April – Homecoming

April, this final month in a yearly round that has stretched from just south of the Arctic Circle to the Mexican border, from deep wilderness to manicured flows, from nearly a month in length to only a few days, from solo outings to shared adventure . . . this month felt like a home coming. It also feels deeply satisfying, in a time where so little is certain or predictable or normal. Just to get one in feels like an accomplishment.

It was a home coming because it was close to home, the put-in only a two hour drive away. Sawyer drove us down to Twin Bridges, helped us unload, and did our shuttle. It was home coming because I shared it with my partner in life, my partner in boats, Marypat. It was a kind of home coming in that we took in an entire watershed, the Jefferson River, from source to mouth, and ended up 30 miles from our driveway at the confluence of the three great rivers that make up the Missouri. It felt like a return in other ways, too, a return to the way we started out boating together – in open, loaded tandem canoes. We added Beans, our three-legged, eighteen-year-old dog into the mix.

We took our time. The trip is just under 100 miles, but this time of year, the flow is clipping along at 6-7 miles an hour. We took it in five days, surrounded by the pelicans and sandhill cranes, the black-necked stilts and avocets, the soaring eagles and osprey, accompanied by the ceaseless spring clamor of Canada geese. It is a route that flirts with ranch roads, diversion dams, borders highways, goes under the interstate. It is a mark of ‘river time’ that all of that civilized clutter went away, evaporated. If we’d gotten in trouble, no one would have saved us. The people in houses overlooking the river had no connection to our camps in the willows, with flocks of pelicans coasting in to an eddy and urgently herding fish, or with the night sky with a crescent moon and bright planet, with the schussing river gliding past, rolling downhill.

For five days we escaped the surreal world of insane politics, fear of death, economic woes, and no firm sense of the future. We rode the timeless currents, shared the boat together as we have for almost 40 years and thousands of miles now. We pampered our old dog, carried him around camp, let him sleep with us in the tent. We let the sun rise, shared coffee, played cribbage, read books, watched birds. The river bore us along, heeding gravity in its endless, seamless way, allowing us to ride its back.

Homecoming. Cycles. Seasons. A shared life full of current and canoe hulls and campfires, silence and companionship, support and challenge, comfort. This year is through, but it doesn’t feel like closure.

Rivers are rising everywhere, beckoning. The boat waits. What’s so sacred about a year anyway? Maybe we should make it two . . .

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March . . . Solace

It wasn’t for lack of trying.

The logistics for these winter outings have been both fun and daunting. I left my rig and trailer with a cousin in San Diego back in January after my stint on the lower Colorado. I flew home for a few weeks and then back in early February, picked up the unit and drove three days to Texas and the Rio Grande. After the lower canyon interlude along the border, I had almost two weeks to saunter up to Albuquerque, NM. I spent more time in Big Bend country, meeting a friend, taking hikes, soaking up the desert. I drove back roads up to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and spent another couple of days hiking there. Then I moseyed into New Mexico, dawdled through the Bosque del Apache wildlife sanctuary in the company of snow geese, sandhill cranes and migrating ducks, and landed in the driveway of friends where I once again left the rig and flew home. The plan was to return in March with Marypat, join up with the same friends, along with Lee from Arizona, and paddle the Gila River, which had long been on my to-do list.

The day before leaving Albuquerque, on a walk with my friends, we met a couple they knew. I put out my hand, but they refused, offering their elbows instead. Pretty silly, we thought, as we walked on. I flew home not thinking much of the news coming out of China and Italy. In fact, Marypat and I stayed true to the plan until mid-March, a day before our scheduled flight back, when our daughter, Ruby, lobbied for us to avoid the airport and flight exposure. We listened to her. By then a great deal had changed. We took her advice, canceled our tickets, but went to Plan B . . . now we would drive to New Mexico, relax our schedule since no one had anywhere they had to be anymore, float the Gila and make our way back at a reasonable pace, teaming up with both rigs. Perfect, until Kris called from Albuquerque with the news that New Mexico had instigated a 14-day isolation policy for anyone arriving from out of state.

