Hubris and humility on the Bitterroot River
It’s rarely a good sign when you end a canoe trip wearing nothing but your underwear, a pair of women’s tennis shoes, a pink ski cap and a shirt that’s only dry spots are the tops of the sleeves. I look like a cross-dresser in the world’s worst wet T-shirt contest. The stares from the anglers along the banks of the river suggest I would’ve been laughed off the stage. Even worse, I couldn’t care less about my appearance: I’m too worried about regaining the feeling in my frozen feet.
Things never should have come to this. My early season float down a scenic and calm stretch of the Bitterroot River, accompanied by two seasoned paddlers, was supposed to be about as eventful as a stroll through the woods. The weather was still cold—flurries greeted us that morning and the mountain peaks were covered in snow storm clouds—but everything else was pristine. We scheduled a put-in at Bell Crossing, just 40 minutes south of Missoula. Our shuttle car was parked in Stevensville, about seven miles downstream. The whole day would last roughly three hours, but deliver maximum exposure to the gorgeous Bitterroot Range. We planned on seeing some wildlife, practicing our strokes, basking in the simple pleasures of preparing for a day on the river. In short, we wanted to soak in the scene, not soak ourselves.
We started fine. I sat in the bow of one canoe, with my friend Steve in the stern. Karen, the most experienced of our trio, launched in a solo canoe and, being a stickler for details, reviewed some paddling basics since it was our first time back on the water after last summer. J-stroke, sweep, draw, what to watch for downstream—Steve and I took it all in diligently, and then we worked to create some room between our boats and the throng of anglers getting ready to put in behind us.
We chose this stretch of the Bitterroot for its exquisite views, beginner-friendly pace (no white water here) and because, for whatever reason, explorer hasn’t covered a southern canoe trip in at least seven years. None of that, of course, makes this a secluded float. Fishermen and women almost always line the banks and their boats meander slowly from prime spot to prime spot. We saw at least a dozen anglers casting—and, it should be noted, often catching—trout during our brief trip. But “crowded” in Montana is a relative term. Within minutes of hard paddling, our two boats had put anyone in waders in the rear view and left us with nothing but seemingly flat water ahead.
At least one Bitterroot River guide makes special mention of that serene water. “Although the Bitterroot River may look placid from the road,” warns a section titled “Floaters Beware,” “it has the potential to present life threatening hazards around every bend … snags and log-jams are the hazards most frequently encountered.” Funny about that last part. Our two boats expertly navigated a few snags—aka sweepers, or downed trees laying across the river—early in the trip. Seasoned paddlers see these as little more than traffic cones on a racecourse, opportunities to practice handling the boat. Steve and I felt nothing but confident, even as we approached a tricky little one-two snag around a shallow bend.
“Eddy, eddy,” shouted Karen.
We stopped short of the bend, pulled into an eddy and assessed the situation. It didn’t look easy, but Steve and I felt we could work our way through. It’d require a tight approach to the left of one sweeper, then a hard right turn past the second, and strong paddling to shoot the gap. What the hell, I thought.
“We can do it,” Steve said. “We got this.”
“I don’t know,” said Karen, who ticked off a couple alternatives, including walking the boats around the trouble.
No fun in that. Steve and I insisted all would be fine. Karen, to her credit, wasn’t so sure.
It was too late. Steve and I were already heading around the first sweeper, hitting the line perfectly. We turned at just the right moment, as well, and from the bow I could see we were in an ideal position to make it through. But the river saw things differently—the current pushed us against the second sweeper and, top heavy in the canoe, Steve and I went overboard into freezing waters. It was right then that I regretted about a million different decisions, the first of which was the arrogant choice to wear cotton—not something, say, waterproof—on an “easy” float.
Here’s what I didn’t regret: trying.
Safely on shore, Steve and I took inventory of our drenched belongings and emptied the canoe of gallons of water, piecing together what went wrong. We both realized, incredulously, that we should have been kneeling in the boat, not sitting high in our seats, during the whole ordeal. I should have drawn away from the sweeper once we made contact. He wished he’d held the turn longer. Karen, meanwhile, apologized for not talking us down from our overly confident, too proud, male stubbornness. We drank yerba mate and stripped as a boat full of anglers stopped in the same eddy and decided to walk their boat along the opposite shore.
As I was peeling off my 500-pound cargo pants, shirt and jacket, I was strangely energized by the blunder. Sure, I was cold with about four miles of river left to paddle. Sure, my digital camera was now nothing more than a heavy bath toy. And sure, there were infinite ways we could’ve avoided the situation. But there was something invigorating about such an immediate and relatively harmless reminder of what’s at stake on the water.
“At least I have something to write about now,” I said.
The rest of our float played out exactly as we had originally hoped. We paddled past Canadian geese, ducks and trout literally jumping out of the water at stoneflies. In the trees along the river we spotted two bald eagle nests, both inhabited by the iconic birds staring down at us. Farther in the distance we saw what looked like osprey condominiums—dozens and dozens of nests built on neighboring branches.
Our technique in the boat also improved. At one point, we successfully performed an upstream ferry to avoid danger and hit a safer channel of the river. Later, Steve and I found ourselves approaching another tricky squeeze and, this time on our knees, tiptoed around a rock and sweeper like a running back hitting an open hole. We never got wet again.
Once we reached the take-out, the sense of accomplishment over a lesson learned outweighed any concern for my internal temperature. The only thing I’d change next time would be no cotton and a better check of my dry bag; I’m still not sure how I ended up driving home wearing my mother-in-law’s Asics.