Merge Into One: A SUP Escape On Montana’s Blackfoot River – Part 2
Continued from Part 1 of the digital feature from our 2016 Summer Issue.
To our great relief the wind subsided as day slid into evening and the river carried us from open pasture and meadow into a forested landscape riven with cliffs. Then came the boulders, littering the river like an asteroid belt fallen to earth. For over an hour we navigated them, spinning, pulling, sliding past rock after rock. The light faded and a perfectly flat, open area appeared on our left, just visible in the shadows. Our float-in campsite.
The night was clear and we pitched our tent with no rainfly. It was sometime after midnight when we finally lay our backs to the earth, the stars and un-fallen asteroids spraying the cosmos overhead as the river’s melody serenaded us to sleep.
The sun’s rays streaming through cottonwood leaves woke us in the morning. We filtered river water, filled our bottles and cooked hot cereal over a Lilliputian camp stove. The fragrance of the forest filled the air and those couple quiet minutes cupping my steaming mug of tea as the river quietly flowed past, they were an elixir.
After lashing our gear to the boards, we stepped onto the water again. Right away, two things happened: every muscle in my body screamed in protest and the wind once again pushed us backward. We’d only paddled a dozen miles the day before, but the headwind made it feel like three times that. I started gently swinging my paddle and steeled my mind. I’ve been doing backcountry trips on skis, bikes and boots for decades—this should have been no different. But unlike terra firma the river was alive and mercurial, constantly shifting and twisting under our feet. We still had 30 miles to cover, ending in a series of rapids in the latter half that I’d tried not to think about while falling asleep the night before.
But that was hours away and these early miles were calm, so I relaxed and let the morning sun warm my skin. Bald eagles watched from waterside trees. Mother geese with goslings hugged the bank as we slid by. Explosions of cliff swallows filled the air, their spherical mud nests clinging to riverside cliffs and overhanging rock, tiny heads peeking out and watching as we passed.
The world became a study in color and texture. A blue ribbon of water banded by shimmering, silvery willows; rosemary-green cottonwoods, their leaves flashing in the wind; mountains carpeted in pine with terra cotta cliffs gave rise to a porcelain blue and white that stretched across the dome of the sky. And there we were, little ephemeral things floating through it all on our boards.
Then the rapids began. We were still 20 miles from known water, but from here to the confluence we’d been told to expect a parade of class I and II rapids, with a spicy dash of class III. They came in quick succession, giving us only small pauses between bursts of athleticism.
For hours this continued until somewhere along the way the world beyond the river ceased to exist. There was only us and moving water, which is one of a river’s greatest gifts. As Maclean wrote, “I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched … Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us.”
I was brought back to the multitude by Greg’s voice.
“Hey, we’re only eight miles from camp!”
Somehow, through the wind and disintegrating shoulders, we’d paddled 20 miles. Which meant we were nearing Roundup Rapid, the first class II-III tumble of our trip. The rapid that roared. That rapid that would eat Greg’s paddle.
Literally up here without a paddle, Greg was despondent but I was concocting a scheme. As luck would have it, we were only 50 feet from a bridge on Highway 200. And in one of the only places on the Blackfoot with cell service.
Ninety minutes later, Greg’s wife Chrissy pulled up in a Subaru with a spare paddle.
“You just saved our trip!” I said to her as she smiled the smile of a woman who just saved her husband’s ass.
So we had two paddles again, a clear improvement. But it was also 9 p.m. and with only an hour of twilight left there were still four miles of boulder-strewn river between us and our campsite. The race was on.
We dug our paddles and charged into a chain of rapids. Our eyes scanned the water, noting how the waves curled and kicked, picking out the concealed boulders that could grab our fins and send us into darkening water. We’d hoped the flow would be higher and faster this third weekend of June, but an unusually warm spring and thin mountain snowpack meant the Blackfoot’s many pinball boulder fields were now above the surface. Still, coming up on a new rapid and flash-picking lines through wave trains and asteroids was thrilling sport. We spun, stabbed, leaned and ferried across the spirited water to gaps in the rocks, thrusting our weight back and forward through wave trains. Peripherally, I saw Greg pitch over into a rock garden but I had my own pressing matters to attend to.
A minute later, Greg floated up next to me, the river dripping off him, and we watched the light of the sun climb the wooded hills above us.
The air was thick with insects and salmon flies that landed on our bags, legs, shoulders and faces. I covered my mouth as we passed through clouds of them. Hungry trout burst from the water like a jamboree and feasting birds flew from every direction. The sun’s final rays gilded the clouds and from the land came the sound of crickets.
