Prairie Lights: No bad days on Montana rivers


Owen Hatteras

Nothing special, just another perfect day on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

I don’t imagine that my obituary will say I was an avid outdoorsman. I’m more of a midsize-city slicker who occasionally ventures into the nearer reaches of the wilds for a day or three.

This weekend is supposed to be one of those occasions. By the time people are reading this I should be on a Montana river somewhere, on a short hike just off the river or passing tall tales and a flask around a campfire.


Ed Kemmick

That’s about as planned-out as our three-day excursion is at this point, several days before the expedition is to begin. Four of the five members of our projected party got together last week to do some planning, but all we decided was that we would build the long weekend around a float trip.

And though I wasn’t taking notes, I think we narrowed it down to either the Yellowstone, Gallatin or Madison River, with additional plans to do a little hiking. We hadn’t decided who’s driving, who’s bringing what gear or who’s responsible for what meals.

We did get a solid head start on the drinking, which I guess is something, and it probably fed the illusion that we’d actually done any planning during our two-hour palaver.

The lack of planning is all part of the larger plan—which is not to pursue good times too diligently, but to let the good times find us, waiting patiently. In all my years of floating Montana rivers, I can’t remember a single bad experience. Oh, there’ve been some disasters, some wrecked watercraft and some near-death experiences, but never a disappointing trip.

I have been on rivers all over the state on inner tubes, canoes, rafts, drift boats, kayaks, jet boats and once, for a few fleeting moments, a surfboard. On almost every occasion I have gone overboard to experience the river in the best way possible, like a fish.

On the Gallatin River—and I don’t expect everyone to believe this, but it’s true—we were once rafting in some pretty intense rapids when it suddenly began to hail and lightning began to flash. One member of our party had a friend from Germany along and we assured him it was not an unusual experience.

That outing probably has been described in great detail to hundreds of other Germans over the years, and maybe some of them even believed it.

On the other end of the thrill spectrum, I once floated the Jefferson River in low water, and when a stiff headwind began to blow, our raft drifted upstream whenever we stopped paddling. That was one of those days when we missed our projected take-out by many hours.

Years ago, David Crisp and I were canoeing on the Yellowstone between the Huntley bridge and Pompeys Pillar when we discovered, possibly, a new island. Again, I am not making this up.

There had recently been a huge downpour, which so thoroughly saturated a field of corn—which sat above the river on a bluff of compacted dirt and sand—that a huge swath of the field simply collapsed, falling into the river. From what we heard later from geologists, the weight of the falling land might have pushed on a layer of subterranean rock, which then, like a teeter-totter, thrust up a great mass of gravel in the middle of the river.

This was the new “island,” and we may have been the first people to see it. Not exactly Christopher Columbus, I know, but still, it was pretty cool.

The shortest trip ever was on the Stillwater River many years ago, when I was living in Butte and knew very little about the Billings area, and nothing about the Stillwater. Five minutes into our float in high, choppy water, our raft was thrown into the exposed roots of a toppled tree on the riverbank.

The river tossed us so hard that the raft was nearly vertical when it hit the roots, which scraped along the bottom of the raft, expelling the three of us, most of our gear and all of our beer. We did recover the raft, if not our dignity.

So wish me luck this weekend—if, by the time you read this, it’s not too late even for luck.

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