Okay, I’m calling it. Paddling season, 2017 has begun. Yes, it’s still winter. Yes, there are days of skiing still to be had. We want more snowpack, we really want more snowpack. If we don’t get more snowpack, come August, it’s going to be bleak. But listen, last weekend, it was time.
On Saturday I post-holed through the snowdrift to free the Mad River solo from the rack, slid it up on top of the venerable Honda Odyssey with 357K on it, loaded my road bike in the back, and headed for a stretch of the E. Gallatin that tends to stay ice free much of the winter. It was in the 50s. Roads were clear. I left the canoe chained to a fencepost at the put-in and drove to the next bridge down, stripped down to a tee-shirt, and rode the shuttle. No wind, plenty warm, some winter grit on the road and snow in the fields, but otherwise it could have been May.
I switched the chain and lock from boat to bike, slid the canoe over the icy bank, took up the favorite paddle, and felt the sweet impulse of current under hull for the first time in months. God, I love that dance, swinging away around the first bend, quick stepping down a dark tongue of water, watching the rocky bottom slide under me. I love the wooden shaft in my hands, the resistance of blade and water, the side-slip away from brushy bank, the tranquil stretches with sun in my face, the Bridger Mountains looming behind me, farm fields stretching away under the mantle of snow. Water dripped off the banks in steady curtains. Geese flocked and wheeled, loud overhead, restless with season. Red-tails screamed from trees, harriers tilted over fields, kingfishers flashed in and out of vegetation, flocks of ducks, wings whistling, hurried away.
It’s a winding, tortuous stretch. Spring creeks join in, the channel bends and twists on itself like the looping coils of snake. It takes some Zen to not anticipate landmarks. I lost hold of clock time, lunch time, the ties to that other life out there. For three hours the river had me again, mid-February in Montana, all alone on the water, me and the restive birds, anticipating spring.
And now, it has me scheming, checking river gauges, conjuring trips. In a couple of weeks we’re hoping to get down the Dirty Devil in Utah. Then, come May, the season begins in earnest. The Owyhee, in early May, water permitting. Our Memorial Day, 3 rivers, tradition. A new stretch of Silver Bow Creek I’ve heard about. Old favorites, new unknowns, every outing with a different personality.
Sure, I love winter, love the austere, white season with ski tracks through it, but there is nothing like that opening channel and the irresistible pull it has on my heart; to inhabit the hull of a favorite boat, to hold a paddle again, to dance. Nothing.