Must Be Winter in Montana

This past Friday I decided to go paddling. We hadn’t seen snow in a couple of weeks, the temps were topping out in the high 30s and low 40s.Skiing around town was crusty and thin. I invited a friend I’d long wanted to paddle with. We’ve known each other for years through various tangents. He’s a kindred spirit of northern paddling adventures. We have mutual friends. And, because he works for Yellowstone National Park, he’s out of work due to the tragic, pathetic government shutdown that is daily harming millions of Americans because of a non-existent crisis.

We met in my driveway after breakfast. I’d been out pouring boiling water over the bow and stern lines of the canoe to get them unfrozen from the ground. We wore winter boots, paddling mitts, long underwear. It was sunny and cold. On the way to our put-in on a stretch of the East Gallatin River that is fed by spring creeks and tends to stay ice free with enough water to paddle all winter, we drove under the sharp gaze of a majestic golden eagle, its tawny head glistening in the winter sun. A good omen.

By mid-morning we were afloat, getting used to each other’s paddling styles, feeling that play of boat hull and swinging current and paddle stroke like the dance it always is. Because we’d never paddled together before, and had only talked sporadically over the years, we chatted most of the time. Not about the shutdown which was hurting his family and disrupting his work, with ripple effects that ranged from completing wildlife studies to whether he would have to draw from his retirement savings to pay bills. No. We talked about northern rivers, about mutual friends, about books we loved, and the local geography that kept revealing new perspectives on the Bridger Range, the Hyalites, the Tobacco Roots, as we swung around corner after corner.

The river did its magic, the way it accelerated around an oxbow curve, or funneled into a deep slick over a shallows. Rough-legged hawks coasted overhead, ducks jumped from the water ahead of us, white-tail flashed through the willows, the sky bathed us in winter light. “I’m a big advocate of putting your head in the sand once in a while,” he said. “You disappear from society, dive into an adventure and forget the bullshit.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever even thought about Montana paddling in January,” he laughed, “but this is sweet.”

“Yeah, and there’s the next stretch downstream to think about if the weather stays warm,” I said when we shook hands at the end.

Then, the very next day, early Saturday morning, I met friends to go ski in Yellowstone Park, along the upper reaches of the Gallatin River.

At the Bighorn trailhead, where we snapped into ski bindings, it was -4 degrees. The day was dazzling, almost blinding. The kind of day you could sunburn the bottom of your nose from the reflected glare. The carpet of snow sparkled with diamonds of crystalline light. We struck up the broad, open valley. The river carved its slow way down from its source below Bighorn Pass. The trail had been broken some five miles in. We warmed up, shed layers, the sun warmed the day, the snow settled around us, snowshoe hare tracks bounded here and there, open patches of river gurgled through the vise of winter. Where the broken trail petered out, where deep, sugary snow stopped us, there were bison trails and beds, deep tunnels of heroic effort and brute survival.

Back at the cars, with the sun going behind the ridge and the temperature plummeting, we hugged, chatted about another nearby trail we might ski later in the week.

“Maybe,” I said, “but I could be paddling that day. Let’s see how it goes.”

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