OK.It’s not like we’re so conceited or clueless as to think that you folks sit around each summer waiting for us to tell you it’s time to go outside and play in the water. The clues are out there for all to see: Temperatures outside are nosing above the melting point of aluminum, the vinyl seats in the pickup have become third-degree burn hazards, the dogs have shed enough undercoat to feather a queen-sized futon and, dammit! Why does the Blackfoot still look like the chocolate river in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? So be it. It’s summer. You’re 70 percent water. Dig in, dive in, drown some worms, return to the womb. Whatever you do, wherever you do it, let’s be careful out there. And this year, as you frolic in all the aquatic abundance western Montana has to offer, stop a moment, reflect on your good fortune, and give thanks that you’re not living in drought-stricken Colorado or Arizona.
Aquatic first ascents
There are certainly easier and safer ways of crossing a long stretch of water, but none as pure in form as swimming.
Fiberglas hulls and neoprene shells are barriers that separate the person from the planet; they protect and insulate our bodies. Oars and sails further remove the traveler from the medium; they are technological extensions of our own limbs.
Swimming, however, is our most primitive embrace of water, like running is to the land. There is no better way to connect the water within us to the water around us than by floating, drifting and gliding through it. Sound attractive? Considering a jaunt past the end of the dock and beyond the no-wake buoy? Toward the horizon and away from the diminishing shore? Arguably, the best way to prepare for a long open-water swim is to become a teenager again and fall in love so desperately that desire overwhelms any fear of the deep. That’s how Leander swam the Hellespont to spend nights with Hero, a beauty and priestess to the Goddess of Love.
Leander and Hero met at a midsummer festival and Leander, a good-looking guy himself, caught Hero’s eye with the dignified strategy of staring at her and cemented the bond with the best pickup line ever delivered by a swimmer: “Aphrodite takes no pleasure in virgins.”
Soon, the teens had exchanged promises. Hero would light a torch in the window of her tower on the west side of the strait, which connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. And at nightfall Leander would swim from his home on the west side and return before dawn.
Less impassioned swimmers would do well to stay at home in their own beds, rise early for a session in the pool under the direction of a coach, and recruit a capable kayaker to navigate the passage of their choice, since no one finishing a significant open-water swim has ever claimed to enjoy it. If there is sun, the swimmers get sunburned. If there is marine life, the swimmers suffer the horsefly-like bites of Trichobilharzia ocellata, the flatworm parasite common to Montana lakes, more commonly known as Swimmer’s Itch. The best that long-distance swimmers can hope for is bad enough: consistently cold temperatures, predictably strong currents, and, well, outrageous distances.
Sometimes life is so pleasant that the only recourse is getting cold, dizzy and tired. In fact, marathon swimmers seem bent on the opposite of fun. Captain Matthew Webb decided to swim the English Channel in 1875 because it seemed like the hardest challenge available which might just be possible for him to meet. The crossing took him 21 hours and 45 minutes. Since then, marathon swimmers have continually raised the stakes. To claim the King of the Channel title in 2000, Kevin Murphy swam from England to France for the 32nd time of his life. Yet he still lags behind Alison Streeter, the reigning Queen of the Channel, who has made the 22-mile crossing 39 times and is the only woman to complete the nonstop triple; that is, England to France, France to England, and then back to France.
Even Lynne Cox, who swam 2.7 miles in 40-degree seawater between the islands of Little Diomede and Big Diomede across the Bering Strait in what may be the toughest swimming accomplishment ever, has never trumpeted the ease of simpler feats. She dedicated her 1987 sub-Arctic swim to a cause larger than any personal sense of discomfort: peace between the United States and the Soviet Union during the waning days of the Cold War. Which may be why no one has repeated Montana’s benchmark challenge: swimming the length of Flathead Lake. There is an apparent lack of motivation to overcome its enormous difficulty.
In 1986, Paul Stetler, a swim coach from Kalispell, completed the 25-mile stretch from Polson to Big Fork. Afterward, he did not disguise the difficulties he faced during the 12-hour, 42-minute effort, which ranged from sunburn and fatigue to loneliness—and the horrible knowledge that if he even entertained the thought of quitting he was finished.
Stetler’s achievement remains singular. The two most recent attempts came up short under bad weather. One man surrendered after only two hours in the dark during a hail storm. Another man reached Finley Point, about one sixth the total distance, after battling wind-driven waves for six hours.
