Watershed: A Paddler’s Retirement Plan in the Year of the Plague


Covid-19 snuck up on me. It snuck up on everyone.

I had the excuse of wilderness immersion for much of January and February, but even when I was home, the news of the virus was background noise, far away and unthreatening. I read about an outbreak in China, then throughout Asia, eventually in Europe. For months it had loitered on the back pages of the newspaper. Even when it reached America, it was here and there, single cases, outbreaks in retirement homes, distant cities.

And it was leavened by our Denier-in-Chief at the White House, who kept degrading information, downplaying fears, calling it a hoax, a seasonal interlude, a ploy by Democrats, and his message was amplified by his spineless enabling Republicans and by the right wing media. Nothing to worry about, folks. Go on about your business. Pay no attention to the “Wuhan Flu”.

There were no precautions in place when I boarded the plane for home in Albuquerque, well into February. Back home, there were those who were starting to take it seriously. Schools were making contingency plans to go online, You Tube videos sprouted up – people giving lessons on how to wipe down groceries. I went to the grocery store one afternoon late in the month and it was nuts. The place was jammed with people hoarding supplies. Inexplicably, there was no toilet paper. Really people, toilet paper, that’s your driving fear??

When I took the car in for some maintenance work, our mechanic shook his head. “This country has gone completely insane,” he said.

My brother-in-law, himself elderly and handicapped, pooh-poohed the fear, kept on hugging people, ranted about masks and hand sanitizer. “Yeah, you better hope you’re right, because if you’re wrong, you’re the one with the biggest target around here,” I said.

To be honest, none of us wanted to take it seriously, change our habits, lock down the economy, stop going to school and work, stay home. But weeks passed. The news out of New York and Seattle was otherworldly, unbelievable. Hospitals with no beds. Morgues overwhelmed. Refrigerator trucks to cope with corpses piling up. Mass graves. Cases began to crop up closer to home. A man in nearby Livingston died of the virus – a vigorous man of my age. Our kids took it more seriously than we did. Ruby insisted on going grocery shopping for us. We started carrying hand sanitizer in the car, washing hands like busy doctors, keeping our distance, wearing masks. Bumping elbows was a thing. Accounts of overcrowded hospitals, people struggling to breathe, families unable to attend their dying relatives haunted the airwaves.

Still, plans for the Gila remained on the calendar. What safer place than on the river, outdoors, with a small group of friends who have been playing it safe? In early March we exchanged emails, kept planning, reassuring each other. The most dangerous step would be our flight back to Albuquerque, dealing with crowds and packed airplanes, but we talked about masks, doing laundry once we arrived, taking all the precautions. But concerns kept flaring. Lee’s partner has compromising health issues. Kris was in touch with medical friends who warned her of the dangers. Businesses everywhere shut down. Our county in Montana had the highest Covid-19 stats in the state. My kids lost jobs, went on unemployment, struggled with rent payments.

Right up to the day of our flight, we were committed. That day, Marypat went for an early morning walk with Ruby, who argued against the plan. “It’s not something you have to do, Mom,” she stressed. “Think about other options.” When they came back, they confronted me with their worries. When your kid is reprimanding you for being foolish, maybe it’s worth listening.

Suddenly, we pulled the plug. I drove to the airport and personally cancelled the flight. I was not alone. Everyone was in flux. The airport seemed eerily empty. The clerk at the desk took care of the cancellations routinely and gave us a voucher for a future flight.

Plan B occurred to me as I returned home. Why not drive? That way we could stay safe, self-contained, on our own schedule. Dates no longer really mattered. No one was working or going to school. Who cared if it took a few days longer? I felt liberated by it, actually. We could drive down and then caravan back home with both rigs at the end of it.

I called Kris, talked to Lee. They were still marginally on, but leery. I kept pushing the plan, but then New Mexico ordered a quarantine for out-of-state visitors. “I don’t know how they would enforce that,” said Kris, “but it’s something to think about.” I imagined checkpoints at the borders. I imagined staying in a motel room for two weeks. I clung to the option, but felt it slipping away.

Early the next morning, still packing up as if we might drive south, the phone rang. Marypat’s 93-year-old mother was being rushed by ambulance from her retirement home to the emergency room. She’d perhaps suffered a stroke. Nothing was clear, but what was clear was that fate had spoken. The trip was off.

Marypat sped to the hospital to meet the ambulance and I called Kris and Lee. “Even if we had started to drive, we would be turning around right now,” I said. Both of them sounded relieved. No Gila trip. Better to cloister at home, stay safe in the face of this dire and mysterious plague. My March water destination suddenly became a minor consideration in the face of all this. Everything felt very much in the wind, everything from the most mundane (toilet paper) to the most existential (the closing of a life).