“Who knows how they would enforce that,” she added. “But it seems problematic, and we’re starting to take this social distancing stuff pretty seriously.”

Just like that, the trip hit pause. Then, to make it all moot, Marypat’s 93-year-old mom was taken to the hospital, gravely ill. If we had been driving toward New Mexico, we would have turned around in any case. So there we were. Marypat’s mom was discharged and taken to Marypat’s sister’s house, where she slowly faded, and finally, some six days later, slipped away.

In the face of all this, both globally and personally, my trip-a-month scheme pales in significance. And yet, the impulse to embrace time on the water in remote places remains. It is what sustains me, what refreshes me, what reorders my perspective. At times like these, that looms large.

Several days into the vigil embracing Marypat’s mom, the weather turned to spring. We needed a break. We left Pat in the care of her many other children and spent a day together on the water. We went to a section of the East Gallatin River that is fed by spring creeks and maintains a good flow through the winter months. We set the tandem canoe in the flow, Marypat in the stern, and found the first ‘V’ of current taking us downstream.

For the better part of the day we escaped the shitshow our world has become. We escaped the sad coming of death in the family. We were pulled into the heady grasp of familiar current, the clamor of spring bird noise, the wheeling flocks of ducks overhead, the unmistakable calls of sandhill cranes from the grain fields. We talked, shard impressions, reunited. More important, we let the river take us, felt the spring winds, took in the snowclad mountains that rim the valley, let the world outside of our human drama reassert itself, calm us, pull us along.

Twice more in the month of March I took advantage of warm days to get on the water. I went solo, rode my bike for the shuttles, kept my distance from humanity. I floated lower reaches of the Gallatin drainage, familiar bends of river, to the tune of chattering calls of kingfishers, mink slipping into the river, deer bounding away, hawks overhead, cottonwoods just starting to bud.

It has been, this month, more solace than expedition, these moments on the water, but no less necessary in the face of the uncertainty and fear rising around us in an interlude of disease and political shenanigans.

And then there’s April . . . Stay tuned!

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A Place to Escape the World

For 12 days we disappeared. Poof. No news, no people, no air traffic, no light pollution, no distraction. Big Bend, Texas is big, empty, mysterious, evocative country. The Lower Canyons, downstream of the National Park boundary, are all of that on steroids. Four of us gathered in Terlingua the night before, arriving from long drives, and reshuffled for launch. Our shuttle driver dropped us off below the bridge a La Linda and drove away. We entered the quiet.

Three paddling friends from Montana and Arizona – Doug, Jeff, Lee – joined me on this leg of my year-long string of river trips. We had first planned on paddling the border of the park and gliding through the three major canyons and the open lands between (known locally as the Great Unknown), but the water was too low. Lower down, springs bolster the current and the river is almost always runnable. We shifted plans accordingly, and gave ourselves an ocean of time to do it in (Marypat and I paddled the same section in 5 days a few years back).

The result was a relaxed pace. Some days we went nowhere, but instead, explored canyons, climbed ridges, walked trails, chilled in camp. Other days we eased down six or seven or eight miles, found an enticing spot, and stopped. We played quite a lot of cribbage. We got some rain, some wind, some cool temps, some heat. We ran rapids, lined rough spots, portaged once, passed dead cattle, live cattle, audads (exotic game animals gone wild), bighorn sheep, javalina, turtles, birdlife.

The relaxed pace reinforced the sense of living there rather than passing through driven by a schedule. Just taking what came our way, responding to it, waiting things out or relishing them. There were signs of immigrant crossings – a handline stretched across the river, inner tubes with ropes tied to them, piles of clothing, old camps. That people had made their way to that remote crossing, through inhospitable desert, with the intention of crossing the border and facing yet more miles of inhospitable, unknown, treacherous landscape on the US side, gave the lie to the claim that they are frivolously storming the border to take advantage of Americans. What desperation must fuel such attempts – ill prepared, carrying children, through a landscape harsh beyond words.

