Just around the bend
By Buster Raymond
Our little annual flotilla took off from the waters of the Flathead River at Buffalo Bridge, below Kerr Dam, maybe ten miles from the Flathead Lake outlet, below the canyon proper. I rowed the big raft, a framed 14-footer, the cargo vessel filled with gear and coolers. My boys and our Indian people were spread among the five other unpowered watercraft.
We would reach Sloan’s Bridge sometime that day, the last pavement near the river — well, gravel, anyway — until our takeout three days downriver where the Jocko runs into the Flathead at the old Indian Agency in Dixon. Dixon Bar, wrote Hemingway, was one of the top ten reasons to leave home; being now a narrow, dark hole, perhaps it was more fun before the Indian Agency relocated to Pablo. I’d dropped the man-van and a car-hauler at the takeout this morning, some 90 road miles from our put-in at Buffalo. We’d be two nights and three days on the river.
Although we could camp anywhere we liked, during the years we’d settled on a few campsites along the route that we found particularly genial. We had a specific one in mind our first day out from Buffalo, a small cove with flat tent space, some available Ponderosa firewood and an east-facing gravel beach, with a big rock in the river the kids liked to dive and fish from. We’d seen golden eagles along that stretch before, pretty rare west of the Divide. We wouldn’t see any that day; but neither would we see another soul on the river or the riverbanks.
The first day turned out to be a long day, cloudless and hot, a lazy drift, with little whitewater. Usually we did this float in June or July, but now in August, with the snowmelt from the park nearly all gone, the river drifted very slowly. When the slanting sun started to get close to the canyon rim — this was long before full dark, but it gets dark in the river faster than up on the bench — it got to be time to find our particular campsite. Now, late in the day, exhausted by the river and the sun and the beers, I realized we’d need to row to reach our spot before full dark.
This is genuine work. I was rowing about a thousand pounds on a slug-shaped vessel. The way raft frames work, my position and leverage on the long oars was excellent, but of course, like a Nautilus machine, the work still remained. All paddles were out, the several remaining vessels making way more or less together, end to end a couple hundred yards.
In the lead vessel, a six-foot inflatable raft, my Salish sister, aboard the cargo boat with me, was convinced she knew our location on the river. This is harder than you are imagining, though we’d all been down it many times — she kept insisting, “It’s just around the next bend.” We kept rowing.
Dusk drew on. “It’s just around the next bend.” She had that definite Indian assurance about natural phenomena, often justified. “It’s just around the next bend.” Of course, she was also reassuring the six members of our party under the age of 15, who were all tired of pemmican and thinking of the substantial meal they’d enjoy when we landed. “It’s just around the next bend.” We rowed on. Dusk deepened. I got the chili, our traditional first night’s supper, out of the cooler so it’d melt faster. “It’s just around the next bend.” Brighter stars were showing.
Quite suddenly, in a turn of the now-black river and the deep shadow from a stand of tall larch up on the cutbank, I couldn’t see the lead boat anymore. If I couldn’t, more worrisome were the views from the smaller craft. I had no objection to night operations afloat on Flathead Lake, which is civilized except for the moronic tourists on rented watercraft, but this was the wild. Mother Nature often throws a beanball at folks who take dumb chances. This river regularly kills people.
“Lost you in the dark, Melanie,” I said while I backed water and counted boats. Being no fool either, she picked the next likely spot on the right bank; we landed the fleet and I had that pot of chili over the Coleman three minutes later.
It wasn’t the spot we’d intended, but it was level enough for tents above high water and had a nice sheltered spot for a good campfire and firewood. Pretty good pick for damn-near-dark pickin’ decision. My boys saw to a campfire; nothing quite so cheerful as a campfire, even if you’re already cheerful. I squared away my own gear then brought my lawn chair down to sit by the murmuring mighty Flathead and drink beers with my friends by starlight. This is living.
It turned out the next day — you knew this was coming — the next day, around the very next bend, hadn’t even cracked a beer yet, was the cool campsite. No kidding.
I was quite thrilled with the spot we landed on by chance, though. It was a moonless, cloudless night. At 3,000 feet the air is often crystalline. Thirty river miles from pavement there is absolutely zero light pollution. The heavens aren’t black but white with starlight. The sight never gets old. This particular piece of riverbank had a glorious view of that incomparable night sky.
And on that night we got a special, unlooked-for treat: Sitting on the riverbank, telling each other stories, we noticed one falling star after another, eventually nearly a hundred, and later came to find out they were part of the Perseids meteor shower. Mesmerizing, there by the wild river, Ponderosa wood smoke in the air — something like sweetgrass to me — the stars so near to hand, there with my family and Indian people, watching stars fall in a brilliant night sky. Had we made it to the cool campsite of yore, “just ’round the next bend,” I may well have missed that particular, very spectacular glimpse of our Maker.
James “Buster” Raymond is a graduate of the Naval Academy, a former Marine officer and an attorney. A native of Montana, he recently departed his beloved Big Sky country and relocated with his family to the Tidewater region of Virginia.