By the time Marypat arrived at the hospital, Pat had been admitted. In the new frontier of protocols the hospital was limiting visitors to one per patient. Marypat’s sister, Nancy, and brother, Matthew were there. Nancy, who had been the most constant care-giver for years, walked right in and went to Pat’s room. Marypat and Matthew were literally left out in the cold in the parking lot. Pat appeared to be dying. It could come any minute. The initial diagnosis of a stroke morphed into something more systemic. Sepsis, the doctor thought. Her body was shutting down.

Eventually Marypat and Matthew talked their way in. Protocols weren’t set in stone at that point and the doc was sympathetic. They bent over their barely conscious mother, tried to figure out what to do.

“We need to get her out of the hospital,” they agreed.

Our house was closest, but Nancy insisted that she be brought to her place. Whether she would survive transport was dubious. By force of their combined persuasion, they talked the doctor into releasing her and called for an ambulance. Nancy contacted Hospice, got a hospital bed delivery scheduled, arranged for a nurse. Pat made her escape.

She shocked everyone by surviving transport. Nancy arranged her in the living room on an adjustable bed. People kept arriving. Andrew and Sara from Dillon. Matthew’s family, Paul and Laura, Tom. Grandkids showed up. Sally made reservations to fly in from Denver. Janet was coming from Chicago.

Coronavirus protocols were very nominally practiced at the start, and then utterly abandoned. People hugged, shook hands, hovered together over Pat, played board games in the kitchen, drank coffee and beer and held forth at some volume and without masks. The virus be damned, for the moment. This took precedence. At the same time, we all heard reports of people dying in hospitals without family around, or visiting a relative in a retirement home by standing outside at a window and pressing hands together on either side of a pane of glass. In this Pat was fortunate. We all were fortunate.

It was clear to everyone that Pat was dying. Amazing, in fact, that she had lived through several ambulance trips, a stint at the hospital, and transfer into the house. But she was only nominally conscious. She was lucid one moment, delirious the next, in and out of awareness, often anxious and afraid. Nancy was the only one who held out hope for her recovery. She kept pushing food on her, casting about for medical remedies, talked about getting through this to something like a return to normal.

A routine settled in. Pat’s bedding got changed on a schedule. She was given morphine and antibiotics. One or two family members stayed by her side, held her hand, reassured her. On the edges food got made, people did crosswords, played cards. Stories got told – who flushed all the pot down the toilet at Nancy’s wedding, a near-death childhood experience on a train track in Toledo, other deaths people had attended.

Pat with her brood of 9 at her 90th birthday party.

Pat with her brood of 9 at her 90th birthday party.

In the background, the coronavirus shit-show played on, a surreal atmosphere hovering over everything. Eli was self-quarantined at home, assuming he had been exposed at his work. Ruby was visiting her boyfriend, Everette, stranded in Idaho, filling out unemployment forms like millions of others. Sawyer had become part of the care-giving team hovering over his grandma. For everyone, everywhere, all bets were off in terms of plans, travel, work, school, the future.

Pat hung in there. Days passed in an otherworldly state of transition. The routine took on a strange normality. Shifts were established. People came and went. Nancy’s drive to get Pat to recover faded away. Care became palliative, comfort, pain relief, constant attendance. A rhythm, calm and vigilant and steady. Pat surfaced and went away again, her anxiety abated, now mostly peaceful. Mostly in another place, that dream state between. Another night passed, dawn came up, as steady and constant as the human world was crazed and upended.

The need to get on the water became urgent for me. Not just because I needed to notch another month into the year’s belt, but because I needed it, period. Marypat came home before dawn on Day 3 of the vigil, after an all-night shift, ate a piece of toast, went to lie down.

“I think I’m going to get out today,” I said as she closed her eyes.

“Wait for me,” she said. “I want to go too. Just let me rest a little.”

We set the red, tandem canoe on the dark, winter flow of the East Gallatin River before noon. The same canoe we had paddled together all the way across Canada nearly thirty years earlier. A boat we wore together like a favorite set of clothes. Today’s clothes were long underwear, winter boots, paddling gloves. We settled Beans, our three-legged, eighteen-year-old mutt on a bed in front of Marypat.

Not really winter, but not yet really spring either. The river, here, is fed by spring creeks that keep the flow steady and increase the water temperature enough that it almost never freezes. Snow in the fields. Snow deep in the mountains that cut into the skyline in every direction. Warm enough, but when the wind gusted, it still wielded the knife of winter.

