My First Boat

I BELIEVE IN CLEAN LIVING mostly as a way of making up for the rest of the time, and half a lifetime ago we were sitting around the commune washing down a brown rice casserole with cold beer and Jack Daniels. As usual since Julie the Rainbow Girl had arrived on the scene, we talked fly-fishing, and my friend Deke slapped his hand on the cable-spool table so hard his whiskey sloshed.

“There’s only two kinds of people in this world,” he said. “There’s people that own boats, and then there’s everyone else.”

The tattooed snake on Julie’s leg flexed as she stood to clear the dishes. On a summer quest for Rocky Mountain trout before returning to her job as a fourth grade teacher in the Haight district of San Francisco, Julie was a little bit older than me, and a whole lot wiser.

“Let me give you a piece of advice,” she said, “Never tell a biker they’re like everybody else. You’ll have to pull down your zipper to see where you’re going.”

With her long red hair trailing behind, Julie was known to stop traffic on her chopped pink and chrome Harley as she sped by. I wasn’t much more than 20, but I already knew I didn’t want to be like everyone else. It wasn’t that I minded working. The problem was that jobs cut into time better spent fly-fishing, a sport to which I had recently converted as a full-fledged zealot.

As a fly-fisherman, I could see the advantages of a boat. You could float to places that would otherwise be inaccessible. You could fish from angles that only a boat could provide. You could cover a lot of water. And of course, you could bring along a cooler.

A boat is a life support unit. You can bring along all the essentials, you can even bring along some luxuries. You can put a lot of stuff in a boat, which is great, until you sink the boat, because then you not only lose your boat, you lose a lot of stuff. That’s why you want to get a good boat.

I was so young I still thought love was free but boats cost money. I hadn’t worked more than a couple days in a row since the salmonflies started coming and that was months ago. I was down to my last $100 and change; it seemed like fate the next morning when the newspaper fell open to a picture of a raft beneath big block letters advertising a “SUMMER SALE.”

The sale was at Sears, and $80 got you an 8-foot raft, dull yellow canvas tubes with a bright blue bottom and matching fringe. The boat came with a pump, but no rowing frame. I had life jackets and a cooler, everything else I was going to have to scrounge. Oars were a problem; good ones cost more than the boat.

At the time we were living on the outskirts of Helena in some apartments built on a mining claim dating back to the early days of Last Chance Gulch. The rickety sheds and dilapidated barn were full of rusted tools and old hardware. It was nothing a little WD-40 couldn’t fix, except we didn’t have WD-40 back then. I built a rectangular frame out of two-by-fours salvaged from the chicken coop, complete with a rope sling to hold the cooler that doubled as a seat. If you wanted a beer, all you had to do was stand up. I was scavenging bolts in the shack against the hill that opened to the back on the dark hole of a deep adit when I came across the real score: a pair of 9-foot oars. It never occurred to me to wonder what a pair of oars was doing at the mouth of a mineshaft.

Again, I thought it was fate.

I whistled while I worked, sanding down the fuzz that coated the oars like thick grey peach skin. The oars came complete with oarlocks, I drilled matching holes in the frame. A few pieces of rope to secure the frame to the thin tin grommets in the fringe of canvas that circled the raft like a blue plastic tutu, and voilà, no longer was I like everyone else.

I was a boat person.

“Where should we go?” I asked.

“How about the Beartrap?” said Julie. “I hear it’s fishing.”

“Where’s that?”

“It’s the Madison River, below Ennis.”

“Sure,” I said.

My cheeks hurt I was smiling so hard, but it was a simple case of ignorant bliss. I had no idea I’d just agreed to run what is arguably the most formidable rapid in Montana. At the time I’d floated plenty but only in canoes, an experience which is not directly applicable to rafting. You steer a canoe by going faster than the current, while you steer a raft by going slower than the current. In a raft all your power is in back strokes. It’s a difference that takes some time to work into your muscle memory. You should practice on a lake; not the Kitchen Sink.

The Kitchen Sink is the biggest rapid in the Bear Trap Canyon. You’ll hear it echoing off the canyon walls before you see it, like the rolling thunder of an approaching storm. The roar gets louder and your heart throbs faster until finally you see it, a tumultuous chute of head-high standing waves and deep keeper holes. Cliffs and boulders crowd in from river left. We pulled out well above the rapid in an eddy on the right, alongside a couple of other boats, then walked the limestone trail to the overlook where you scout the rapid before you run it.

