A writer’s reflections on the how, where and why of canoeing in Montana
By STEVE HAWLEY
In the midst of the buffoonery commonly referred to as adolescence, I skipped school one sunny May afternoon to join two friends and a canoe on a picturesque mountain lake. My companions and I were not yet attuned to the wisdom of escaping to forest and river for the simple grace note such places so freely offer, a reprieve from frantic modern life. We would eventually figure that out, but in the meantime, we were mostly interested in drinking lots of beer in interesting places. So there we were, a blue-bird day, a case of sweet, green low-brow lager, and an aluminum canoe. A bit precarious with three clumsy boys in a two-man boat, and a bit tipsy already from the beer, I thought I’d top things off with a fat pinch of chewing tobacco. I caught myself simultaneously trying to spit chaw and sip from yet another cold one. The beer won—I swallowed a hocker that turned my stomach into a churning cauldron of bumpkin vice. The sun became very hot. Soon after, the gymnastics of trying to keep three people in a two-man canoe while one of them repeatedly lurched over the gunwale must have become quite a visual comedy, not to mention a concern for the boat’s other occupants. At the time I didn’t care. I was puking so violently I would not have been surprised if my sandals came up with the retching. At more than twice the age I was then, I have left off drinking obscene quantities of Milwaukee’s finest, and now exclusively the term dipping refers to a paddle blade and not a can of snuff. Though much of my river time is spent in whitewater, sitting half inside what appears to many as a colorful piece of Tupperware about eight feet long, I will concede the canoe’s the craft in which one should set out in search of water-borne enlightenment.
Few man-made things on earth have so much potential for grace as a canoe, and none of the rest of them float quite as easily. In a canoe, you aren’t so much on the water as a part of it, a delightful illusion made possible by a low profile and the canoe’s natural tendency to tip side to side. This tippiness can actually work in your favor. By leaning to one side or another, you can maneuver a canoe on the same physical principle as skis. Simply lean opposite the direction you want to go. Should you lean over too far, slap your paddle blade flat on the water on the side to which you’re leaning. Provided the physics at work haven’t swung too far out of your favor, the wet side should stay down. These are moves not recommended for first-timers, nor are they necessary to enjoy an outing in a canoe. Two paddle strokes, the draw stroke and the J-stroke, ought to provide all the steering and power needed for the first time out. The draw stroke is simple enough. From a sitting position in the canoe, simply reach comfortably ahead with the paddle out into the water. Draw, or pull, straight back toward you. No need to bury the blade up the handle in water or pull as if extracting a loved one from quicksand. Do let your torso do at least as much work as your arms. The J-stroke is essentially the same motion but adds a quick flick of the wrist toward the side of the boat at the end, giving the stroke its namesake, and helping to keep your craft going in a neat, straight line.
Experienced tandem canoers know few things have such potential for sinking a relationship as a boat built for two. Testing a relationship by canoe is unwise. The slightest hint of trouble with a significant other should be treated with the same respect as a nasty summer squall. Stay in town and catch a movie. Solid advice, yet unlikely to be heeded by many unfortunate would-be couples. The vision of synchronous, tandem strokes, water slapping gently at the hull as dusk approaches is too salacious a proposition to be passed by those with even slight romantic instincts. The most secluded and private places on lakes and rivers are best reached by canoe, and provided you haven’t been brained by a paddle swung in haste before you get there, there’s no denying the wonderful things that could happen.
In Montana, some of the most desolate places are best reached by canoe. Multi-day trips on dozens of appallingly scenic rivers require nothing more than the willingness and time to go. Travel by canoe is simple, efficient, more comfortable and less effort than a backpacking trip. There’s room for a cooler and a lawn chair as well, a luxury not feasible when traveling the hinterlands by foot. Last summer, a half-dozen family and friends, along with my wife and me, set out on a 100-mile canoe trip on the wild and scenic section of the Missouri. The vast majority of these people hadn’t ever been more than a 100 yards in a canoe, including the matriarch of the family, who is afraid of water. The only straggler in the group proved to be me. I stubbornly stuck to a kayak, a poor decision, especially in light of the tail wind that followed us every day except one. The canoeists rigged sails out of tarps and at times were several miles ahead of me as I pitifully slapped at the water with a double-bladed paddle in my plastic boat . “Half the paddle, twice the man,” I recalled being told by someone in regard to a veteran solo canoer.