Chronologically, Stetler’s record remains untested, and some day a newcomer will undoubtedly chop hours off the time, as there is no lack of talent in Montana. In 2000, John Weston from Florence won the swim portion of the Hawaii Ironman. Mike Burton, a swim coach in Billings, once held the world record and won a gold medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle event.
For those who would avoid direct competition, Montana still offers plenty of opportunities for the nautical equivalent of a first ascent. To date, no one has swum the length of Canyon Ferry, Hungry Horse, or Big Horn reservoirs. More accurately, no one has done these things and bragged about them with sufficient intensity to alert the general populace.
Nor has anyone swum the length of Fort Peck Reservoir. But that would be on the long side of adventure swimming—at 134 miles of slack Missouri River water full of walleye and northern pike cruising over flooded homesteads. Organized events in our region include the ever-popular 1.76-mile Long Bridge swim in Lake Pend Oreille on Aug. 17, a one-mile event in Lake Coeur d’Alene, and an 8.5-mile course down the Snake River near Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho, both on July 20.
Montana’s rivers remain unswum as well—from start to finish, that is. Now, traveling downstream, propelled by a current may seem unsporting, but in fact river swimming is the most hyped subcategory of the admittedly under-hyped world of open-water swimming.
There is a circuit of World Cup races for marathon swimming. The marquee event takes place in Argentina where competitors race a 39-mile stretch between towns on the Rio Coronda to the delight of spectators in a flotilla of exhaust-spewing boats.
But river swimming isn’t just about speed. Other than swimming from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, the most notable challenge in the United States is the annual swim around Manhattan Island, an event which is as much about water quality as velocity.
Applicants must provide an acceptable training log to prove they are ready for the test. But they must also submit an essay explaining exactly why they are interested in swimming the East River, the Harlem River, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, past a prison barge, and down the Hudson. Applicants are also encouraged to receive shots for hepatitis and tetanus. Organized swimming events in the waters around New York City date back about a century, but were suspended in the 1930s due to increasing amounts of raw sewage, chemical runoff and floating debris.
But the 1972 Clean Water Act changed that and by 1982 the organized circumnavigation of Manhattan was an annual event. In response, one can only suggest swimming some portion of the Clark Fork River, say, from Bonner to Missoula.
More adventurous swimmers and would-be pioneers might consider training in the relative security of Polson Bay, Frenchtown Pond, or Lake Como near the earthen dam while wrapped in the comfort of a wetsuit.
Yet there is no motivation like infatuation, and there is no vow stronger than the promise of young lovers to overcome all obstacles. Unfortunately, seasonal weather conspired against Hero and Leander. One stormy night unsuitable to a crossing Hero lit the torch anyway in desperation to see her lover.
Leander couldn’t resist the signal and started swimming. But he never arrived. By sunlight the next morning she saw his drowned body below her on the shore and she dashed herself on the rocks next to him. Todd StruckmanThe can-do canoe
A reliable harbinger of summer in Missoula is not so much the appearance of balsamroot, lupine or rhubarb but rather the proliferation of brightly colored plastic boats sprouting on the roofs of vehicles around town. The burgeoning crop of boats on roofs can mean only one thing: The rivers are dropping and clearing and warming, and soon it will be pleasant enough to be on the rivers around town.
Granted, some of these emerging boats are kayaks, and lest you be swayed by one of these shapelier sisters, consider that for versatility you cannot beat the canoe. If you are able to have only one boat, this is the boat to have. Talk about sport and utility; not only have I used my 16-foot plastic river canoe to hunt deer, ducks and fish, but I’ve loaded it with 1,060 lbs. It comfortably draws six inches of water, making it great for overnight trips. But strip her down to the bare essentials, add float bags and another experienced paddler and you’re ready to tackle as much whitewater as you like. I’ve even had some luck wave-surfing while solo paddling from the middle thwart—much to the amusement of nearby skeptical kayakers. Probably the greatest proof of my canoe’s versatility is that it served as the ferry for my bachelor party, which consisted of three guys and a 12-pack descending the Blackfoot—nudity courtesy of the Red Rocks beach crowd. Whatever it takes to float your boat, Missoula’s situation in a natural sink provides ample opportunity to test the canoe’s protean capabilities in a variety of waters ranging from placid to churning.
