Five years now this tradition of Memorial Day paddling has gone on. Every year, we pick three rivers, many of them only floatable for a brief interlude each summer, and a group of us go paddle them, camping between. Fifteen stretches of water now, from Belt Creek to Silverbow Creek. Years of sunshine and rain, logjam and rapid, low water and high, surprises and revelations. Most of all a tradition that highlights good companionship, aging boaters, and the celebration of spring – all of it without anyone micro-managing any of it. Show up, be prepared, take part in whatever suits you, and have fun.
The most memorable segments of water have tended to be the ones we know least about – places like the St. Regis River, over by the Idaho border, which we knew from what you can glimpse from the interstate highway at 70 mph, or Silverbow Creek, which we had heard had been done, but which offered nothing in the way of specifics.
This year it was Grassbopper Creek that had marquee billing in the hit parade of unknown flows. My brother-in-law, Andrew, who lives in nearby Dillon, Montana, mentioned the stream once this winter when we were visiting for a ski day. “What about Grasshopper Creek?” he asked, innocently. What about it? Later, in early April, I drove over to do a little scouting. I pulled into Bannack State Park to have a look. Sweet, purling stream, winding down between greening banks, with enough water to float a boat, a canyon looming downstream. I talked to a maintenance guy at the park about it. He shrugged. “Could be pretty,” he said. “There’s a nice canyon or two. Nope, never heard of anyone floating it.”
I went down to the take-out, a fishing access site just upstream of the Grasshopper’s confluence with the Beaverhead River. There was a private road leading to the actual Grasshopper Creek, but it was blocked off and looked ominously private, not to mention clogged by a thorny thicket of brush to whack through even if you could take out. Still, the creek was there, flowing into the larger river with enough water for a boat. I could peer upstream into green valleys, see a bend or two. Looked promising, at the start and finish. Problem was, absolutely no information about what lay between. No doubt there would be a crux or two, some obstacles, fences, ranch bridges, maybe a drop or bouldery constriction, even a falls. Hard to say. Still, intriguing, the unknown of it, and it looked pretty. More than anything, the lure of that frontier, a bit of Montana country no one seemed to know anything about, that we might float through and see firsthand.
Then it was Sunday morning, May 26, about 10 a.m. The gaggle of us lined up on the bank of the creek next to the campground with our blue flotilla of inflatable canoes. Cool weather, with thunderstorms predicted. My orientation briefing was brief indeed, and pretty much amounted to “we have no idea what the fuck we’re getting into.” We knew the beginning and the end. We knew we would have to slog a couple hundred yards up the Beaverhead from the confluence. We knew there were a couple of narrow canyons. We knew that, as the crow flies, the section was 11 miles long. We knew that there were a great many bends making it longer than that. And we knew there was no time like the present.
A few onlookers watched us slide through the park, under a couple of foot bridges, curious, probably thinking we knew what we were doing. In fact, we had no more clue of what was coming than John Wesley Powell did around every corner of the Grand Canyon. Then the park was in the rearview and the first canyon rose above the tight coil of river. Within the first 30 minutes we were in and out of the boats at boulder gardens, avoiding overhanging brush, and not avoiding it. There were traffic jams of boats clogging at impasses, bow and stern conversations at high volume, and a fair amount of giggling from the younger set. Past the first couple of miles of tight valley, the river flattened out, became serpentine. At every corner boats had to resist the brushy outside bends. Some were better at this than others. Even in slow current, there was no down time to lie back and relax. You could barely clean your glasses without getting in trouble.
I don’t remember the sequence, but there was a dead cow tangled in fencing and an impalement on a rusty nail, a couple of funky low bridges at ranch roads we had to portage around, a barbed wire fence or two, a couple of wobbly moose calves with moms getting across the flow. There were thunderstorms, some hard, with close stabs of lightning. Some sunny interludes which allowed for a lunch stop and general regrouping. There was one capsize in a thicket of vegetation, some shredded clothing, three or four lost hats, at least one cauliflower ear.
After lunch, the second canyon stretch, this one with looming cliffs and beautiful corners of rock, followed by another hairball bit of riffly water with more rocks than water and corners that we had to take on faith. Than another doldrum section of winding, slow, but nonetheless challenging corners. As someone said, “this river has Class I – II whitewater, but Class IV – V vegetation!” Just as we were wondering how long the slow bends would continue, the river canted downhill again, entered a narrows of willows, log jams, boulders. Everyone woke up, every boat for itself, navigating logs, riffles, willows, fast corners, and the uncertainty of what was coming. By now it was maybe 6 pm. We knew we had a ways to go. We were tired and whipped. And we knew that the worst could still be ahead.
When we finally pulled under the private bridge to the Beaverhead, the evening light was slanting across the valley. We’d been 9 1/2 hours on the water, the eleven miles had morphed into better than 22, and we still had the upriver slog to get to the cars.
Finally, at the take-out, an explosion of stories from the day, the relief of being done, having survived. Some tokes of rum. Hugs and handshakes. Laughter. And the new knowledge of this little quadrant of Montana, a square of map with a squiggle through it, that hardly anyone knows, but that we all now share indelible memories steeped in hilarity, scramble, near-miss, exhilaration. This secret spot, like so many other backwater bits of landscape in a place like Montana, where water flows, where moose browse, where what’s around the corner has the magic and heat of mystery and danger.