Swells can rise to incredible heights on some Montana rivers during June high water time.
The estimates seemed exaggerated by some of the runners through Cyr Canyon or Tarkio Gorge on the Clark Fork River as it hurried west of Missoula toward its eventual confluence with the Columbia.
To view a 12-man raft trying to climb such a swell while rollicking through rapids and yet to note that a few feet of water still frothed above the boat while it stood perpendicular in the whitecaps could only mean the waves were indeed, that tall, that intimidating.
In some cases, they were that frightening
Commercialism had not yet found the gorges that housed the rapids on the Clark Fork near Alberton in the early and mid-1970s and those of us who splashed through for the fun, excitement and adventure never really thought others would pay to share.
So maybe it was an opportunity missed. Going businesses have paddled and stroked the waters since.
We saw deer from the different advantage point. Beavers sometimes escorted us away from their lodges. Days were hot. Sometimes the burns even turned into tans. Sometimes.
Times were, it could be surmised, that the canyons didn’t want us on those days, especially in the spring after the winter’s rest and the ice had finally broken. Temperatures rose quickly and the snow fields melted.
The water rushed and had no time to cater to guests. It probably would’ve been best if the kids had stayed away. However, kids don’t always listen.
If so, we probably would’ve recognized the warning a little earlier that gorgeous, radiant day. We filled three 12-man boats and a smaller one, an eight-man design if memory serves.(We’re looking back about 40 years, here).
The voyagers amounted to a collection of some whitewater vets, some occasional rafting enthusiasts and a few newcomers. Trips could be put together almost immediately then before maturity brought us commitments and responsibilities. Such a trip by the same folks now would probably require a date circled on a calendar four or five months ahead.
So the lifestyle then was more carefree and complacency can be dangerous.
The river roared, the anger echoing out of the gorge a little earlier, sooner or louder than in previous runs. Perhaps, we should have paid more attention.
The test began at the start. The drops were sharp as water tumbled over the boulders, creating the whitewater that splashed into the rafts and provided the morning wakeup. The river’s icy fingers reached up and slapped the faces of those who were straddling their boat tubes and trying to gain leverage for power in their paddle strokes.
We only wanted to keep it straight.
A boat caught crosswise in the river and taking on water can be certain disaster. Such a case would be dire in high water with the immense power toppling the craft and trapping passengers beneath.
We kept it straight and the first raft climbed the big swell. It looked headed up the wall of water and whitewater seemed to boil above the bow as the boat stood on end. Paddles weren’t much good. The men manning them stroked with all their mights but the blades were in the air, unable to reach the river surface that had rolled up underneath.
As the swell fell, so did the raft and it stayed upright, then roller-coastered over the power waves as the ride spilled out to the pool still quite a ride away. The smaller boat was the next one up and had actually entered the action while the first raft was still in ascent.
The smaller boat didn’t have the length or the manpower to push through. Only one experienced paddler was on board and he did well, not panicking and trying to hold the boat steady — pretty much by himself.
About halfway up the swell, the smaller raft’s bow curled backwards. Our raft was next and so the view was as if looking at the next car ahead while motoring down the street. Young men spilled out in red, black and orange lifejackets like M&M’s out of a can. They had nothing to grip to stay aboard and the raft was tipping backwards, anyway. They needed to not be underneath. They were going through boatless and we prayed they wouldn’t be sucked into the depths.
We tried to count heads popping back to the surface as we went by and entered the trough. We were fearful for them, then recognized, too, we needed to be attentive to us.
My brother sat toward the bow and I on the next seat behind him, though we both liked to straddle the tubes due to our shortness in height. We needed the angle for better paddling strength. We’re both right-handed, so it was better we sat on the left.
My heart reached my throat well before our boat found the crest of the big wave. I felt myself trying to get to my feet, almost similar to a surfer, as it felt like the raft had gone perpendicular, that my brother and I and the rest of our crew did not have the strength to cut the top off this wave.
At most times, when Kim (my brother) and I rode the water together like this, his favorite bit of mischief was to duck in the front when it seemed like our bow could cut the top off the swell. The maneuver meant the top foot or so of the whitecap would separate from the rest of the water and crash into the raft from the front. Kim would duck, leaving me to catch the brunt of the frosty froth full-force in the face.
This time was different, though. There was no time for games. I stood in a crouch and leaned forward. Our side was out of the water but I still tried to reach with my paddle, thinking we needed a stroke or two to keep straight.
I could feel the raft seeming to fall, looking to collapse back or slip from under us. Those able to dip a paddle did. This was a river rodeo and we were being bucked.
Kim suddenly rose in the front. He dug the toes of his shoes into the material bottom of the raft and, adrenaline jet-injected, actually ran two or three steps up the raft as it seemed to hang, balanced straight up in the river, surrounded by waves and nature’s power.
He then jumped — threw himself straight at the bow and grabbed a hold. I pushed against the floor and I hope I was doing something more to help. Everyone else aboard was also doing something to keep the boat on top and right-side up, but I couldn’t tell you what. I was too busy.
Kim’s crash into the front tubes was enough, however, to surprisingly push the front back down on the water and we crested, and swooshed down the other side of the swell as everyone on board hollered and paddled.
The slide through the chute was quick and as it began to empty into the pool where the river widened, we passed a young man who had been thrown out of the smaller raft that entered the rapids ahead of us. He looked at me with fear in his eyes. He shivered as he stood on a sand bar knee deep in the water and pleaded in almost a whisper, “Help me, please.”
He was off the other side of our raft and so I scrambled across it to reach out a hand to the man.
He didn’t respond. He kept his hands at his side and didn’t reach back. We were stunned. He watched us float on past, again repeating, “help me, please” in a barely audible voice.
We did see him later at a larger beach where we pulled out. He was walking around, talking with people, apparently having been picked up by the last raft in our group through, a larger one that had followed us.
The post-float conversation was much more solemn that day as we packed our equipment off the beach. The what-could’ve-happened was more on everyone’s mind than was what we had done.
It was a good trip. We didn’t lose anybody. However, it was the closest we’d come to having a tragedy happen. We learned.
Most of us ran the river again, even the gorge again — several times. But we knew our limits.
We’d been duly scared.