Even more than places like the Grand Canyon, where another dimension certainly takes over, but where other people pass by, where bureaucracy nags with its whims, where the hype of the place jockeys against its undeniable awe, the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande truly are a portal into another reality. There, the human-dominated world fades completely and what takes over is the ripple of current, the rise of full moon over a limestone canyon, the call of a red-tailed hawk or canyon wren, the austere, heart-swelling view of oceanic desert from a high point and the timeless, patient turn of planet, carrying our sorry, insignificant asses along for the ride.

Good company, easy pace, no downside. I just wish I’d won more at cribbage!

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Making Our Way

Heading south on the two-lane between Needles, California and Quartzite, Arizona, pulling my little camper trailer and listening to a fading radio station, I see a figure. Someone walking along the edge of the road. Not hitchhiking, carrying nothing, wearing a hoodie. Where the heck are they going, I think. Where did they come from? What’s the backstory? I am miles and miles from anything remotely town-like. Haven’t seen a side road or any sign of a house in a long time. Dry, forbidding desert to the rim of vision – creosote, ocotillo, distant barren mountains. I pass by, glance in the rear view. A man walking, head down, on his way somewhere.

It puts me in mind of the coyote I saw along the upper end of Topock Gorge of the Colorado River the day before. I was paddling the river in a solo canoe, had it to myself. It is a section of water that can be crammed with fishing boats, jet skis, weekend warriors, but not this day. Just me and the faint current and the tortured, jutting, volcanic rock. And there alongside, a coyote quietly padding along shore, paying me no mind, on its way somewhere. Or the beaver I saw earlier, rippling the water near shore under an elevated gas pipeline, doing whatever it is beavers do of a morning. Or the osprey perched on the high span of a highway bridge, studying the slow opaque river far below.

I am no different, beetling along under the winter sun, on my way to the next bit of water that beckons to my canoe hull, angling for places to park for the night. No different, except that I am buffered by my vehicle from the exposure to weather and whims of nature, by a jug of water and cooler full of food and phone close at hand. By the credit card in my back pocket, a piece of plastic loaded with way more information than I care to know, with the power to access fuel and shelter and food and whatever else I might desire. And beyond that, trailing along invisibly like another thing I tow, by money in bank accounts, a safety net of family and friends I can call in a bind, by the blind fortune of my place and time and station of birth.

A couple of days earlier I stopped in the old mining town, now tourist trap, of Oatman, Arizona, along storied Rt. 66, the ‘Mother Road’ as bikers call it. There among the daily drama of main street shoot-outs, rock shops, curio stands crammed with t-shirts and belts and jewelry and worthless trinkets, wild burros roam. They have their way on the streets, wander in and out of stores, get handouts of food, put their heads brazenly into car windows. They reminded me of the homeless stationed at a Wal-Mart, flying their signs – Anything Helps, God Bless. Every night the burros wander back into the desert, wild again, finding their shelter, their water holes, their arid pastures, like the homeless packing up and heading for the highway underpass.

On my way back up Topock Gorge the previous day, paddling to the boat ramp I launched from in the morning, I looked for a likely beach to stop and enjoy a final snack and a cup of tea from my thermos. I headed for a strip of sand, but noticed something dark and out of place. Plastic bag? Pile of garbage? Then it moved, straightened a leg. A man lying there, out of nowhere. I paddled closer. He lifted his head, looked down the length of his outstretched body at me. We studied each other, said nothing. I paddled by, looking for another spot. He put his head back down.

Today I am headed south, toward the border, where the fortunes of birth and circumstance come into sharp, fraught focus, where making ones way through the complicated thicket of life on one side is punctuated by conflict and threat and fear and overwhelming unknowns. Or, on the other, by days sheltered in RV parks, backed by credit and the near certainty that tomorrow will be much like today. All of it determined by an arbitrary line drawn on a political map.