Birds everywhere. More birds than I had seen on any other river of the year. Their noise a spring cacophony, their wings flashing in the pale sky, flocks wheeling overhead, cranes in the fields, golden-eye, pintail, mallard, Canada geese, snow geese, marsh hawk, red-winged blackbird, eagle. Life. Urgent, season-infused, thronging life. All of it pushing against the slowly opening door of summer. Beans lay his muzzle on the rim of the canoe, dimly watched the scene go past.

We guided the canoe down dark, smooth tongues, around sharp corners, over shallows, picking side channels if they had enough water, reading off of each other’s body language to adjust course. Montana slid past – the Bridger Mountains, the Tobacco Roots, the Spanish Peaks, the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon, the broad basin of farmland held in the palm of the three great rivers that make the Missouri, a fertile and potent place. A land the natives called Fat Valley back when there were milling herds of bison, packs of wolves, lumbering grizzly, elk and moose, beaver by the score. This is a pathetic shadow of what once was, but still stirring, still uplifting, still solace.

We talked about death, how much a part of the cycle of life it is, and how, so often, we hide from it. There was something hallowed going on at Nancy’s house, waiting for the end, sitting with it, being family around it, putting up with each other, embracing each other, showing up in honor of a long life full of its drama and mundanity and quirks. Pat was drifting away. The rest of us would be left. And it was strangely peaceful, rich, simple, resigned but also noble. Soon Pat would take her last breath. Perhaps she was dying right now as we slid along at the pace of water, releasing herself, releasing her family. We talked about the state of the world under the curse of coronavirus, how it put everything on hold, cast doubt on all assumptions, made us all feel like soldiers heading out on a mission we knew some would not return from.

Meantime the river courses around the bends, the willows push out their nubile buds, the birds surge north, the seasons turn. Through it all, through the afternoon, we simply paddled, as we always have. No need to speak – seeing things, thinking things, feeling the breeze, reacting, moving under the wide sky.

Partnership. Thomas Lee photo.

Partnership. Thomas Lee photo.

Back home, Pat still alive, we shared an early dinner before Marypat went out for her bedside shift.

The river had me now. After the hiatus of uncertainty, weeks of shifting plans, looming death, the spell of currents had reeled me back in. The next morning I went again, this time solo. I unearthed my bike from winter storage, loaded up a solo canoe and picked up on the East Gallatin River where Marypat and I had left off, the next bead in the necklace of current rippling downhill. I dropped the boat and gear at the bridge crossing and drove down to the takeout, at the confluence of the East and West Gallatin. The takeout looked tricky at this level. I would have to navigate the swirling currents at the confluence, cross some strong flows as I went through the bridge pilings, and land in a narrow eddy where a vague path pushed through the willows. Then I’d have to haul the boat through a barbed wire fence and some construction clutter to reach the car. I checked it out, then hopped on my bike for the nine-mile ride.

Passing through the small town of Manhattan, I noticed people out walking, riding, families strolling along pathways. If nothing else, the virus was provoking people outside, spending time together, for better or worse. Maybe the pause in the workaday reality would hit a reset button for folks, shift the perspective. Or not.

Back at the put-in I locked the bike to a guardrail, took off my helmet, nudged the hull into the murky river, stepped in. Three strokes and I’d crossed the small river, lined up for the first deep ‘v’ of current, gone around the bend. A door closed behind me, the river took hold. The previous day had been raucous with life. Today was hushed and still. I had a thermos of hot tea in a pack, poured myself a steaming mug, sat back and let the river have me. I paddled when I needed to, drifted the rest of the time. On one bend I snuck up on a dark-furred mink nosing around on the river bank. A bald eagle perched in a snag, watched me go by. A pair of white-tail deer looked up, ears cupped forward like radar dishes. Two sandhills, pale gray and watchful, eyes as red as rubies, lifted off at my approach, made their guttural call as they floated over the fields.

Time stalled. I poured more tea. Bend after bend dropped in the skirts of my wake. I never checked my watch. Never saw anyone. The river murmured downhill, carrying me on her back. I watched a cold front approach from the west. Clouds built up over the Tobacco Roots, swooped in closer. The winds rose, cold and gusty, so that I needed to paddle to make headway. I pulled on a warm coat, hunched against the blow. By the time I entered the bare-branched cottonwood grove near the confluence the winds were burring the river. Winter had returned.

The take-out was as dicey as I thought it might be. Carefully, I turned the canoe upstream, found a ferry angle, slowed myself past the bridge pilings, nosed the bow into the small pocket of calm water. Stiff with cold, the boat rocking beneath me, I clambered clumsily out of the hull, got a boot on shore, hauled the boat onto the path.