Closer to home, there are several possibilities for the neophyte canoe-tripper anxious to get on the water. The Bitterroot River is the closest, and there are no notable rapids, but the water can be swift, and the eddies, those swirling vortices where current and slack water meet, can be strong enough to steal a canoe out from underneath you. The next closest option is Frenchtown Pond, with its lovely proximity to I-90, concrete landscaping, and hordes of families toting loaves of white bread with which they will both make sandwiches and bait fishing hooks. You may want to bypass this basshole and head the opposite direction. The Seeley-Swan highway, a little longer drive but infinitely more scenic, features quick access to a half-dozen lakes. The closest is Harper’s Lake, a great beginner’s spot not devoid of thrills. The water is so clear that over the middle of the lake on a windless afternoon, the view 30 feet down to the bottom gives you the sensation you’re airborne.
Further up the highway, the opportunities only get better. The crown jewel of day canoe trips is the Clearwater canoe trail that starts just north of the town of Seeley, linking Inez and Seeley lakes. From here you can see why Montanans should count themselves lucky. You’ll be paddling calmly moving water, surrounded by not just wilderness, but wildernesses, with views into the Bob Marshall to the east and glimpses of the Wild Swan and Mission country to the west. Wherever, go in the evening, during the week if possible. Go tandem with someone you love or want to love. The birds will chirp, the trout will rise; your partner might identify stars. And you might watch the water swirl around the paddle’s blade after its gentle pull, and laugh about how smart you think you are now, and how foolish you were not so many years ago.
Digging For Oar
If you’re ready to ply local waters in a canoe, a good bet for a decently-priced rental package and some expert advice might be the Canoe Rack (5020 S. Hwy. 93). For one thing, co-owner Matt Streib is currently half of the nation’s top duo in tandem flat-water canoe racing, a title he will defend in August. Streib has also been active in national and international competition for more than 20 years.
More importantly, as owner and operator of a business venture devoted solely to self-propelled watercraft, Streib has had his share of successful, and a few not-so-successful, canoe rentals to first timers.
“One pair took off down the Bitterroot in September,” recalls Streib. “They showed up dripping wet in the store and told me they’d lost the boat—and their camera, and their wallet with $400 cash in it. I got the camera back and the boat, but the wallet as far as I know is still out there. Someone could stumble onto a nice little lottery prize out there.”
As far as advice is concerned, Streib says he rarely has the time to give any. “Most people just want to get out there on the water,” he says. “Still, there’s a few who stick around for the basic instructions.”
Which are, according Streib, quite simple. ”We don’t teach them leans or strokes,” he says. “I try to get them to spend an hour or so on calm flat water before tackling something like the [Clearwater] canoe trail where there’s logs and moving water.”
Other trade secrets? “If it’s a couple and they’re going to be in the same boat,” says Streib, ”we try to rent them paddles too short to reach each other from one end of the canoe to the other.”
The Joy of Tubing
Floating at the cutting edge of extreme leisure
By ARI LeVAUX
The urge to merge with the flow of moving water grips different people in different ways. For the flyfisher, it is all about the dance of deceit, seduction, and betrayal with the reluctant fish, whose universe the piscator must comprehend in order to succeed. For the kayaker, the river is a frothing mosh pit of hydrologic chaos in which to dance. Rafting, like kayaking, anymore seems mostly geared toward shooting rapids, rather than the subtle and under-sung joys of flatwater. What about those of us who just want to keep it simple, dammit, and commune with the flow, but feel like polished stones in the current flood of gear-driven flowsport? If this is you, then take heart. There is another path, grasshopper.