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Spectacular Heartbreak

I suppose you could apply this melancholy then-and-now reaction almost anywhere ‘wild’ these days, but the Colorado River below the Grand Canyon is such a blatant example that, for me, it becomes inescapable. I simply can’t be there without confronting that contrast. I’ll explain.

But first, to call my January outing a river trip strains the definition. Let’s call it a ‘dabbling’. I dabbled in the lower section of this great river. First, a couple of days on Lake Mead, exploring from Temple Bar up into Virgin Canyon. Another couple of days in the Topock Gorge area just downstream of Needles, California. Finally, two more days in the Imperial Dam area, probing the channels of the Wildlife Refuge and the wetlands behind the dam. For all of it I was based out of my T@B trailer, parked in various campsites or on dispersed camping BLM lands. For all of it I was alone, and mostly had these spots to myself. My timing was fortunate, because all of these places can be overrun with powerboats, jet skis and the like. For that I am grateful.

I saw some cool stuff. Landforms like The Temple, on Lake Mead, or the dark, rugged beauty of the volcanic rock in Topock Gorge. I saw the way wildlife has worked around our presence and managed to maintain their existence. A coyote padding along the beach, great blue herons in the shallows, a stooping falcon narrowly missing making a meal of a golden-eye that ditched into the water and escaped. The moon was full around that time, so my nights were illuminated in cool pale wash. I avoided the worst of the winds, and paddled up and downstream with impunity. All nice enough, especially if you don’t allow yourself to think of what once was.

For me, I can’t avoid recalling Aldo Leopold’s essay, Green Lagoons, in Sand County Almanac. It recounts his week-long canoe jaunt through the labyrinth of the Colorado Delta, in Mexico, with his brother. Then, the river supported a massive wetland seamed with bewildering channels where jaguar still hunted, where deer hid in the underbrush, where all manner of birds rustled the waters and beat the air with the rush of their wings. A place you could happily lose yourself for weeks. I think of early explorers like John Wesley Powell who ran the unchecked river where the threat of disaster lurked around every bend and where the untamed power of nature was both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

These days the lower river has been tamed, managed, manicured to our needs. It services the thirst for power and irrigation and recreation for some 25 million people in cities like Las Vegas and Pheonix and Los Angeles, people who could not exist in anything like those numbers without the life support of the Colorado River basin. It is dammed, pooled, diverted, run through turbines, shunted off into canals, spread over fields, sent into pipelines in a system so convoluted and contentious that it beggars the imagination.

On the water, I paddle over a shallows on Lake Mead and I picture what it once might have been, perhaps the lip of a gully that led into the main channel. Or a dropoff into deeper water that was once the edge of a limestone cliff perched high above the river below. I see some birds, coots mostly, and also representatives of herons and hawks and other ducks, but I imagine the throngs of winter migratory waterfowl that once covered the waters and burst away with a thunder of wings at the approach of a canoe. On my paddles I was lucky to see one heron, one bufflehead, one kingfisher, one pintail in addition to the ubiquitous coots. Catching sight of a coyote or beaver was a singular bonus. Coasting through the back channels of wetlands I couldn’t block the knowledge that the wetland was there because of a dam, not because it was a creation of the natural river channel. And the wetland itself was often little more than a set of pools and geometric impoundments feeding the system of canals and pipelines diverting the river. What was once a valley forested by vast cottonwood groves, sustained by regular floods, has become a channel rimmed by exotic and invasive tamarisk, grasses and weeds, punctuated by the odd palm tree.

The country remains evocative, full of dark rock, distant mountain ranges, the unfurling glint of river winding its inexorable way to the sea. The Colorado River will, in the end, reassert itself, do away with the dams, the impoundments, the canals, the bridges and pipelines. Geologically speaking, this invasion is a brief, jarring interlude in the slow ebbing of time, the rise and fall of mountain ranges, the coming and going of oceans, the creeping migration of continents.

