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The Sick Line

How wretched can you be when you're paddling the Flathead? Sometimes you've got to find out.



Anyone who's ever traded small talk at a put-in has heard the phrase, no such thing as a bad day on the river, but there was no way around it: I was having a bad day on the river, and coming off the worst night I've ever spent in a tent. It didn't amount to much in the well-stocked annals of adventure discomfort, no death or dismemberment, just a throat that wouldn't swallow, a flashing fever, vomitous heartburn and a saliva factory putting in overtime. When I wasn't on my knees puking into a bush, I was shivering fetally inside my sweaty bag, a coffee mug at the runoff corner of my mouth collecting drool. I felt like a rabid dog, not least because I harbored the fantasy that someone would put me out of my misery. Every time I tried to lie on my back the bile rose. If I could have fallen asleep that way I'd have drowned on dry land. At least I would have gotten some rest.

As it was I got none, and the next day I could barely keep from toppling out of my canoe. I was drifting half-conscious down the prettiest part of the North Fork of the Flathead River, and all I could do was keep mumbling to myself, over and over, keep it together. I don't know if I was talking out loud or not.

I was visiting Missoula for 10 days, and on the third day, friends Matt and Jori and I packed our boats and drove north to the Canadian border for this two-night float down to Polebridge, as we've done four of the past five years, in early July. It's about as close to an annual tradition as I have, and I look forward to it the way some people anticipate Christmas morning. The year before I'd had to cancel the trip just before I was scheduled to fly out of Austin when my dog ate the wrong kind of spider and went into something close to a coma, ruining the week for both of us.

He survived, deaf as a post but otherwise no worse for the wear, and a year later here I was back on the North Fork, twice as eager to renew my acquaintance with tradition, with Matt and Jori, with the river. And now I was the sick one, borderline incapacitated, and more than a little pissed about it. I'd felt the tickle in my throat on the drive up, and by the time we'd paddled a few hours Friday afternoon and set up camp, I was fully messed up. A diet of PBR, blackberry schnapps and Montana Jerky Co. dried bison probably hadn't bolstered my immunity, but if I was going to float the North Fork sick, so be it. It's not the line I would have chosen, but moving water is unforgiving of the late-changed mind. Once you're committed, you're going where it takes you.

Any trip on the North Fork begins when the pavement turns to washboard north of Columbia Falls. For years the battle has raged between people who would like to see that road paved—and I know more than a few axle struts that sympathize—and another contingent that prefers to leave well enough alone. The road is work, and it discourages crowds. And like many things that discourage crowds, the North Fork Road encourages individuals. Matt and Jori and me, for instance. We grimace when we hit that road, which, Jori rightly observes, gets longer every year, but we smile too, through rattling teeth, because we know where it's taking us. In September, Flathead County began spreading bentonite clay on the road as a dust-reduction measure, and some locals say it's provided a measure of relief from the washboarding, too. I hope I'll be forgiven for hoping not too much.

By the time you hit the North Fork Road out of Columbia Falls, there are only a few places you might be going: 35 miles to Polebridge, then into Glacier National Park via a little-used, west-side entrance there; home, if you're one of the 200 or so North Fork summer homers or the roughly 25 who live there year-round; or the Forest Service privy at the Canadian border, where the road dead-ends another 18 miles north of Polebridge at a border crossing that's been decommissioned since the mid-1990s.

We've always stopped at Polebrige Mercantile, to fill out forgotten provisions, to buy the famed baked-on-site pastries, and usually to hire a local to drive our shuttle. The shuttle service is informal, but it's never let us down.

This was my first visit to Polebridge since the Mercantile and its 22.5 acres of grounds, including the hostel cabins, were purchased in May 2009 by Flannery Coats and Stuart Reiswig, a 20-something couple from Missoula. The pastries were as warm and savory as ever. The next-door Northern Lights Saloon, under independent ownership, had let its liquor license lapse, so there was no beer at the bar that day. Coats says the saloon remains closed "for the season," though the Merc stocks plenty of beer and wine to go. It'll likely need it this summer, when Polebridge's annual July 4th parade coincides with Glacier's ongoing centennial celebration.

It's another rough ride from Polebridge to the border toilet. On several trips we've camped not far from that box-topped hole in the ground, off to the southern side of a narrow, shaved boundary-marking swath that runs like a shot through the forest, climbing the horizon on both sides of the river. One night a scrawny fox sniffed around our site looking for scraps while we sat around a fire and watched it. It was very polite. Probably a Canadian.

In the mornings—or afternoons, those years we've arrived early enough to launch without camping—we put our canoes in the water there, driving down a dip and across a shallow side-channel onto a rock bar in the river to unload the truck and pack the boats. Then we climb in, a little jittery from being too long away, and point the boats downstream.

The North Fork of the Flathead melts out of British Columbia, about 31 miles north of the border. Under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, it's federally designated and partially protected from the Canadian border to its confluence with the Middle Fork, which doglegs in from the south, 58 miles downstream. Then the South Fork release from Hungry Horse Dam joins in before the snugged braid spills into Flathead Lake.

Above the Canadian border, the river, there called the Southern Flathead, was until recently unprotected, and it remains remote in the extreme. Long-contemplated mountaintop-removal coal mining and coal-bed methane proposals near its headwaters earned the North Fork the number five spot on the American Rivers organization's 2009 list of the most threatened watersheds in the United States. In February of this year, officials in British Columbia announced a moratorium, in partnership with Montana, on mining and energy development in the Flathead Valley. The deal included a promise from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to buy out energy and mining interests on the state's side of the border.

