Three Days . . . Three Rivers

Traditions are a good thing. They keep me up to speed, set a deadline, establish an expectation. With traditions, it’s hard to waffle. This one began with a fantasy. Actually, fantasy might be a little strong, because it might really happen one of these years. Call it a whim. Years ago, I thought about how sweet it would be to spend the entire month of May traveling around Montana, camping here and there, and running all those ephemeral spring rivers. Rivers like the Sun, the Dearborn, the Sheilds, the Clark’s Fk of the Yellowstone, the Boulder, the Belt . . . On any given year I pick off a couple of these, in addition to my favorite local spring runs, but what if I just stayed out all month, meandering from put-in to put-in, figuring out shuttles, checking off a couple dozen of those seasonal flows through little-visited chunks of Montana terrain?

Turns out it’s hard to take a month, or to get anyone else to take a month to do that. A couple of years ago I put out a call, suggesting a sampler of the fantasy – using the Memorial Day holiday weekend, picking three rivers to run, and camping out between. It seemed to strike a chord. Quite a slug of friends thought that sounded like a good idea and joined up. Now we’ve done the third annual and are up to as many as nine boats at a time on these river days. More people keep asking if they can join up. We’ve had people show up from as far off as Arizona. Kids latch on for a day or two if they’re around. People come for one day, the whole time. Some float every river, other’s pick and choose depending on weather and health and how the juju feels that day. Everyone is self-sufficient, everyone is competent. The unstated motto is something like – take care of your own shit, show up, have fun.

Now we have a string going, nine so far, a list that includes a number of firsts – the West Fk of the Bitterroot, for example, the St. Regis, and little Silver Bow Creek, all this year, all new, all unique and challenging and worth returning to. Runs have taken place in drenching downpours and hot sun. There have been log jams, dumps, unexpected diversion dams, adventures with barbed wire, a few bushwhacks, some shit-show scrambles for shore, a culvert or two. There has been comraderie, conversation around campfires, car caravans through downtown Missoula in search of tacos, some lovely campsites and a couple not so lovely.

The important thing is that every year the focus is on new water, fun paddling, unexpected beauty, goofy adventure, enough hairball challenge to keep everyone on their toes and that yearly escape on jumpy water when everything is lush and green and popping with spring. I’m left with the image of glancing back on a straight stretch of the St. Regis, over near Idaho, and seeing a long string of blue SOAR inflatables parading downstream. Or of the sudden, blinding downpour in the Sluice Boxes of Belt Creek. Or of the cow-pie riddled camp near Bean Lake on the upper Dearborn. Or of Lee t-boning the log at a railroad bridge 60 seconds into the St. Regis float, having to accomplish a hairy self-rescue, while the rest of us scrambled for shore to save ourselves. Or of the brilliant day on the upper Sun, with the rampart of mountains breaking over us like a huge, rock wave, and the river stepping down through the layers of sediment in that remarkable canyon. Or of that stellar camp along the upper Blackfoot, shaded by ponderosa pine and full of friends putting together a ‘stone soup’ dinner potluck.

And it’s only been three years. By the time I get a month free, I will have done all of them. But then, I could use the month to revisit the top 30. Yeah, tradition.

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