No one’s advice is harder to take than your own. So what follows are suggestions accrued from some years of “learning experiences:” 1. Count on getting wet. While this is obvious when attempting numerically significant rapids, it is also true of any time you get on the water. 2. Tie it down or bag it, for you may very well be swimming after it. 3. One large dog is an X-factor in trying to solve the balance equation, but it can be done. Two dogs means two unknown variables—and even an eighth grader will tell you that that problem can’t be solved. 4. Take a good look at your footwear. The fact that the salesman called those things “river runner’s shoes” means very little when you’re scrambling around on slippery boulders or jamming your toes between rocks while hauling your waterlogged boat to shore. Old tennis shoes are still my preferred footwear. 5. Scout the takeout point well and plan to arrive there well before dark. Canoeing in the dark is like driving an oil tanker after happy hour—a disaster waiting to happen. 6. Practice communicating with your partner on the easy rapids and establish a system of command and control. Don’t blame. Don’t nag. They don’t call these things “divorce boats” for nothing.
Whitewater: If you have a good paddling partner, have mastered the J, the draw and the pry stroke, and you feel confident reading rapids, then try out your expertise on a river like the Blackfoot. When the water is still high a float from 200 Bridge at Roundup to the Whitaker Bridge can be challenging Class I–II whitewater depending on the flow, with some fine flatwater paddling in between. If you extend the float below Whitaker Bridge you can run the Thibodeau Rapids, which I have found to be forgiving at low water as long as you run them on the river right side.
The Blackfoot is littered with interesting rapids that vary according to water levels, but in my mind three things make it a great place for the beginner or intermediate canoeist: First, most of the rapids can be analyzed from the road. Second, while on the river there are almost always places to stop and scout the rapids so that you can choose your route. Third, there is usually a way to carry your boat along the shore if you find Scylla and Charybdis in your path.
The other bonus of the Blackfoot can also be its downfall. During summer afternoons shuttling is as easy as sticking out your thumb and jumping into the back of a pickup—which sometimes can be an even riskier proposition than the rapids you just swam. When vehicle traffic flow is low, a bike is the perfect way to complete your shuttle. A word of warning for sweltering weekend afternoons: Don’t go from Whitaker to Johnsrud unless you like sharing the river with hordes of drunken toobers getting fried and restless.
I generally hold no animosity toward anyone I encounter on the river, but once because I was moving faster than them and because I kept stopping to swim, eat or wander in the woods, the four groups and I kept passing each other over and over. By the end of the trip we had run out of pleasantries to exchange.
Also, beware of the Blackfoot below Angevine at very low water conditions. Although there are no intimidating rapids, route-finding can be tricky and you can spend a lot of time getting unstuck.
All the things that make the Blackfoot such a safe, nurturing school for your paddling skills are absent in Alberton Gorge. The water flow is significantly higher, the rocks and waves larger, and once you’re on the river below Alberton you are pretty much committed all the way to Tarkio via several class III and class IV rapids. Here (and like many other canoe routes around the state) I refer you to the venerable Paddling Montana by locals Hank and Carol Fischer (Falcon Press) which gives the quick and dirty on every major floatable river in the state.
Lazy days and nights: For simple cruising and wildlife watching as well as overnight camping, the lower Clark Fork is an excellent choice. Its several islands and pleasantly winding river is free of major rapids and dams below Missoula. Osprey and eagles can be seen, as well as a good assortment of ducks. Near Harper’s Bridge I came as close as I have ever been (or would want to be) to a black bear. There are several islands to camp on and many sandy or cobblestone bars that you can turn into your own private beach. Even into the fall there is usually enough water to keep you afloat and the warm days keep the water mild and the fishing good.
Putting in somewhere below Missoula (Spurgin Road, Kona Ranch Bridge or Harper’s Bridge) and taking out at Huson makes for an excellent day or overnight float with plenty of places to camp. There is a dirt road that runs on the north side of the river all the way to Petty Creek that provides occasional access. The only real downside is passing too close to Smurfit Stone—which in typical fashion not only stinks up Missoula’s airshed but also diverts much of the waterfowl to its private warm water settling ponds during the winter, making duck hunting on the river a frustrating prospect at best. Bill Fanning Fishing low-tech
When you think fishing, you don’t imagine the roar of passing freight trains, the hum of interstate traffic off in the distance, or the rushing spatter of water crashing through a dam’s powerful turbines. No, you think of quiet.