The North Fork is too cold to be a top-notch fishery, and it's got nothing like the Middle Fork's raft-friendly whitewater or the South Fork's mule-pack remoteness, but it's a recreational canoeist's dream, at least come summer, when the water is dropping and the sweepers don't sneak up so fast. The water looks like jade-green ink spilled in a turquoise dish of skim milk. The ostrich-egg-sized rocks beneath it shine like they're submerged in glycerine. The water moves purposefully, especially in the narrower upstream reaches, necessitating a reasonably deft paddle, with all the attention and pleasure that demand delivers. There aren't many places to just sit and drift if you don't want to end up broadside in a shoal or bow-butting a bank. "It keeps coming at you," Matt likes to say.

The weather in July is usually within a tolerable window. I've been cold there at night, but nothing a fire and a bit of fleece couldn't cure. Last year's trip was my first after the Forest Service implemented 2008 regulations requiring the use of fire pans on the river. A big round baking pan works just fine. (The new regs, implemented in response to an upswing in usage, also require leakproof portable toilet systems for packing human waste out.)

On other trips in early July it's been so blazing hot on the water that swimming has started to seem viable. It's really not. I can stay in for about as long as it takes me to get back out.

The river's western bank is Flathead National Forest, and the east bank is Glacier National Park, the boundary of which runs the river's middle. Bald eagle sightings are frequent. We've seen several deer swimming the river. Moose are not uncommon, but hard to see. I've never seen a bear, though they're there, and the mere possibility of a grizzly effects a clarifying force on the mind. It's a good idea to hang your food, or at least seal it well and stash it away from camp. We've seen plenty of beavers and, less frequently, marmots.

Or people. Certain stretches of the North Fork feel so otherworldly that it seems impossible you could be sharing the watershed with other humans. In fact, the North Fork Road shadows the river for most of its length, though you rarely notice its presence. There are houses along the river, mostly on the western shore, but it's rare to see any sign of habitation. Occasionally you will pass or be passed by locals out for a day trip, or rafting fishermen or, increasingly, fellow canoeists. At a right-bank meadow access just above the Kintla II rapids, sometimes called the Wurtz airstrip, about 10 river miles from the border, you'll probably cross paths with some kayakers putting in for a short run.

Kintla II, named for nearby Kintla Lake in Glacier, is the only whitewater on this reach of river worth paying much attention to, and I say that as an only moderately capable paddler who's canoed bigger water, but never lost his adrenal fear of even minor turbulence. Every year I'm sure I'll hit it wrong and get blown out of the boat, and every year, so far, I've run it upright and washed out with no more carnage than a hull third-full of cold North Fork sloshing around my knees. You want to enter the rapid center and draw toward the right to skirt a big rock above an even bigger hole. This trip I was too fogged and weak to pull into the right line, so I gave up and let the current slip me around the rock to the left. Apparently you can do it that way too. At a certain point, there's not much profit in working against the river.

A guy coming down after us in a canoe, shirtless and pfd-free, dog in bow, let himself get sucked over the rock and blown out in the hole, and swam it all to shore without the slightest hint of anything having gone wrong. I envied his elan, but shivering on shore I was awfully glad not to be in that water.

It seems churlish to whine, but the highly localized black cloud following my head down the river felt especially cruel, given that the prime appeal of a North Fork trip for me has always been clarity, the mental refresh button of it. As someone born and acculturated to Texas, I don't think I'll ever familiarize myself with the feeling of paddling clear, cold water under close, hot sun in sight of snow-capped mountains, and I don't think I'll ever get tired of it.

The North Fork isn't literally the top of the world—all rivers, by definition, occupy low spots, and the elevation at Polebridge is only a few hundred feet higher than Missoula's—but to someone raised in southern climes, where all waters eventually trickle down into the brown Gulf of Mexico, even the illusion of altitude is powerful. Our trip starts at the top of the map, for one thing, and the North Fork flows along an intuitively satisfying north-to-south axis, unlike, say, the Clark Fork or Bitterroot, which stubbornly go the wrong way. The air feels thin up there, like it hasn't yet taken on the weights of the world below, and the skeleton forests that periodically dominate the horizon, remnants of fire, charred trunks bare as telephone poles, always look to me like a dioramic tableau from another, older planet.

This is where I come to clear my head, not lose it. It's where I come to reconnect with myself and with friends like Matt and Jori, who introduced me to this river, and who are now being extraordinarily patient with my mental absence and solicitous of my health. They offer to abort the trip with me at the Ford Landing point, but I have the minimal presence of mind to realize that if we do that, I'll just be sick as a dog in the back seat of a car for the next four hours, and then sick as a dog on a borrowed Missoula couch. If I've got to be sick as a dog, and apparently I do, I might as well do it out in the sun, on the water, letting gravity spin me home at its own pace.

It does, and then we're there. When we pull out of the water in the shadow of the first and last bridge of our trip, the way into Glacier, just down the dirt road from Polebridge, I feel almost human again. I feel the same way I always feel when I see that bridge come around the bend: like the trip is over too soon, like I wish it wouldn't end. Even fogged and spent, I already know it's not the crappy night in a tent that I'll remember so much as another couple of blissful days on the water. Already I'm remembering that there are ultimately no bad days on the North Fork. I'll be sick for another week, snotty, weak and hoarse, but I can't see that from this sluicing rock bar where we're stowing our gear for the drive home. I'm already too busy looking forward to next time.

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