Merge Into One: A SUP Escape on Montana’s Blackfoot River – Part 1

Photos and words by Aaron Teasdale

We heard it before we saw it, the roar of water crashing into rocks and back into itself. My buddy Greg Peters and I had been running rapids for hours, days but as we pulled off the river to scout we realized this was bigger than any rapid we’d run before. There was a possible line on river left, where three-foot standing waves might or might not deliver a standup paddler through a gauntlet of barely submerged boulders. As we considered our options, a shoddily-steered raft came through sideways and nearly flipped. Greg believed he could do better. I believed it would be fun to watch him try.

His entry was perfect, though one of the sharper waves dropped him to his hands. He was up quickly, but on the rapid’s last drop, where the water poured over a band of boulders and dropped two feet into a vortex, I watched him pitch forward and disappear. When he eventually popped up from the froth and grabbed his board, I saw his paddle first—what was left of it. He dog-paddled pathetically to the far shore, climbed out, looked across the river at me and threw his hands up in the air.

We were halfway into a pioneering, three-day micro-expedition on Western Montana’s storied Blackfoot River. Planned months ago, the trip was a culmination of our development as paddleboarders. We had camping gear, food and 40 more boulder-strewn miles to go with one-and-a-half paddles to do it.

Only the day before, I’d stood on my board in the middle of the river, threw my arms in the air and called out a euphoric, “Yes!”

We were finally on the Blackfoot attempting something that had never been done on a standup (and probably any other craft for that matter): paddling the 80-some miles of river from our put-in deep in scarcely populated ranch country to our takeout in Missoula, all in one self-contained run. Work schedules limited us to three days for the trip but in a fit of enthusiasm (and perhaps a beer or two) we decided to go big and paddle nearly all the river’s navigable water. With the demands of land-based life pinning us to the civilized world, we’d barely made it to the water that day. But even though it was already mid-afternoon and there was a chance we might not reach our reserved campsite by dark, we’d made it on the river and were moving downstream.

Greg cheered back—it was awesome. Then we curled around a bend and the west wind hit us like a wall, pushing us upstream, against the river’s current. That was not awesome. I pulled near the low, grass-topped bank and dropped to my knees. Still the wind blew. Our trip, perhaps too ambitious to begin with, was collapsing as soon as it started. I searched for a strategy to save us. Maybe we’d be better off waiting until evening, when the wind was sure to die down?

“Do you know where the moon is right now?” I called out to Greg.

He didn’t, a bad sign. We’d been living inside of walls for so long that we had no idea of the moon’s cycle.

“Let’s try sitting down,” Greg yelled and started paddling canoe-style. I was skeptical, but we ended up making a bit of progress.

“I like this!” I cried. “I like this a lot.”

A critical decision was made at this moment: no matter the obstacles, we weren’t going to quit. With each bend of the living river we shifted positions—sitting, kneeling, standing—as the wind buffeted us from new angles. Shore grass rippled. Ponderosa pines swayed. Three calves and a cow scrambled up a steep bank in panic. This was classic Montana ranching country where golden fields are backed by blue mountains and forever sky.

The wind continued and so did we.

The Blackfoot River is born on the western slope of the Continental Divide and courses for 132 fast and cold miles through the mountains and broad valleys of Western Montana. This is the river of Norman Maclean’s iconic novella A River Runs Through It. Back in Maclean’s day (his family moved to the area in the early 20th century) getting here meant a long drive on a gravel road. At some point that road became Highway 200 and for much of the 20th century, ranchers, loggers and miners bruised the land and the Blackfoot suffered. Fortunately, bruises heal.

Thanks to a unique partnership of the valley’s ranchers, conservationists and state and federal land managers, the Blackfoot today stands as one of the most successful watershed protection and restoration efforts in American history. Forests regrew. Mines were reclaimed. Ranchers restored the banks of tributaries. Today, the river runs pure, its water teeming with trout while grizzly bears roam its banks. Maclean’s river is back.

Yet, until just last year you couldn’t float the entire thing. Its confluence with the Clark Fork River, five miles upstream from the literary and fly-fishing haven of Missoula, was blocked by the remains of a century-old sawmill and the Milltown Dam. The dam was finally removed in 2008, after two decades of debate (apparently some people like dams), and on July 1, 2014, the restored confluence was opened to paddlers for the first time in over a century.

Greg and I live in Missoula. Like half the town’s population, we’re writers. Unlike the other half, we’re not avid fishermen. Sure, we can catch a trout and cook it over a fire, but when we’re on rivers we prefer to stand and paddle them. For a couple seasons we’d been building our skills on the lower Blackfoot near town. With the confluence restored we realized it would be possible to run the length of the river and end in downtown Missoula, within walking distance of Greg’s back door. Once you dream up an idea like that, you have to try it.  Which is how we found ourselves on the upper river, paddling downstream and upwind at the same time.

Merge Into One is a two-part digital feature originally published in SUP magazine’s 2016 Summer Issue. Look out for Part 2 coming next week.

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