On a tranquil early September evening on Flathead Lake, the sun has cast everything in a golden hue and the forested mountains are mirrored in the glassy water when a ship the size of a two-story house plows through it all. Laser beams and trippy music broadcast loudly from the stern as the craft, named the Far West, lumbers past a petroglyph wall, a few islands and several vacation homes.
Occasionally, middle-aged men in luxurious powerboats troll alongside the Far West. They stare, open-mouthed, at the flamboyantly dressed and scantily clad ravers gyrating and cheering and making kissy faces, which prompts the men to punch the gas and tear off like rabbits from a fox.
Frightening the locals isn't the goal of BassBoat, more like an unintended consequence.
The floating party costs $55 per person for the chance to cruise around 20 miles of Flathead Lake and then join an after-party at a marina bar in Lakeside. The whole experience feels like someone hijacked a small Bay Area nightclub and took it on a 9-mile-per-hour joyride around one of the most beautiful lakes in America. It's as surreal as it is fantastic.
This particular September event is the eighth BassBoat voyage in three years.
"It gets better every time and there's no end in sight," says BassBoat creator Trebor Schwada.
At first glance, BassBoat may seem a bit overpriced. But the cost is understandable considering 11 electronic artists traveled from as far away as Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif., to perform on a 65-foot boat in northwestern Montana.
If it's not one of the most unusual musical experiences out there, then it's definitely one of the most unrestricted. Where else can you go to a floating rave without a single security guard in sight?
Far West Captain Art Burch explains that even during Prohibition, people were sneaking off to cruise Flathead to escape "the man" for a little clandestine fun.
"We're following tradition," he says. "Forty-one years ago this boat was built on this lake for parties. I'm a little old for these guys but they've got a good vibe."
Sometimes parties take a bit to warmup and BassBoat is no exception. After all, most raves don't begin until dark and this one kicks off at 5:30 p.m.
Most everyone on board—capacity is 160—hails from one of the small towns dotting the Flathead Valley. Missoulians represented the second largest group, but a handful have made the seven-hour drive all the way from Billings.
Despite the music, most people seem content to spend the first part of the night lining the boat's hull sipping drinks, smoking joints and taking in the scenery. At the bow a guy airbrushes tattoos on people while others flirt and chat about music.
"When I get to California I'm inventing minimal sidestep electronica," Eric "Fill Fee" Weaver says to a couple girls between long drags from a hookah. "I'm not sure what it's going to sound like yet but, seriously, it's going to be the shit."
The whole thing kind of has a The Life Aquatic meets "The Love Boat" meets a "guy with a lot of ecstasy and a drum machine who's willing to share" feel to it. The ship is painted top-to-bottom in pastel white and blue with red life boats hanging above the dance floor. The orange life preservers dotting the walls make excellent photo props. But minus a string of prayer flags and a Chinese lantern, the decorations are absurdly sparse for a rave.
Everything changes about an hour before sunset when Drumspyder steals the show and fills the dance floor. The Oakland-based artist provides a groundwork of traditional music from the Arabian peninsula, which he layers with glitchy synthesizer notes and tops off by pounding away at an electronic drumhead. Standing still is not an option. One guy even hangs from the ceiling with his legs folded in lotus pose and swings wildly among the dancers.
The boat docks around 10:30. The music continues on board, but the dancers are drawn like moths to a flame to The Docks Restaurant's torches and enormous deck.
A small music and light show fills one side of the space while fire poi spinners perform on the other. Trapped at the central fire pit, middle-aged couples not affiliated with BassBoat nervously look on and huddle closer to the fire. They try to be business-as-usual, swirling wine glasses and thumbing iPhones, but the twirlers and electronic music is too much to bear and they eventually leave.
For a while, it feels like partying at some rich relative's house—until midnight when, without explanation, the music and lights just die. Everyone looks around bewildered. If the party is over, the people aren't ready to stop. Some groups start singing old blues and R&B songs a cappella while others dance and beatbox, but it isn't long before everyone gives up and starts trickling out into the night. Despite the abrupt ending, there's a good chance they'll be back next year.