We’d already been floating a couple of hours that morning. The fishing had been good for fat rainbow trout on green matuka streamers. We’d run a couple of smaller rapids; screaming, yelling, and laughing as we chased hooked trout through the whitecaps. The new raft had performed admirably, but the Kitchen Sink was much tougher than anything we’d yet attempted. The waves were higher than the boat was long. Raft-eating rocks lurked left, right and everywhere for the next quarter mile. Looking down, the truth is I didn’t want to run it, not in my new boat.

Depending on flows, the Kitchen Sink is Class IV and V whitewater. You can’t just point the bow and go. You have to maneuver around obstacles that might kill you if you fail. First up in the Kitchen Sink is a rock ledge on the left, then there’s a huge boulder called Herb’s Rock about dead center at the head of the big drop, then there’s a killer hole just below a nasty piece of limestone jutting up on river left. Julie pointed at the sharp rock with one hand, and used her other hand like a megaphone.

“Snaggletooth,” she shouted, “Let’s miss that one.”

I was thinking we should walk the boat down the shore but Julie was ecstatic as a little kid naming rocks at the prospect of all that glorious danger. Her idea of a good time was riding a motorcycle 120 m.p.h., and now she pressed in close so she wouldn’t have to shout.

“I get so …,” she said. “You have no idea.”

To make sure I got the idea Julie filled in the pause by running her tongue up my neck and into my ear. Sadly, we weren’t alone on the lookout. Happily, the group included a professional river guide who, when asked, dispensed advice on how to best run the rapid.

“Don’t do it,” he shouted, “Your boat’s too small.” 

I could be a smart man, or I could just be a man.

“I have to do it,” I replied.

The guide nodded like he understood. “Then aim for Herb’s Rock, let the pillow push you off the left. You can’t hit the rock, the pillow is too strong.”

It seemed counterintuitive, that you would purposely aim for the biggest rock in the river, but the guide was adamant.

“Cut Herb’s close, as soon as you can make a hard right. Get too far left, and the current will force you down into that killer hole on the left …”

That killer hole on the left was Snaggletooth. If aiming at the big rock would keep me away from Snaggletooth I was all for it. I mapped out the route in my mind: hold right, move left above Herb’s Rock, but not too far left; then hard right. Back at the boat Julie kicked us off shore and grabbed her rod.

“Don’t fish,” I said, “Not now.”

Julie looked at me like somebody had farted.

“Ok,” she said, “Dad!”

That was the first and last time I ever told Julie what to do. In retrospect she may have had some father issues, but I had issues too. High crashing whitewater waves crept in from both sides as we shot the smooth green tongue. Julie was just flipping out line. She hadn’t even really made a proper cast when a trout flashed up from behind a rock and smashed the fly.

“Big water …” she shouted, smiling again. “… Big fish.”

I never saw the fish, as 6-foot waves converged in from both sides at once. I couldn’t see out, not squatted like a gnome on the 12-inch tubes of an $80 raft. Towering hills of whitewater soared up into a blue sky. Herb’s Rock was nowhere to be seen. Up front, fly rod still bent, it was worth the smile on her face as Julie clenched the yellow tube with her bare legs. We were soaking wet in a boat full of water and running blind. I remembered left, so I angled the bow of the raft to the right, then pulled back hard on both oars. The first stroke went fine, the second less well.

“So that’s dry rot …” I mused.

It’s funny what goes through your head. I’d always wondered how something could rot if it was dry. The honeycombed wood in the shattered oar told the story, and the broken blade dangled uselessly as a wall of black rock appeared dead ahead and the boat began to gain altitude.

We were riding the surge that formed as thousands of cubic feet of water piled up against Herb’s Rock every second. When it comes to rivers, no two seconds are the same. It’s part of the fundamental nature of fluids. The only constant is change. In one instant we were climbing high on the reverse pillow that built up and pushed back as it bounced off Herb’s Rock; in the next instant the water dropped out from beneath us.

We didn’t just hit Herb’s Rock, we smashed it. Julie’s legs scissored wide as she popped free of the tube, bounced once, and floated away still holding her rod. I pitched forward face first onto the blue floor as the raft spun away on the next surge into the whitewater mountains, and led with my knees and elbows as we smashed hard up on what felt like the back of a stegosaurus.