I speak of the tube. Not the surf-porn wave-part you catch and hang ten from, dude. Nor the tube you pull and pass to the left hand-side. I speak of the cosmic bagel of extreme leisure; Zen and the art of kicking back. You don’t want to break any records, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still want to suck river’s marrow through your flow-starved lips. And maybe you want to catch some rays, too, and sip on your favorite beverage.
Most of your body is above water, soaking solar waves of summertime bliss, with excess heat efficiently discharging through the hands, feet and ass, all of which dangle in cool water. As the current carries you downstream, your tube turns in idle circles, providing a constantly flowing 360 degree tube’s-eye view from the water line. In the event that your buddy has the beer, from time to time you must do the awkward and inefficient backward flailing with your arms that is your best shot at moving in a chosen direction. Indeed, part of the joy of tubing is embracing the fact that your number one priority is often to flail like a capsized turtle in order to move a few yards and form a temporary raft with your buddy. That’s about the most you can hope to accomplish while tubing. The rest is bonus.
There are three things you must have in order to tube down a river: 1. A tube. 2. You. 3. A river.
By tube, I mean the hyper-inflated inner tube of a large automobile or truck. Lots of gear stores and gas stations sell or rent them. You put the tube in the water (inflation valve down!), and put your posterior in the center of the tube. Prevent yourself from falling through the hole in the center by draping your legs over one side, and rest your shoulders on the other side. As the current pulls you away from shore, you are now tubing.
As you float downstream, keep a lookout for beaver, heron, muskrat, elk, bear, and other types of wildlife, especially in smaller, less-traveled waterways, where the animals are less likely to assume that the strange creature floating in circles could be dangerous. On the more popular stretches of water, be prepared on hot days to join a flotilla of eclectic floating objects piloted by like-minded extreme leisurists. Not the worst crowd to run with by any means.
In addition to the above-mentioned basic items, there are some optional—albeit extremely useful—items that if used correctly can easily move your afternoon experience from the realm of “barely tubing” into the realm of royal creme de la tube. These items include, but are not limited, to the following: Clothing, life-jacket, canned beverage, food, sunscreen, a vehicle waiting at the pullout.
There are two primary reasons to wear clothing when tubing (three, if you consider yourself descended from shameful Adam and scandolous Eve): to keep warm, and to prevent tube burn. Although the sun may be strong and the day might be hot, the water will be cold, and definitely can give you hypothermia, especially if there is wind. We recommend a fleece top. Fleece keeps you warm even when it is wet. For those who want to be extra cozy, the low-gear alternative would be a windbreaker over fleece, a combo that will block the wind and hold in your fleece-enhanced body heat like a sweat lodge (being that you are floating in a river, any overheating can be easily remedied). Tube burn, meanwhile, is a condition wherein the bare skin is worked against the decidedly non-frictionless surface of the rubber tube—similar to, though less severe than, the pavement rash that follows a high-speed motorcycle crash. Clothing between bare skin and bare tube will prevent this.
It’s also recommended that you bring your beverage of choice in cans, specifically for river-sport, where glass bottles can be hazardous. Always keep track of can tabs, bottle tops and any other objects that could become litter. And pick up trash if you see it floating, especially bottles with messages in them. Don’t give tubing a bad name. Ditto goes for drowning: Wear a life jacket, and confirm that the stretch of river you are choosing to run has no rapids. Any guide service can tell you about this last one. Another thing to consider, in the event that you don’t have a vehicle stashed at your pullout spot, is how good the hitch-hiking is on the road. Once the spring run-off is over, both the lower Blackfoot and the Bitteroot become mellow, fully tube-able stretches, with good hitch-hiking possibilities back to your car.
