This is a story about rafting a river with a Spotter who is scared spitless.
Wait, I misspelled that last word.
The spotter is supposed to look out for rocks and snags in the river, telling the rower to move around the hazards.
So the Spotter and Rower started out fine the first day on the Smith River in Montana. The flows were high but not so high to cancel the trip as we did a year ago. After four years of trying to get a permit, one of our six applicants (all put in for same date, whoever wins takes us all), finally got one. Last year we tried to go on a permit that had been canceled by someone who backed out, as we did when the floods came.
On our first day at Camp Baker, the put-in spot, we got the briefing from Laura our Leader. Face the danger. Back away from it. Go sideways down the river. Follow the bubbles that indicate current.
A rough landing at our first camp, Lower Scotty Allen campsite, after 12 miles and three hours rowing, but we didn’t overshoot it and go downstream. Fresh vegetables that night for dinner. Weather chilly but clear; the expected rain never showed up.
Next morning: snow. On the 8th of June. So we waited it out, got things mostly dry, packed up and pushed off into something called the “Rock Garden.”
There were rocks – so many that the Spotter went panicky. “There’s a rock. Go back. Back. Back, back, back. BACK, I say!”
So we backed into the bank behind us, spun around, got oars tangled in brush, hit rocks any way. More rocks, more backing. Trying to row forward to avoid hitting the back bank. Final indignity was getting hung up on a rock, trying to get off it before current toppled us. Finally pulled an oar from the oarlock and pushed us off the rock protruding in the middle of our raft. We went to the garden alone while the waves were still on the rocks until we came spinning around a corner and there was Laura, standing hands crossed across her chest before grabbing our bow line.
“I’m scared to death watching you two. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. What are you doing?”
The briefing at Camp Baker now delivered as a lecture:
“Face the danger. Back away from it. Turn the boat and row backwards. Trying to row forward gets you little. You’re working too hard at rowing. Let the river do the work. Stay in the center of the river, not bouncing off the sides. Miss rocks by 20 inches, not 20 feet. I don’t want to see my friends die.”
Which was never my intention, although the Spotter may have had some doubts.
We got back in our boats, a bit chagrined. But we had listened and tried to do better on spotting, rowing and communicating, which we did. Miss the rocks, do better on two-oared turns to face the danger. Watch my back side so that I don’t plow into something worst that what we were trying to avoid up front. No yelling at each other either out of fear or anger. Miss the rocks by 20 inches and settle in for the nice parts of the ride.
That did not include hail while on the river that day before we landed (better but not perfect) at Lower Sunset Cliffs 14 miles downstream and three and a half hours rowing.
Then the weather got better, and we got better at controlling the raft and could turn our attention to . . .
The birds we saw: the Great Horned Owl (staring from a cave on the side of the river – the best sighting of the trip), red hawk, dippers, yellowtails, tanagers, Canada geese (plenty of them), mergansers, catbirds, crows, magpie, red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks, Swainson thrush, chickadees, Sand hill crane, bluebirds, eagles, mallard ducks and, heard but not seen, wild turkeys.
The animals: Deer, beaver, one quick sighting of a bear by one member.
The great campsites Laura had picked out: From Lower Scotty Allen to Lower Sunset Cliffs to Upper Parker Flats to Ridgetop. With all the accommodations of home (see above).
To great food: The fresh vegetables the first night (always a treat on a camping trip in the wilds), the Spotter’s Everything but the Kitchen Sink Turkey Dish, Chris’ pasta with fresh asparagus and the smorgasbord the last night of ham, Madras lentils and leftover pasta (Indian spaghetti).
To an interesting incident on the last day that would have sent our Spotter crazy if it had happened to us (me, too) but seemed to be taken in stride by the party experiencing it: We spent our last night at Ridgetop, which was more crowded than our other camps. We got there early after two hours of rowing to cover eight miles on the river. Things went along peacefully until late afternoon when other campers showed up for the sites nearby us. It was the only campsite where we could even see other campers. In the middle of cooking our dinner, I started to hear music playing – not out here, please. As Chris said, “There goes the neighborhood.” He was down at the river and realized “Free Falling” by Tom Petty was coming from an orange raft floating down the middle of the river – and there was no one in the raft, Tom Petty or otherwise.
Then people came racing along the bank and just before the curve downstream, a man jumped in the river and tried to swim for the raft. Cold river, strong current and a runaway raft with the campers’ gear heading rapidly downstream. Not a good combination. The swimmer almost got a hold of the raft before it rounded the bend, went into the strong current on the far side of the turn (following the bubbles) and went sailing away. Fortunately, the swimmer made it to the other side of the river and climbed out.
A raft was rowed across the river to pick up the swimmer who would have to figure out how to get through the night with no gear. Another raft went by and asked what was going on. A loose raft. “The beer boat?” he asked. Yep. “That happens a lot.”
Amazed by the others in the party who didn’t seem too upset by all this. “Never leave your boat untied,” said Laura, another good piece of advice.
We found out at the take-out the next day that campers downstream heard the music, ran out to investigate and pulled the delinquent raft ashore. Thanks for the warning, Tom Petty.
We talked about the incident that night, and how terrified our Spotter would have been if that had happened to us. But through the talk, we came to the agreement that we could do this thing together again, no questions asked.
Well, maybe one: Why, Ms. Terrified Spotter, did you agree to go on this trip?
“This,” she said,” is the last thing I would chose to do if I were not married to this idiot.”