Night began settling over the sky and water, with just enough light to make out the pale reflections of rocks. There was no moon. We knew that now. But just as we started paddling by braille, a minute away from sleeping on the ground somewhere, Greg cried out “Hell yeah!”
There was our flat, sandy camp spot tucked into a riverside stand of juniper and willow. Exhausted but enthusiastic high-fives resounded through the night as we set to work pitching the tent and firing up the stove. We’d spent over twelve hours on the water. Stars and planets took over the sky. For one more night, the sounds of purling water lulled us to sleep.
A symphony of warblers, robins and sandpipers—the river’s alarm—woke us in the morning. I raised my head and there it was, the Blackfoot, murmuring just beyond the willows. We were sleeping along the river, spending our days on the river, drinking the river. Never have I felt so intertwined with a waterway.
Now it was as if after withstanding its pummeling for two days we’d finally proven our worth to the Blackfoot. The wind had quieted. The sun even crested the mountains and sent its first warming rays down just as I pulled on my soggy, chilled wetsuit. Greg and I eagerly jumped on our boards. We had 35 miles to paddle.
We were heading into the river’s “urban” stretch, where throngs of water-lovers from Missoula flock every weekend. But first came a 15-mile-long canyon where the Blackfoot flowed the way it used to, accessible only by dirt road and without a hint of cell service. We quietly slid between cliffs of pre-Cambrian rock, layers of time captured in stone. The river narrowed there, with mountain and cliff rising from the water’s edge. Eagle nests crowned shoreline trees. Beaver lodges tucked into cliff-side nooks.
I portaged Thibodeau Rapid, the river’s final class III, but regretted it as soon as I saw how smoothly Greg passed through. We started seeing more and more people now—fishermen, kayakers, tubers. It was a sunny Sunday and we expected this. Still, nothing makes you feel less badass on a SUP expedition than people sprawled drunkenly in inner tubes, with no paddles nor any ability or interest in steering, mindlessly pin-balling through rock gardens as you, in your helmet and PFD, gear lashed to your board, carefully navigate your way. The tubers are not impressed by your skill and daring.
Nor, for that matter, were the fisherman. Or at least they weren’t letting on. After only seeing one other boat our first day, on day two we passed a dozen and that many again by noon the final day, and no one even commented on our extra gear or seemed interested in what we were up to.
Then a group of bikers in black leather vests and bandanas called out to us from shore, “That looks fun!”
After an observant pause, “Are you guys traveling?” We pulled our paddles from the water and told them about our trip and that we were aiming for Missoula that night. There was a murmur of approval and then an agreeably rowdy cheer. I raised my paddle in solidarity. Forget the too-cool fishermen, these bikers got it. They understood traveling for days at a time with the world opening before you.
Soon we passed a sunbathing couple and the bikini-clad girl said, “Wow.” Another woman called out that we looked like superheroes. That was more like it. But even the adulation of girls in bikinis wasn’t enough to power us forever. By late afternoon muscles I didn’t know I had were in flames and I desperately wanted all of the world’s lip balm. It occurred to me how easy it was to plan these trips with beers in hand and maps spread on the floor.
“Sure, we can just pound out 35 miles on the last day!”
And then you’re there, paddling on the river after God knows how many hours, all muscles begging for mercy with many miles still to go.
We eventually passed power lines. Then Interstate 90—we were back in the world. Another river, the Clark Fork of the Columbia, appeared on our left and the waters merged. The Blackfoot was behind us. We passed the ghost of the Milltown Dam, where no trace of its river-blocking bulk remained.
Today, the Blackfoot gives us a place to immerse ourselves in a wild theater where our world is reduced to water, weather and navigating across the surface of the planet. We come here to remind ourselves we’re still animals, that we have these bodies for a purpose. When we’re old and our lives are nearing their own confluence, these are the days we’ll remember.
An hour later we punched through a final rapid at the mouth of Hellgate Canyon and emerged into the city of Missoula. Greg’s house awaited just another mile downriver, but first we pulled our boards onto a cobbled shore and dragged our battered, robustly scented bodies up to the river-side deck of a white-tablecloth restaurant. As we tilted back pints of impossibly tasty local ale and instantly annihilated a pizza, I looked out at the river flowing past. We’d found what Maclean called “The magic current of the world.” In fact, I could still feel the ground swaying under my feet. But we were no longer on the Blackfoot, it just was a part of us now.
Merge Into One is a two-part digital feature originally published in SUP magazine’s 2016 Summer Issue2016 Summer Issue2016 Summer Issue2016 Summer Issue2016 Summer Issue.
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