It’s a beautiful summer day at the base of Milltown Dam, and Dick Curran is out fishing with that three-pronged cacophony of noise clanging around him. And yet, with his eyes locked on target, his wrists aimed straight ahead, and his body perfectly still, the 62-year-old Missoula carpenter is a model of concentration. Slight beads of sweat drop down Curran’s face, starting from his close-cropped white hair and landing on his tattered tan fishing vest. Curran remains placid, his eye fixed on the bobber. Minutes go by in a swirl as the water keeps gushing from the dam, the river keeps undulating, and Curran remains unflappably still.
Then…he feels something.
It’s a slight pull, then it gets stronger. He feels it in his arm and there is no time to lose. He cranks the line back with a violent jerk and suddenly a cutthroat trout is up in the air.
“I like fishing because nobody bitches, nobody moans. You just have a good time,” says Curran, who has fished since he was a kid. He likes fishing alone because it’s relaxing and it clears the mind. “You get out here fishing, you’re thinking about fishing.”
Curran is one of the many do-it-yourself fishermen in the Missoula area. He eschews the high-fallutin’ catch-and-release fly-fishing so popular among the A River Runs Through It revivalists in favor of a strictly old-school style practiced at local fishing holes. Once Curran caught a five-pound whitefish up at Rock Creek. He thinks it would have been a state record if he had turned it in. Instead, he did what he usually does: “I cut the heads off, gut them out, then I give them to somebody to eat.”
After decapitating this latest catch, Curran slices it open—“all red meat, see”—and drops it into a purple cooler bag. It’s a new system—he used to just put them in plastic bags and drop them in his pickup truck.
Down the river a short way is Steve Schueller, 40, and his two young sons. Schueller, who lives in Bonner and works at the mill, finished a graveyard shift this morning, woke his sons up early, and took them to the dam to go fishing. Schueller is teaching them the craft young. Some of what he is passing on to the boys he learned from locals like Curran.
“One old timer told me that you’ve got the turbines churning out from the power plant, so you’ve got two currents,” Schueller says. “So you want to hit where the two currents coincide. That’s where your fish are gonna be feeding. You’ve got some still water.”
Curran has walked over to his pickup truck and returns bearing candy. He hands the sweets out to Schueller and his sons Elijah, 6, and Gage, 4. Elijah sits calmly and stares out at the water, waiting for a catch while Gage, whose tennis shoes have green Teletubbies on them, scrambles eagerly over the rocks.
Schueller explains that he grew up fishing in Idaho, and when he moved to Montana three years ago he wanted to keep up the tradition with his sons. “The way we measured fish in Idaho was, you lay your arm out and put the nose of the fish in the crook of your arm,” Schueller says. “If the tail goes past my fingers, that’s a nice fish.”
The Schuellers have been at the dam for three hours already and have caught three fish. They will be taken home to eat or give away to friends (Schueller is not a big fan of trout—he prefers perch from Lake Coeur d’Alene). Schueller walks over to Curran and they swap some strategies and talk about how much little kids love to fish. Then, as if on cue, a yelp comes from Gage’s direction. It’s his first catch of the day: a crawdaddy. Over on the other side of Missoula, locals are gathered at Frenchtown Pond, where the bass are abundant. Kristi Hunt is visiting from Minnesota with her sons. The boys, Tyler, 6, and Andre, 9, are getting an education from their older cousins.
“We came all the way from Minneapolis so our nephews could teach them about the outdoors,” Hunt says.
Hunt’s nephew Chet Cook, 15, lives in Missoula and comes out to Frenchtown Pond regularly. Cook is an aspiring bassmaster.
“I’ve wondered what it’d be like to be a pro fisherman, but it’d be a long way to get to there,” Cook says. His mother, Linda, and his aunt cut in to point out that modesty aside, Cook is something of a fishing prodigy. He is proficient at several different styles, and at home he always has ESPN fishing shows on in the background.
Is it tough for some of the old timers down at the pond to accept Cook as a peer?
“I definitely talk to some people who try to tell me what to do,” Cook says. “I give them a counterexample or another way to do it.”
Mostly they welcome him in as part of the generational cycle of the fishing holes. In fact, Cook learned to fish from his father, and was blessed by fate from the time of his very first catch: a 15 1/2-inch bull trout when he was 3 years old.
“People question me about why I’m so crazy about it,” Cook says. “I just love the challenge.” Dan Laidman