But here, today, in my life, in my canoe, feeling the water flowing under my hull, spent and recycled as it is, it is inescapable heartache that overlays everything.

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December – Brotherhood

Not easy to find a multi-day paddling destination near Montana in mid-winter. I knew I’d have to be creative in the winter months, so I thought about places I’d long wanted to explore by boat, and places where I might know someone who could lend some advice. I thought of Florida. Almost immediately, I also thought of my brother, Craig, who is an inveterate birder who might be seduced by Florida’s feathered potential. I also have a friend, Joe Hutto, who lives in Tallahassee and who would be a really valuable asset when it came to cool places to check out.

I was stunned by how easy it was to convince Craig to join up, just as it had been easy to talk Grant into joining me in November. Craig had lots of vacation time accrued at work. We juggled dates around, talked about river candidates, and within days we had a rough plan. Joe said he’d love to escort us around to some of his favorite winter haunts full of wildlife. We settled on the Suwannee River in northern Florida, flowing out of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and winding south and west over 200 miles into the Gulf. The water was low, so we couldn’t start high up, but we identified a likely, mid-river stretch with riverside camps, some freshwater springs, or rises, and potential for solitude.

I flew into Tallahassee near midnight on Dec. 10. Craig met me at the baggage terminal and helped schlep the oversized food barrel and dry bags out to the rental car. We would have a week together, our first one-on-one trip of any consequence in decades. I think the last time we spent concentrated time together without the distraction of other family was back in the 1970s when we drove cross-country in my old Chevy pickup truck and spent some weeks knocking around Utah in the summer.

The 5 river days on the Suwannee would be bracketed on either end by days spent in Joe’s company. That first day Joe took us to Wakulla Springs, the largest freshwater spring in a state full of springs, a huge upwelling of clear water fueling a wild river that has been preserved intact for the better part of a century – alligators, ibis, egrets, anhingas . . . I don’t think Craig took his hands off the binos once!

The 5 days of river time felt exotic, coming as we had from Maine and Montana in mid-winter conditions. Spanish moss hanging in lacy beards from cypress and live oak trees, pocked limestone cliffs lining the banks, pure white beaches of flour-fine sand, dark tannic water through which sandbars appear like amber beds on the river bottom. More to the point, from Craig’s perspective, a landscape full of exotic birds – pileated woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, eastern phoebe, kingfishers, red-headed woodpeckers, various warblers – you get the picture.

We had the river to ourselves, and the campsites were quiet this time of year. Miles of steady paddling down the dark waters with warm sun pouring down, stops on beaches to boil up hot drinks or have lunch, side excursions into the larger ‘rises’ of water. We had layovers with hikes along the Florida Trail (a 1,400 mile trail system that runs from the Everglades in southern Florida to the Alabama border – who knew!). The woods were full of birds, limestone depressions, cypress giants with ‘knees’ poking up all around them, and views over the quiet, sedate riverscape.

More important, for me, it was time together with a brother. Nothing earthshaking happened. And yet, something profound did take place. We shared time for a week. We talked about some difficult things in our pasts. We made food together, played cribbage at night, paddled in synch for hours at a time, shared silence, made jokes, studied maps. Just time, nothing more or less, and the gifts that bloom from it.

On the other end, another day of birding with Joe Hutto, and time at his home with partner Rita Coolidge (yes, that Rita Coolidge). Vermillion flycatcher, sora, ruddy turnstones, avocet – need I say more?

Very early on the morning of the 18th, we checked in again at the Tallahassee airport and made our way home via Charlotte and Philadelphia and Bangor and Dallas. December is checked off – another unfurling piece of water full of mystery and surprise, full of potential for more, and a reunion with a person I have known all my life, another unfurling pathway full of mystery and surprise and potential for more.

