Velma McMeekin died of a heart attack on July 4, 2012, getting ready to go on the river. What else would she be doing? When she was late to the rendezvous, a friend came to the house and found her in the upstairs gear room, lying in the midst of river equipment.
Some thought it would have been even more fitting for her to have died on her boat, until they realized what a massive bummer that would have been for whoever she was with. That she was preparing for a day on the current is no surprise. Rafter ‘V’, as she was known among boaters, gave the full measure of her life’s energy to rivers.
In her 60 years, she floated the Grand Canyon thirty-some times, sometimes back-to-back, and including a ride down with “The Spike” dam release of 1996. She rowed Cataract, Gray’s and Desolation, the Smith, the Yellowstone, the Yampa, Lodore, the Snake, the Salmon, the San Juan many times each. Her typical river calendar might read – Lodore/Split Mountain – two days with friends in Moab – Cataract – back to Bozeman for a week – a permit on the Smith – a month at home – followed by a late season permit on Deso/Gray – after which she might chill for a few weeks before prepping for a winter run down the Grand. Weekend and day trips spiced up the interludes.
When she celebrated her one-year anniversary of breast cancer remission, she did it by putting in below Flaming Gorge and heading towards the Grand, solo. She tailored her job, working part-time for the telephone company and eschewing full-time benefits, to stay flexible enough to take extended river expeditions every year. She took early retirement to float more.
‘V’ had boat-rigging down to rocket science. Every strap, every buckle placement, her bimini shade, her sleeping platform, her shower rig; the 14’ raft, literally her home away from home, oozed precision, efficiency, security, comfort. She had spares of everything imaginable and could get to whatever it was in less than 30 seconds. And she was the one who would serve gin and tonics on ice when the temperature was 100 and fire smoke was thick as LA smog.
Every few weeks, at her home in Bozeman, Montana, someone, often a complete stranger, would call to ask if she wanted to join a Grand Canyon trip. Her expedition value was legendary. Not only did she have the gear – from firepans to shade tarps to the ‘blaster’ stove – she was a fount of river knowledge. She knew every rapid at every water level, where to find fresh water, where the bugs were bad, and where the emergency pocket camps could be found. More important, her generous spirit, her humor, her compassion and competence made her a companion to cherish.
She routinely invited passengers to go along with her, often people who wouldn’t have a chance at river trips of that caliber. For twenty years she held an annual, very popular, Ladies In Paradise summer trip through Paradise Valley of the upper Yellowstone. She hosted ‘permit parties’ to brainstorm trips and send in the appropriate applications.
I was a recipient of her generosity. She invited Marypat and me on a hiking-filled, 30-day winter Grand Canyon trip in 1998, despite the fact that we had three young children. Who were we to resist? We split the trip, Marypat going to Phantom Ranch, then switching with me for the remaining weeks down to Diamond Creek. Those days spent in the vast depths, running rapids, hiking up side canyons, playing cribbage by headlamp, sharing stories, were both an education and a gift – a rich legacy, courtesy of Rafter ‘V’, the same gift she gave to many over the decades.
McMeekin’s most romantic, unequivocal, long-lasting love affair was with the river, but she was wealthy with friends. At the spontaneous, pot-luck gathering held at her house two days after her death, the yard was crammed with ski folks, river folks, handicapped folks, elders, youth, families – lawyers, water-aerobic instructors, ski patrollers, artists, contractors, school administrators, physical therapists, telephone linemen, doctors, politicians. I remember looking around and thinking, absolutely the only thing everyone here has in common is Velma.
Velma’s diverse community is partly explained by her involvement with outfits like Ski for Light, a program devoted to the blind for which she traveled overseas and throughout North America, volunteer work with the handicapped through Eagle Mount in Bozeman, years on the pro patrol at Bridger Bowl, water aerobics cronies, and her commitment to political causes. To each of these endeavors she brought her steady, capable talents and engaging personality.
Every river trip since her death – on the Salmon, the Yellowstone, the Smith, the Boulder – Velma stories have come out. Velma has been toasted at launches and take-outs, around fires, with tears, with humor. It is the same for everyone who knew her, on rivers all over the continent. Vials of her ashes will be spread on the restless waters of western rivers over years to come, in eclectic ceremonial fashion by her eclectic assortment of comrades, scenes full of reverence and love, and in honor of her great, flowing spirit.