The skills of tubing can be easily mastered, but this does not mean that there is no room for progress here at the cutting edge of extreme leisure. Some tubists have taken to using special “float tubes,” designed for lake fishing, on the river. The float tube consists of a standard tube covered with a nylon cloth, which protects the tube from puncturing. They also have pockets, which greatly increase the ease with which you can bring other necessary items. Finally, these contraptions have a harness in the center hole that allows your legs to dangle straight down, positioning you in upright as you flow downstream. Rarely, however, do tubists use the float-tube harness the way it was intended, instead choosing the standard tubing position, with the harness adding support below the belt, taking some of the load off of shoulders and legs and preventing you from falling through. By the way, anything else that floats will probably work too.
Treading through some summertime games for young and old
By ANDY SMETANKA
I can’t think of the last time I swam in chlorinated water, but when I remember all the times growing up when we used to connive the neighbor kid into letting us descend on his pool like a horde of cannonballing Huns, what leaps to mind first are the games we used to play. Fortunately for pool-poor Missoula, a lot of those sunburned blue-green memories are available again in lake form, and you might be pleasantly surprised at how well a lot of these watery diversions hold up for adults. Of course, they’re still innocent fun for the kiddies, too. If your troops are getting restless and weary of unstructured water activity, mustering their ranks for organized game-play can buy you a few precious moments of leisure until lunch is ready.
Marco Polo: This evergreen call-and-response game is played the same as it ever was, with one blindfolded or eyes-closed It calling out “Marco!” and everyone else answering “Polo!” to reveal their positions. First person to get tagged takes over “Marco!” duties. Good for all ages, especially in shallow water.
Tunnel Tag: Same as freeze tag, but played in waist- to chest-deep water. The person who is elected “It” through one of the usual democratic processes (rock beating scissors, for example) tries to tag fellow players, who must then wait for a free player to swim between their legs before they can resume play. Pervo rating: 4 out of a possible 10.
Underwater Tag: Again, similar to regular tag, except that players are safe from the It when fully submerged in the water. Obviously, a skilled player will quickly learn to wait for his target to come up for air in much the same way that a polar bear or Inuit hunter waits by a hole in the ice for a seal to resurface.
Killer Whale: The selfsame orca sculls gently or treads water while fellow players—his hapless prey—swim in a timid circle around him. With a sudden cry of “Killer Whale!” he goes after the closest of these baby porpoises. First player to get caught becomes the killer whale for the next round, preferably after a good ducking. Also known as White Whale, except in that variation the player who is Moby Dick cries out “Thar she blows!” before flailing after his quarry.
Watermelon Polo: An action-packed game for mommies and daddies, preferably those in personal flotation devices who haven’t been drinking since nine in the morning. A watermelon is slathered liberally in vegetable shortening and tossed into the water. Anywhere from four to forty players must try to get the barely buoyant fruit from point A to an agreed-upon point B using any combination of subterfuge and brute force necessary.
Rocket Ride: Or, as the French say, chute de gropage. Not a game, really: more like a group activity that gives new meaning to the phrase “touching bottom.” An odd number of participants line up in two rows opposite each other in torso-deep water and lock hands. The leftover player gets treated to a ride through the pipe as fellow swimmers lift arms in an undulating motion and propel him/her along. Hardly the innocent fun it was when we were kids; all the same, my teenage dream of one day playing Rocket Ride in a pool filled with strawberry Jell-O remains unrealized.
Discovering the simple pleasures of the mountain swimming hole
By CHAD HARDER
Montana sits closer to the North Pole than it does the equator, and the rivers and streams of Montana are always refreshing. It doesn’t matter if its been 90 degrees for a month straight, with fires burning from Glacier to Yellowstone, the water in Montana’s lakes, rivers and streams always keeps the beer cold.
Which makes leaping into the water all the more satisfying, polishing your earthly vessel and cleaning your consciousness. Montana’s mountain-fed waters are highly suitable to an in-out, in-out approach to dipping—20 minutes in the water, followed by 20 minutes of presenting flesh to the sun. Times can be altered to accommodate a wide variety of air and water temperatures—occasionally the times will be longer, but in Montana, core body temperature is the top priority and typically the times are shorter.