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November in the Books

When I started this river-trip-a-month theme last May, I assumed that many of my sojourns would be solo ones. Marypat is still working, many of my friends have obligations that tie them down. I just didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to have company. Now, seven months in, I’ve only managed one solo jaunt, my September agate fest on the lower Yellowstone River, and it looks like I may only have one more on the horizon.

Months ago I vaguely lined my sights on the San Juan River in southern Utah as a November candidate. I knew it could as easily feel like winter as fall, by that time, but I knew people ran the river almost year round and that I’d be able to at least get down it, even if it had potential to be uncomfortable. I thought of my friend, Grant.

In a whimsical text I asked if he’d have any interest in joining me. He said sure, but he couldn’t commit due to some life issues he had to take care of. We left it at that. Then, late in October, after our Green River week, I nudged him again. “I’m in,” he said.

I’ve known Grant for 40 years. We worked together in the Outdoor Ed. Dept. at Northland College. He was my best man. In our time together in Wisconsin, we did a lot of paddling together, in all manner of craft – traditional canoe, Montreal canoe, C-2 . . . We had our noble, memorable moments, and some ignoble ones, but we were a paddling team with rhythm and history together. To share a boat hull again would be a profound benefit of his company.

In early November he flew into Bozeman. We spent a long day in the car driving to the put-in at Sand Island near Bluff, Utah. On November 11th, after taking care of the shuttle details and reorganizing gear, we launched in a cool, clear blue sky day. No one around.

For the next week we meandered down the bends of this storied tributary of the Colorado, through canyons 2,500′ deep, navigating rapids and portages, dealing with low water and frosty nights, seeing only one other person. We had a remarkably stable week of weather – 60 degree days and nights around freezing, very little wind. We had low water that challenged our route-finding abilities, especially at the end, where Lake Powell has backed up sediment miles into the river channel and the flow braids through shallow sand bars that are really hard to read.

Long nights, a rest day with a hike up Honaker Trail, a portage of Government Rapid, where the low river made the rock garden rapid unrunnable, many sweet runs through minor rapids that rekindled our paddling partnership and stand out, for me, as the highlight of the journey. And our last night, camped at the mouth of Steer Gulch, just 5 miles from the end, the one and only song of the canyon wren. Again, at dawn, as we were packing for our final morning, that blessing of descending desert song – joyful and robust.

A week with a friend, on an outstanding piece of river, away from the hubbub and politicking that distracts, embedded deep in silence, and once again making a boat sing through miles of green current.

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Retirement Theme

Ah, the reluctant blogger returns. It has been a while, and things have been happening, so that partly explains my absence.

Last May I gave notice that I wouldn’t be returning to teach at Montana State University. It felt like a big step, first to edge into retirement (at least partial) and second to lose teaching, which has been a fulfilling role. I knew when I pulled the plug that I’d miss that. But you have to make the leap at some point, and I’d rather do it when I’m healthy enough to make something of it. So the leap has been made, with some measure of trepidation.

At some point this past summer it occurred to me that I’d planned river trips every month from May through August. It just happened that way, but I started wondering about making a monthly river journey the theme for this first year of semi-retirement. So far I’m making good (6 months in), and it’s already quite a memorable medley. Here’s the lineup so far, and some hints for what’s ahead.

May: My annual stitching together of the entire East Gallatin River, from source to confluence – a tradition that goes back some 35 years now. In addition, the continuation of the 3 Rivers tradition over Memorial Day, during which a gaggle of friends take on three rivers over three days. This year’s highlight was the lower section of Grasshopper Creek, from Bannack State Park to the Beaverhead River, a true leap into the unknown, and quite memorable for that.

June: On the way to a family reunion in Pt. Townsend, Washington, we floated the Grande Ronde River in NE Oregon with friends. I’d done the river before, but Marypat never had, and we had a sweet week all the way to the Snake, punctuated with flashes of Bullock’s oriole along the way.

