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Kintla II, named for nearby Kintla Lake in Glacier, is the only whitewater on this reach of river worth paying much attention to, and I say that as an only moderately capable paddler who's canoed bigger water, but never lost his adrenal fear of even minor turbulence. Every year I'm sure I'll hit it wrong and get blown out of the boat, and every year, so far, I've run it upright and washed out with no more carnage than a hull third-full of cold North Fork sloshing around my knees. You want to enter the rapid center and draw toward the right to skirt a big rock above an even bigger hole. This trip I was too fogged and weak to pull into the right line, so I gave up and let the current slip me around the rock to the left. Apparently you can do it that way too. At a certain point, there's not much profit in working against the river.
A guy coming down after us in a canoe, shirtless and pfd-free, dog in bow, let himself get sucked over the rock and blown out in the hole, and swam it all to shore without the slightest hint of anything having gone wrong. I envied his elan, but shivering on shore I was awfully glad not to be in that water.
It seems churlish to whine, but the highly localized black cloud following my head down the river felt especially cruel, given that the prime appeal of a North Fork trip for me has always been clarity, the mental refresh button of it. As someone born and acculturated to Texas, I don't think I'll ever familiarize myself with the feeling of paddling clear, cold water under close, hot sun in sight of snow-capped mountains, and I don't think I'll ever get tired of it.
The North Fork isn't literally the top of the world—all rivers, by definition, occupy low spots, and the elevation at Polebridge is only a few hundred feet higher than Missoula's—but to someone raised in southern climes, where all waters eventually trickle down into the brown Gulf of Mexico, even the illusion of altitude is powerful. Our trip starts at the top of the map, for one thing, and the North Fork flows along an intuitively satisfying north-to-south axis, unlike, say, the Clark Fork or Bitterroot, which stubbornly go the wrong way. The air feels thin up there, like it hasn't yet taken on the weights of the world below, and the skeleton forests that periodically dominate the horizon, remnants of fire, charred trunks bare as telephone poles, always look to me like a dioramic tableau from another, older planet.
This is where I come to clear my head, not lose it. It's where I come to reconnect with myself and with friends like Matt and Jori, who introduced me to this river, and who are now being extraordinarily patient with my mental absence and solicitous of my health. They offer to abort the trip with me at the Ford Landing point, but I have the minimal presence of mind to realize that if we do that, I'll just be sick as a dog in the back seat of a car for the next four hours, and then sick as a dog on a borrowed Missoula couch. If I've got to be sick as a dog, and apparently I do, I might as well do it out in the sun, on the water, letting gravity spin me home at its own pace.
It does, and then we're there. When we pull out of the water in the shadow of the first and last bridge of our trip, the way into Glacier, just down the dirt road from Polebridge, I feel almost human again. I feel the same way I always feel when I see that bridge come around the bend: like the trip is over too soon, like I wish it wouldn't end. Even fogged and spent, I already know it's not the crappy night in a tent that I'll remember so much as another couple of blissful days on the water. Already I'm remembering that there are ultimately no bad days on the North Fork. I'll be sick for another week, snotty, weak and hoarse, but I can't see that from this sluicing rock bar where we're stowing our gear for the drive home. I'm already too busy looking forward to next time.