When the mercury rises and exposed rocks start adding contrast to the white-capped mountaintops, Montana’s river rats take the cue to trade in their parkas for paddles, Daggers begin replacing ski racks on battered all-wheel-drive vehicles and talk at the espresso bar turns from backcountry stashes of spring snow to the turbid rising of the state’s great rivers. It’s that glorious time of year when workplace productivity is dampened by incessant on-the-clock monitoring of the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream flow website.
“Dude, the Blackfoot’s running at 8,000…” and “I hear the Snake’s on…”
And on the heels of the first wave of big-water action come the inevitable tales of aquatic machismo and rumors—happily unsubstantiated so far—of whitewater mortality.
We got a healthy first-hand dose of both on an unseasonably sizzling Wednesday afternoon last week.
A group of wet-behind-the-ears paddlers were strapping their aluminum canoes to an undersized Yakima rack in preparation for an ill-advised float down the Blackfoot River when a neighbor offered this bit of whitewater wit: “I hope I don’t read about you guys in the paper tomorrow.”
He was referring to rumors circulating around town that searchers had been looking for a kayaker who allegedly disappeared on Rattlesnake Creek the night before. As it turns out, someone did spot a kayak pinned against a log by the roaring water of the usually timid Rattlesnake, but according to Missoula police, no one has been reported missing.
The truth behind another rumor that four rafters had drowned in Alberton Gorge turned out to be three rafters who made it safely back into their boat, according to Mineral County Search and Rescue.
Failing to note the ominous undertow of tidings, the crew hurried off to Johnsrud Park to join two more paddlers for a leisurely 10-mile float to Bonner, which is mostly what they got. But about two miles from the take-out both aluminum canoes capsized and the occupants found themselves gasping for breath in 53-degree waves and desperately clinging to their overturned boats.
After a few life-altering minutes at the mercy of the mighty Blackfoot, and thanks to the assistance and guidance of the two still-dry paddlers, the quartet finally managed to free themselves and their boats from the swift current and make their way back to dry land, minus only a paddle, a water bottle, a pair of sunglasses and a part of a fingernail.
Two plates of nachos, several beers and an hour or so of hindsight later, talk turned to plans—a bit more cautious this time—of the next high-water adventure.