he dumped the small craft 20 times on the rough Yellowstone River. The last one almost cost him his life.

 Urness wrote that Monday night about two miles below Pompey’s Pillar he and his craft were washed under a fallen tree. A rope around his waist and fastened to his paddle worked up around his neck, but he escaped with a "bad rope burn on my right forearm." Unable to hold the boat as he had done previously, Urness spent 24 hours about 15 inches above the whirlpool." Members of the Charles Althoff family heard his cries, investigated and Urness was rescued by Charles Althoff, who arrived in a motorboat "a feat of very good piloting, I assure you." Urness said he was too bruised, sore and tired to swim, the material in his pants wouldn't hold air to serve as a life preserver and the fork of the tree in which he was crouched had started splitting when help arrived. Althoff was helped by John Chappell, Jr., and a Mr. Grice, (winners in the June Laurel-Billings motorboat race), and Gene Crenshaw, all of Pompey’s Pillar, in fishing the upside-down kayak from the river a half mile below. All that was missing was a razor given Urness after he lost his first one in a spill just two miles from Billings.

After this event Al decided to follow the advice of some locals, who told him the river only got worse until Glendive, Montana, and shipped the boat on ahead to Glendive. Urness said that the “Magic City” was incredibly stable but wasn't built to sideswipe trees and boulders. From there he made his way slowly, about 15 to 20 miles a day, down the Yellowstone River. As he drifted he would draw sketches and make notes on the landscape which would later be used to make oil paintings. When he needed food or supplies he would stop and barter with his paint brush. He only carried a bedroll, a change of clothing and enough food to get him to the next stop. Eventually in September he made it to Intake, where the Yellowstone meets the Missouri, and decided to hole up for the winter. He spent the winter painting and doing repairs to “Magic City” which included some outriggers.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

In search of Al Urness

Yellowstone and Missouri River Basin

Day 1 (1/1/13)
My first entry of the New Year is actually sort of a lost blog that I started in late 2012 but never got around to finishing.
 A couple weeks ago I got an e-mail from a lady who had seen a news paper article on an art show that my wife and I were having. She was wondering if I was any relation to a man who had created a painting she had bought at a thrift shop in California by an artist named Al Urness. She was hoping I could give her some information on the artist who did the painting. I explained to her that the Urness name came from a farm name in Norway and that without further information it would be hard to tell. My curiosity was peeked however so I did some internet searching for the artist Al Urness. Although, what I found was sketchy at best, his story is well worth telling. It seems that Urness was quite the adventurer and pioneer. In the earliest articles I can find, July 18th 1952, he is about to embark on a kayak journey from Billings, Montana down the Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi rivers to the gulf. From there his plan is to rig a sail and sail to Miami. He plans to pay his way by painting landscapes and anything else people want along the way. He built his kayak from used aluminum that was donated to him by friends in Billings. Before dismissing Urness as a complete crackpot it is important to understand that by this time he had already spent time as an engineer in the military in France, traveled painting in 28 states and spent time sailing and kayaking in Iceland and France. I am guessing that the painting that the lady had bought was from one of those journeys. I will spend more time writing about the painting in a later blog. Over the next few blogs I will try to trace what I can find down river. 
First Mention of Urness in Newspaper.