July: A friend got lucky and scored a permit on the Main Salmon in Idaho. It’s the kind of invitation you don’t turn down, so we joined onto a group of 9 to run the rapid-filled stretch of high desert river for a week in mid month.

August: Finally, we returned to the far north on an expedition down the Mountain River, a degree or two south of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. A spectacular 3 weeks through massive wilderness, stunning canyons, myriad wildlife, fun whitewater and a quadrant of northern water wilderness we’d never explored before. All the better for the fact that we were joined by Ruby, Sawyer and their friends.

September: I set off on a solo jaunt to the lower Yellowstone River in Montana to make good on my long-stated goal of drifting down sections of the river with the sole purpose of collecting pretty rocks (agates and petrified wood). It was also an opportunity to dive into the vagabond life, living and camping out of our trailer. Returned with a box of rocks it will take a year to tumble!

October: A glorious fall week spent floating the Desolation and Gray Canyon section of the Green River in Utah with a group of six good friends. Brilliant cottonwoods, pleasant weather, and a series of life stories shared around evening fires.

So there, six months in the books and six more to come. Here’s what I’m thinking:

November: A week on the San Juan River in southern Utah with my good friend and best man, Grant Herman. Will we get another dose of fall beauty or a taste of winter??

December: I’m meeting my brother, Craig, for a week on the water in northern Florida, probably paddling the Suwannee River.

January: Still a bit uncertain, but I’m leaning toward time spent dabbling in the waters of the lower Colorado in southern Nevada/Arizona.

February: 10 days on the Rio Grande in Big Bend, Texas with friends, concentrating on the three main canyons between Lajitas and Rio Grande Village.

March: A little unclear, but I’m looking hard at the upper Gila River in New Mexico, with hopes that Marypat can join up for that one.

April: Hard to say, from here, but by then, water is opening up again, and rising . . . lots of options.

And that makes a year of river trips. Who knows, maybe I’ll just keep the string going.

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Over the winter months we rise in the dim dawn and sit together in the living room. No lights, across from each other, coffee in hand. Often we don’t talk. We each greet the day in our fashion, let the gray light creep into the sky. Feel the house around us, seventy years old, a stolid little block of a structure which, over the decades, we have transformed, bit by bit, to our liking. Where all three of our kids were born and grew into who they have become. Surrounded by our pictures and art, our books and maps, our precious rocks and artifacts, the urns with ashes of our parents. Sometimes we discuss the day, or our concerns and discoveries, more often we let the early silence be.

In the summer, once the snow melts and the grass greens and the flowers burst out with color. When the lilacs send their fragrance into the air. When western tanager and lazuli bunting visit, we are drawn outside in the early brightness. We sit in our chosen spots – a chair at the top of the back steps under the lilac branches, or a seat by the fire ring under the old green ash, or on a decrepit old metal lawn chair set hidden in the aspen grove we planted nearly 30 years ago. There, back near the bowling alley parking lot, two blocks from the cacophony of Main Street, we are surrounded and buffered. The leaves rustle in the first breezes of the day. The walkway we made from scavenged railroad plates, now covered by a soft carpet of creeping thyme, the bird bath Sawyer made in a ceramics class, the stone arch adorned with agates and petrified wood. Where chickadees hop in the branches, bight and attentive.

There, with the hum of a highway in the distance, an airplane heading for the airport overhead, the thunder of a passing train half a mile away, with the press of growth and money and greed and distraction more insistent every season; we sit, coffee in hand, and let the peace of this rectangle of space embrace us – its history, its hard work, its stubborn will to flourish, its memories.

We talk, often, of how to move on, whether to stay, bemoan the changes happening inexorably around us. More and more it feels like a defensive space, a place to retreat to from what our town is becoming. And yet, every morning, winter and summer, greeting each day, it is sanctuary and peace and the satisfaction of our lives here, year on year, all that has happened. Our place.

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Grasshopper Creek

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.

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