Easter Sunday. Time to go to church. It is below freezing at dawn, clear and cold. 24 hours ago there was a couple inches of fresh snow on the ground. We wait for mid-morning warmth, and arrive at the bank of the East Gallatin, next to the golf course, and just upstream from Bozeman’s wastewater treatment plant, while temperatures inch into the 40s. Everything glistens green. The creek runs brown with snowmelt, coursing along at roughly 300 cfs, a pretty ideal level.
A sandhill crane, solitary, circles overhead, calling that unmistakable call, that characteristic quick uptake of wings. A benediction. Beans comes along, our three-legged company. He enjoys a comfortable foam bed just behind the bow seat. I’m in shorts and a flannel shirt, optimistic. MP wears long pants and a windshirt, realistic. Under the bridge, slinging around the first turn, the service begins. Immediately it is a sermon of rippling current, overhanging shrubs, goose call, chilly upriver breeze. Town is gone. Our lives there, on hold. Held in the immediacy of every bend and every new challenge charging toward us.
There’s a guy hiding eggs for a hunt along the bank. He stands up at the sight of us, startled. He waves. No one paddles here. I have never seen another boater, unless I was with them. I know it is occasionally done, but this upper stretch, full of unpredictability and seasonal change, is off the radar.
The strategy is pretty straightforward. Cling to the insides of bends, skirt the grasp of eddies and avoid being swung wide by the current into the inevitable overhanging shrubbery, log jams, old car carcasses, whatever may be on the far edge of channel where the current is strongest. Be ready to pull over and stop, savor the respite of quieter current, never assume.
The world is popping with spring. Pairs of red-tails circle above, geese sit on feather-lined nests, white pelicans rise in the sky until they are faint dazzling flakes in the blue depths. Deer bound away, mallard pairs rise out of the flow, a kingfisher calls from an overhanging branch. The trees are ready to burst forth. The grass is impossibly green, shiny with water. The river muscles us along, turning, channeling, pushing against banks, piling over obstacles. We get our dance going, this beat we have found together, barely talking.
Because I have done this river so many times, I have come to expect obstacles at certain spots. I know where the diversion structure is, one-third of the way along, with its tongue of water to dive down. In the mental map I keep, I catalog the downed trees, the problematic corners, the braided sections prone to new log jams. There are surprises, always.
This time, at the diversion structure the usual right-of-center tongue has new rocks in it. We bump over and see the new channel, just left-of-center. Good to know for next time. We go more than halfway without once having to get out of the boat and pull around anything. I start thinking that we might get lucky, that this might be one of those rare clean runs where the river has opened all the old jams, or is high enough to sneak past the blockages that would stop us at lower flows.
God it is beautiful – the spring-high ripple of heady current, the sharp breeze, the blue sky, the snowclad mountains, the birds rising everywhere, full of their urgency. Easter is the most stubbornly pagan of all the holidays Christianity has co-opted. Sure, we could go to some church, sit in hard wooden pews in darkened rows, be brow-beaten with our sins. Or be here. Which sounds more joyous?
We hurry past a horse paddock where a guy is bent over, picking rock. He sees us, gives us that, would-you-look-at-that look, guffaws when I ask him if this is the way to St. Louis. I can tell he wants nothing more, just then, to be doing what we are doing. He recedes, waving, upstream and we slip around the next bend.
Just when I think we might get away with an unmarred run, we hear a watery roar downstream, and see a seamless break in the river horizon. A beaver dam complex blocks the entire channel. Some overflow sluices off, river right. Maybe there, Marypat points with her paddle, and we push into some willows, hoping to get down a bypass, but get stopped. MP stands, looks around. There’s a better channel just downstream, she says, craning to find the opening. We back out, inch down toward the brink, find a sliver of river breaking right, head into it. It takes us, a serpentine, fast ride over a couple of minor dams, around a corner, back into the current. That was fun! Marypat crows.
And there is more ‘fun’ to come in this Sunday service. A tree we have to pull around on a sharp corner. Channels strewn with logs, narrow slots to line up, uncertain channels to probe. Then, on a sharp right, the worst sort of downfall – a full cottonwood sprawls across the river where the current is fast, with no eddy, and we have no choice but to spin upstream, angle hard into shore, where Marypat makes an awkward leap for land, grabbing the boat, nearly capsizing us. While I bail, MP nurses a bruised thigh. Beans hobbles out over the gunwale. We scout a route around, drag the boat below the deadfall, peer downstream for the next problem.
It is heads-up, challenging, nerve-wracking the rest of the way. Channels to choose on the fly, logs to miss, overhanging debris to avoid. We watch for the treachery of fences, which can crop up unexpectedly. There are a final set of turns, more dancing through tight channels, and just upstream of the take-out, a log stretching 2/3s across the river.
For this day, in the hot focus of river channel, the moments of bliss and danger, the teamwork, the explosion of season, this church, whatever else burdens us is chased off. We hug each other next to the car, swing the heavy, faithful canoe onto the rooftop, strap it down, load Beans up, and look downstream into the next stretch of beautiful, fraught, unappreciated wild. Next week’s sermon?