Fortunately, there are plenty of top-notch spots to chill in the water near Missoula. Some of the most popular spots on sunny summer days are the fishing accesses tucked next to the bridges spanning the Bitterroot River. Primo spots include the access on the Eastside Highway one mile east of Florence; Bell Crossing four miles north of Victor; and Woodside Crossing two miles west of Corvallis. Just bear in mind that jumping off the bridges themselves is against the law and obviously dangerous.
And no matter what swimming hole you choose, the risk involved in surrendering to gravity from high places is real; one person has died on the Blackfoot earlier this year leaping off a 75-foot cliff. Water-saturated logs bump their way along murky river bottoms, especially during high and cloudy water, making moving water inherently more dangerous than lakes. An old cottonwood is a bad thing to land on from any height, so if things appear sketchy, follow the lead of others and don’t let your body fall from bone-snapping heights.
Some of the more dangerous spots for big-league air can be found along Highway 200: the notorious Blackfoot rope swing and the cliffs near Jonsrud fishing access. Each of these places has seen its share of serious injuries or fatalities, so it’s best to stay clear of them.
Safer holes can be found in lakes, where the water temperature is bombarded with hot sunlight and is more accommodating to hairless mammals. Frenchtown Pond, just a short drive west of Missoula, is as safe as water can be, with a sandy beach, admission fees and the “after-church” crowd. There’s a diving platform too, but pooches are prohibited.
Kreis Pond, a park-at-the-shore nugget 45 minutes from town behind the Ninemile Ranger Station, is another popular destination, sporting a fun-for-the-family rope swing. Although the swing is no heart-stopper, it is quite safe and the water is surprisingly warm. Be prepared, however, for neighboring campers with car stereos blaring and ATVs spewing dust and exhaust relentlessly all weekend.
If you’ve got a full day to play, consider the bigger lake experience provided by the chain of lakes pocking the Seeley/Swan Valley. Here our state has “developed” many of the water accesses, charging admission to offset the cost of pavement, outhouses and picnic tables. Keep in mind that you won’t be alone on weekends, with the buzz of mosquitoes and the whine of motorized watercraft. Still, many of these lakes, from Lindbergh Lake in the north to Blanchard Lake in the south, have large pendulum rope swings for quick adrenaline fixes and post-hiking stench-removal.
Living less than two hours from the largest freshwater lake in the West, the opportunities for truly big lake swimming is endless. Although the state has given “fee area” status to many of the finer locales, opportunities to dunk without throwing down to the man exist for the sharp-witted traveler. Sure, most swimming spots dotting the shoreline of this 2,100-acre lake that are marked with signage demand payment, so act like a local and find your own unmarked swimming hole. The sheer size of the lake keeps its temperatures fairly constant; it rarely freezes in winter and it averages 68 degrees by mid-August.
Although widely recognized for its pure water, Flathead Lake has recently shown increased levels of mercury and carcinogenic PCBs. State officials say that there’s no danger from swimming and little danger in consuming moderate amounts of fish. And the lake flushes completely every three and a half years, fed by streams flowing from Glacier National Park and the Mission Mountains.
For those with the sweet desire to swim naked, nothing beats the solitude and clarity of plunging into high alpine lakes. There are few things more pleasurable than the super slippery sensation of toasting your flesh in the sun and then ottering through crystal clear mountain water without the baggage of socially required coverings.
Of course these are only a fraction of Montana’s options to beat the heat, and surely your friends know a few others.
Wherever you choose to take the plunge, remember to keep your largest organ, your hide, intact. If you take it easy on the alcohol, prevent the sunburn, and make good decisions, your day on the water will be as relaxing as it is exhilarating. And always keep in mind that risks exist whenever you’re in the water, so proceed with caution. And then go big.