The next day, Pat still alive, I did it again. The next bead in the watery necklace. March, this day, was a lion.

I should have had a clue when my bike shuttle felt so easy. I cruised back from the take-out in record time, pushed by a steady tailwind, locked up the bike and re-rigged. I launched in a quiet eddy and paused there, the boat rocking gently, while I poured a cup of tea, set it down between my legs, and entered the main current.

The full flow of the Gallatin River gathers itself for this last stretch before it joins the Madison and Jefferson Rivers at Three Forks, forming the headwaters of the Missouri. I have paddled the entire East Gallatin many times, and almost the entire Main Gallatin, some sections many times. The Gallatin begins at Bighorn Lake, nearly 100 miles south, well inside Yellowstone National Park, high in a mountain basin.

From there it courses through the foothills gathering pace and volume, chattering through country rich with moose and wolf and grizzly, before leaving the park. Downstream, it picks up the West Gallatin, coming in from Lone Peak and the resort country around Big Sky, and cascades through a long stretch of Class III-IV whitewater, through rapids like Screaming Left, House Rock and Portal, a kayaking mecca through the summer months. After it leaves the canyon, upstream of Gallatin Gateway, it continues to drop through farmland, the bends mined with frequent snags and deadfall, which, to my mind, are more dangerous than any of the rapids upstream.

Not long after I moved to Montana I vowed to one day paddle the upper reaches of the river, through Yellowstone National Park. Paddling is not legal in the park, but it is a gorgeous, fast-paced piece of river, bending through the willows and sage, past rocky cliffs, through meadows. They allow anglers to flail the waters, what’s wrong with a few paddlers during the high water window?

Many years later I finally made good. One full moon night Marypat and I cajoled our neighbor into driving the get-away car for us. “Hell, why not?” he said. “I haven’t pulled an all-nighter since college.” We inflated the self-bailing canoe, strapped it to the roof rack, and Geoff followed us down to the park boundary around midnight. We dropped his car there and drove ours to the Fawn Pass Trailhead parking lot. It was pitch dark. No cars. We had come prepared for ultimate stealth – wearing black, headlights off, hot-footing with the boat down a slope to a small bridge where the budding river courses past, barely a hop across. None of that proved necessary. We chatted our way down to the small bridge. The night was still.

The rising moon wasn’t much help, and headlamps didn’t really blunt the darkness either, but off we went. Right off the bat we heard the sound of a small waterfall.

“Shit!” Marypat said. “Beaver dam.”

We were blind, but we lined up and bashed over the small dam, giggling nervously. Soon the waters of Fan Creek joined in and the volume ramped up. We slid along at a great rate. Lucky for us, the river was high enough to cover all but a few rocks in the channel. The moon cast a pale, insufficient glow over the scene. In no time we sluiced under the first highway bridge. Geoff was there, waiting for us, but we never saw him.

“You guys are flying!!” he called, as we whipped past below.

“Can’t see a damn thing!” I yelled back.

Then the moon slipped behind a mountain ridge and it was truly pitch black. On we went, hanging on around corners, making last-second calls where the river split around small islands.

“Left!” Marypat shouted, “No right!”

Before we went, my biggest worry was deadfall across the river. Most of the segment has no trees along it, but a few spots have nearby lodgepole pine that could conceivably fall across the current. I’d scoped it out pretty thoroughly, and was confident, but you never know. Marypat’s biggest fear was that we’d happen on a moose or grizzly standing in the river. Not all that far-fetched, when you think about it, but I chose not to think about it.

The moon never reemerged. The night was dark as a cave, cold, with stars glittering overhead. I began to get a sense for what it would be like to paddle blind. I could hear the variation in the river as it sluiced over shallows, or when it pillowed off of a bank, or tumbled over a submerged boulder with a tiny roar. It was a watery symphony full of subtle notes and we were getting the crash course in river braille at maybe 10 miles an hour.

It was so dark that we almost missed our car where Geoff had left it, parked in a wide spot above the river. I looked up at one point and just made out the blocky shadow of our van.

“There’s the car!” I said. “Eddy out!”

The whole run, roughly a dozen miles, barely took us an hour. One heady, exhilarating, risky, blind hour. Now I’d like to return and run it again by daylight, maybe starting at 4:30 some summer morning, before the park cops are about.

