We had occasion last weekend to consider again the incomplete but thriving well-mannered politeness of this place. We were attending a friend’s housewarming party, and we began discussing rivers with a fellow guest whom we’d just met, and before we got too drunk we agreed to his invitation to tag along with him and a few friends in solo whitewater canoes the next morning on our own first attempt to run a tandem canoe through the Clark Fork’s famed Alberton Gorge.
This took some doing, as our new friend was clearly an exceedingly experienced boater, and as we were awarely attempting something beyond the scope of our established skill-sets. We made sure our guide, too, was aware of this, not wanting to be unduly resented later if we threw the trip off course.
We’ll call him Virgil, since we don’t know if he cares to be in the paper. He said he hadn’t boated most of the season, had taken some time off. It sounded like he had been away awhile. He said the boating scene had changed some; he no longer knew everyone on the river.
Virgil was a whiz in his little yellow banana boat full of bags, not even trying. His friend, in a matching red banana boat full of bags, rolled his canoe for fun, and another in a stunted plastic kayak kept trying—playfully?—to knock the paddle out of the red boat’s driver’s hands by crashing his spinning hull into Red’s gunnels. We put in above the rapid called Cliffside II and after looking at it for a very long time ran it right down the middle. The kayakers surfing the wave cleared out ahead of us, and when we hit the last curler the front of the boat climbed so steeply that we came down dizzy.
We heard the kayakers whooping for us as we passed, and that felt pretty good, and then we skidded lamely into a shallow rock in the left turn at the bottom and dumped. We got back in our boat and dumped again trying to nose upstream for a better look at what bit us.
While we were messing around in the eddies below, the kayakers circled above like goslings to catch and catch again the wave for a few seconds before either losing their grips or falling off politely to make room for the next boat. At the sign of an incoming vehicle—raft, canoe, driftboat, anything going downriver—the kayakers parted on their own silent command. That’s the rule of the river, Virgil said. That, and bigger boats have right-of-way; they’re slower to move.
That’s why Virgil was disturbed to see what he had seen while we were floundering in the shallows: a kayaker holding her place in the middle of the wave at Cliffside II even as a raft of paddlers swooped down the line. The raft’s guide maneuvered safely around her, at no small expense of effort, but it offended Virgil to see it.
Missoula, he said, as a boating town, didn’t used to be like that. And it’s not that it is like that now, not mostly, but you hate to see any of it creeping in.
“You just don’t do that,” Virgil said, back at his truck, after we took out at Ralph’s. “It’s simple manners. He should have rammed her.”
Driving home, we craned out our window passing over Three Bridges at the wavetrain far below.
“Hey, we stayed in the boat on that rapid,” we said.
“Yeah,” said Red, politely, from the backseat. “That’s one.”