River daze

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Every once in a while, as life stacks up a bit too high, the river calls. I dream of long days in the canoe, drifting along with the current, seeing where the water leads.

This time the waters were the Flathead River in Montana. We formed a crew of miscreants and gathered at the Buffalo Bridge below a set of Class 3 rapids. From Buffalo Bridge to Sloane Bridge is 20 river miles of untrampled, wild and wooly terrain. Hardscrabble sage brush tundras give way to cliffs of glacial lake deposits that rise 100 feet into the air, their spires and carved channels weathered from centuries of rain and wind. At times it seems as if you could be paddling down a river on Mars if not for the occasional cow lowing along the riverbank.

The Flathead is a quick, clear river. The multicolored rocks fly beneath, sometimes quite close if the water is low. It’s navigable in the thick of summer, mostly with meandering stretches of fast current with some Class 1 wave trains and very brief Class 2 sections that most experienced paddlers can handle with only a few splashes over the gunwale. Overloaded for a four-day float in the hottest part of August though, we took more than a splash in a few sections. We took buckets. Have no fear — I cut open a Miller High Life can to bail the boat.

We found camp a couple hours downriver: a nice sandy beach with some shade away from the river, where we hung hammocks and pitched tents. 

Day one is always hard. You get up early to load the truck, strap down the canoe and water the garden before the 9 a.m. departure. Rendezvous with the crew — who will remain nameless to protect the innocent — then a three-hour drive to St. Ignatius, where we received a gut punch when purchasing permits from the Flathead Reservation. When Cadie and I floated this river before, we both paid $40 apiece for the access and camping permit. This time the price had suddenly jumped to $180 each. To float a river. A 450% increase in price. We all swallowed hard and swiped our cards, pledging to immediately forget money, for what good will it do us on the river?

As the evening settled in, a freak thunderstorm roared downriver, upsetting our shade shelters and sending us all scuttling for cover while it passed. Afterward, the sky turned an electric shade of orange and a double rainbow formed, stretching from one side of our view to the other. We stood in awe and watched it slowly fade into dusk. We then laid under the stars and watched meteors streak across the sky. A full moon rose over the bluffs to cap off the 16-hour day of sweat and toil.

Day two began as any proper day on the river should: slowly. There is no hurry, no need to get a move on. We ate our morning meals, floated around in the eddy by our camp, played guitar under the battered shade shelter as the sun climbed higher into the sky. Eventually we struck camp, packed the boats like seasoned veterans and floated another couple hours downriver to a spot that sat across from three prominent cliffs which caught the evening sun. A manicured section of grassy tundra opened to a rocky beach, with only a few dozen cow pies to hop over while navigating camp.

We stayed there two nights, hiking up the bluff to look down on our camp, swimming the rapids in our life jackets and not giving a damn about anything except what the day presented us.

These are precious days on the river. Days when you shut down all your devices and let the spinning world relinquish its hold on you. The important stuff is all present, right in front of your face. You choose which current to take. You dig for the iciest beer in the cooler. You cook your gourmet campfire meal to perfection. You emerge on the other side sunburnt, covered in bug bites, scratching at poison oak, reeking of warm beer and sweat, but smiling like a complete loon because there’s no drug, no pill, no sermon or self-help book that can make you feel as complete a human being as you do when you finish a multi-day river trip.

Maybe it’s reaching back to our former selves, letting that primal beast out to howl. Maybe it’s the ever-growing claustrophobia we feel in this world growing increasingly more absurd. Whatever the reason, I’m glad it’s there, because it forces us to seek the river and find our own answers  — not rely on the platitudes and lies spewed by politicians and self-promoters. We seek the river not merely to escape the crushing insanity, but to find better ways to fend it off, or perhaps to discover a more meaningful way to live in balance with the natural world which gives us so much.

Our daily struggles are but distant noise to the river. It cares not for your opinions, your dreams, your flaws. It treats you as any other piece of flotsam on its back. It washes you downstream where maybe, just maybe, you’ll come out a little cleaner on the other side.

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