But here, in the final miles of the river, it was the wind I confronted, not darkness. From the get-go a stout upriver breeze kept me busy. I barely had time to sip tea. Only occasionally did I earn a respite on a calm corner where I could drift, lay the paddle down, take in the rough hills, the belted kingfisher on a branch, the wispy clouds flying past. Not bad work, though, paddling steadily, holding a course, avoiding a tree sticking out from the bank, finding the best filaments of helpful current. Satisfying as breaking trail through deep snow on skis.

High water and low bridges on the East Gallatin. Thomas Lee photo.

High water and low bridges on the East Gallatin. Thomas Lee photo.

In the distance, semi trucks battled the same wind on the interstate, cars motored past on the frontage road. A farm house stood out above the river valley. A train pushed upstream. That other dimension, through the looking glass. Here the hull rocked in the current, my paddle bit the water, branches clattered overhead.

Satisfying, but still, I was glad I hadn’t decided to go farther when I got to my take-out bridge below the town of Logan. I eddied in against the gravel shore, got out of the boat stiffly, regained solid ground. Satisfying, but cold enough to be thinking about a hot shower when I got home.

A young couple and their dog were hanging out nearby. I asked if they’d mind helping me tote the canoe to the car.

“Sure,” the guy said. In short order we had the canoe on top of the van. He reached out his hand. Without thinking, I took it, said thanks.

As he walked away I realized that I’d just broken that new taboo on hand-shaking. It was just reflex, ingrained courtesy, habit. But all the way back home I avoided touching my face with that hand and as soon as I pulled into the driveway I went inside and scrubbed up like a surgeon. A few weeks earlier, in Albuquerque, I’d ridiculed the couple wanting to elbow-bump. Now look at me.

Pat died on the evening of March 25th. She had hung on for six improbable days in the company of her family, lingering on the fringes of reality, before making her final leap. Crossing that last threshold is rarely dignified. As often as someone dies peacefully in their sleep, others go out with hours of alarming death rattle or in some form of agony. In Pat’s case, she slipped away in the middle of having her diaper changed, and while her family was in the throes of a hotly-contested game of dominoes. Life ended. Spirit gone. Eyes empty. Her family, surrounding her, accompanying her, held onto each other in that sudden, irretrievable void. Relief, mourning, reckoning, fear, all the emotions we aren’t ready for.

Life doesn’t prepare us for the loss of parents any more than it prepares us for childbirth and parenthood. That lifelong legacy of influence – how to make a bed, how to greet strangers, how to organize a home, how to eat, how to entertain, how to spend time, how to win and lose, how to joke and cry and compete and be alone. All of it, the noble and the fraught, the uplifting and the dysfunctional, from the way we laugh to the way we walk to what we believe in, all of it subtly passed on, generation to generation, and then, at the end, severed. We are abruptly orphaned, left in that existential vacuum without anyone out in front of us. Never mind that in the final years, our elders become our children, forgetful, helpless, needy, comical, maddening. Never mind that, in a case like Pat’s, death is a relief.

Late that night Marypat came home, crawled into bed, backed up against me for warmth. I held her snug.

Life picked up again in the morning. Pat was taken to a funeral home, where Marypat and her sisters dressed her, cleaned her, smudged her with sage, perched her Sunday hat on her head, put red lipstick on, laid her to rest. People came in the afternoon for an informal viewing before she was cremated, but everything else was up in the air.

I helped write the obituary, but any sort of memorial service was on hold until further notice. All of life was on hold until further notice.

Marypat and I had been preparing our home for sale come spring. We had rented a storage unit, moved loads of stuff out of the house, followed the realtor’s advice for touching things up, fixing the railing on the front porch that had been wobbly for 30 years, buying a new garage door. Now, all of that seemed in doubt. Maybe we should wait for fall to sell, when the pandemic might be more contained, when the future was more knowable. Our idea of becoming long-term vagabonds seemed perilous, given circumstances, the prospect of selling problematic, and if we weren’t going to vagabond, then what? Our rig was still stranded far to the south in Kris and Rolf’s driveway. How were we going to deal with that detail?

And April was in the offing, my final month of journeys. My plan had been to head to eastern Oregon and float some stretch of the Owyhee River system. I had done the commonly-run section from Rome down to the reservoir a number of times – a stunning, fun, top-10 trip, but I was thinking about something higher up, perhaps one of the forks of the river, something new for the last outing. All of that was clearly out of the question.

By late March coronavirus had subsumed everything. Businesses shuttered, unemployment skyrocketed, the stock market tanked, lives ended, hospitals were overwhelmed, a world-wide disruption of supply chains, the election season paused, no one sure how to be with each other.

Time swept on, steady as the river currents I’d plied for eleven months, inexorable and unimpressed. An April canoe trip seemed trivial. Then again, an April canoe trip might be precisely what was needed.


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