Snaggletooth.

A keeper hole is usually a big drop, a place in the river where the water re-circulates as it pours over a rock or ledge. Get stuck in a keeper hole, round and around and around you go until the currents spit you out. You might be in there a couple minutes, you might be in there a couple hours. The re-circulating hole in the backwash below Snaggletooth was deep, wide, and powerful; all that stood between me and a voyage into that black hole was the fact that I was impaled on a sharp rock.

The frame and cooler tore away from the flimsy canvas fringe almost immediately, floated a few feet, then sank like stones into the hole. A heartbeat later the blue floor ripped away.  I grabbed at a tube and hung on by my armpits, the hole sucking at my dangling legs. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see what was coming. I just had time to take a deep breath when there was sound like the quick pull on both triggers of a double-barreled shotgun as both tubes exploded.

“That’s gonna leave a mark,” I thought as I was dragged face-first down the spine of Snaggletooth, the deflated remains of my raft clenched firmly in my armpits.

Up top, in the worst of the turbulence, you go where you’re thrown. A couple of twisting somersaults and a back flip later I was trussed and tied in a writhing yellow donut of flaccid heavy canvas. My right arm was pinned to my side, both legs were wrapped; only my head and left arm were free.

The river in a big hole is as much air as water. It’s a complete white out. You can’t see, so you have to hear. The cold white hiss of bubbles against the background roar at the bottom of the river … down by the background roar, that’s the exit door.

You can’t fight the downward pull of a keeper hole. The closer you get to the surface, the stronger the force you’re fighting. The way out of a keeper hole is at the bottom, where the re-circulating effect is weakest. Since I didn’t know that at the time, it was probably fortunate I was wrapped in the raft.

The advantage of the dead flapping weight of canvas was once I got to the bottom I stayed at the bottom. The bottom of a whitewater river is moving, and every move makes a noise. It’s a symphony of sound down there. The low bull roar of the keeper hole faded, replaced by the high-pitched beetle-like click of smaller rocks jostling in the main current. It seemed I was moving as I picked, poked, and prodded at whatever canvas I could reach with my left hand.

“It’s just another tangle,” I thought.

How bad could it be? You see, if you fish with flies, you know something about tangles. Find a loose end, work your way back. Don’t pull on anything so hard it cinches tight. Loosen as you go, sometimes it’s like magic the way tangles spring apart. Undoing tangles is like finding inspiration; it helps if you think of something else.

My first thought was that I should have bounced a check for a decent set of oars. What a stupid way to go. Then I thought at least I was running the rapid, although I wished my raft had a little more air in it. I wondered if Julie still had her fish. They say your whole life flashes before your eyes when you’re drowning but I was still stuck on Julie when my right arm popped loose. With both hands free, my legs quickly followed; once I jettisoned the raft, my life vest popped me to the surface.

I swam competitively most of my life but that’s about the longest I ever held my breath. I’d run the worst of the rapid underwater, now it was just a matter of kicking to shore. Julie was fine. She caught a quick eddy and ended up on shore without even going underwater. Telling her story she was smiling and laughing, then her face clouded over with an expression conveying at least anger and maybe rage.

“There’s only one thing that bothers me,” she said.

Eyebrows furrowed, lips pursed, arms crossed; Julie looked so schoolmarm serious and spoke so fiercely I didn’t know what to think.

“What’s that?” I said.

“I lost the fish,” she replied.

It wasn’t that funny but we collapsed on the rocks, laughing hysterically. The thing about nearly dying is that you’re never so glad to be alive. Your perceptions are honed. The sky had never been so blue. Stinging nettles crowded in from both sides of the trail, the bushy thistled flowers had never been so purple. It was several miles out, and the spines on the needled green leaves had never been so pointed.

Not everybody is allergic to the alkaloids in nettles but I am, and all I had to protect my bare skin was a life jacket, tattered cutoff jeans, and a single flip-flop. My legs were a solid mass of oozing red sores by the time we hiked out to the highway. The itch was terrible. Weeks later I’d wake up with fresh blood on my fingernails, and lie there awake, trying not to scratch, smiling at the thought of my next boat.

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