Norman’s Will

On Montana’s storied Big Blackfoot River, the rapture of falling serves as a measure of progress.

Gray’s Sporting Journal
March/April 2017

Oscar Wilde once observed that discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation. The problem with that as an organizing principle, of course, lies in becoming a chronic malcontent. A sourpuss. But followed with temperance, Wilde’s maxim has served me well since the first time I encountered it inside a fortune cookie at lunch nearly 20 years ago—then pinned it to an office bulletin board, quit that job, and never looked back. Sometimes one just needs a change of scenery.

And so it was, early last fall, that I found myself limping down the upper Blackfoot River under an early October thunderhead, with a broken oar, cold wind in my face, and lightning splitting the canyon sky. It was the final huzzah of a monthlong sporting bender that had begun as a negotiation—first with myself and then with others—about what I was doing chained to my desk like Prometheus to his rock, stuck in a windowless officle where the natural world had become little more than dots of ink drying on 100-pound cover stock.

Suffice it to say that at a certain point I renegotiated my affairs, arranged to work remotely ever thereafter, and immediately bought a one-way ticket to Montana.

That part went great. The work got done, and the head cleared. There was a side trip to hunt elk in Idaho, and another week working from my brother’s cabin on the Blackfeet Reservation long astride the Front Range, damn nearly in Canada. I logged in to distant servers by day; we chased rainbow trout and ruffed grouse in grizzly country by late-September sundowns. I read William Finnegan’s peripatetic surfing memoir, Barbarian Days, and was reminded why I’d wanted to become a writer in the first place.

I gorged on smoked trout, venison backstrap, and grouse flesh, spending as much time as possible boxing the sporting compass. Toward the end of this wilderness idyll, in the midst of an election season that had begun to recede like a toxic tide, I rolled back across the Continental Divide smelling bigly. I’d worn the same pair of pants for the last two weeks straight, and had slept more nights on a floor or couchette than in a proper bed.

Yet I still craved a few more days on the water before flying home. This time alone. My brother generously threw me the keys to his truck, along with the primal parts of a one-man cataraft that had sat pieced out in his storage shed for years. On the afternoon of our return from the east side, I quickly reassembled the frame and pontoons in his backyard, patched a leak, and had my camping gear repacked by sunset. The only decision was where to go.

All other things being equal, there is just one choice for a wayward son trying to reconnect with Montana—which is to say a float down the river that runs through it. When I lived out there in the ’80s and early ’90s, the Big Blackfoot was generally avoided by fishermen. Plagued by mining disasters, agricultural dewatering, and general abuse, it was a shameful heritage for Norman Maclean’s classic novella. With the film release of “A River Runs Through It” in 1992, its popularity surged. And today, many of the Blackfoot’s environmental insults have been mitigated, in no small measure due to the river’s literary significance.

The downside is that the Blackfoot is now one of  Montana’s most popular rivers, clogged with every manner of vessel, from inner tubes to drift boats. If you want to be alone on the Blackfoot, try snowshoeing in around February. For both those reasons—neglect and rebirth—I had never fished it.

So in short, our time had come.

By the time the earth rolled over in its sleep, I’d be well on my way upriver.

That afternoon I hotfooted south through the Flathead Valley, stopping in Bigfork to buy groceries before flying past the back door of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. By evening  I had my tarp strung taut between two riverside spruce trees, flames roaring in the fire ring, pork chop and mushrooms simmering in a tinfoil love nest. October caddis fluttered past my headlamp at the picnic table, clumsily crawling across a greasy paper plate. The Blackfoot gurgled at its autumn low-water mark. Mars winked over the southern horizon, cueing up a straight shot of Saturn, Venus, and the setting sun right into heaven’s corner pocket. By the time the earth rolled over in its sleep, I’d be well on my way upriver.

When I got to the put-in the next day—on a Saturday morning no less—there was not one vehicle or person in the parking lot. It was a 12-mile float back down to my campsite, and by all appearances, I was going to have the most popular river in Montana all to myself.

I left 40 bucks for a shuttle under the truck visor, piled aboard my raft, and for the first three hours drifted languidly on pontoons firmed by morning sun. Each stroke revived a muscle memory for rowing that had long since atrophied. Carefree, I sat back in my one-man yacht and breathed the October air filtering through ponderosa pines. At the first pod of rising trout, I caught a 20-inch cutthroat. Then another, and another. I floated blissfully downstream, utterly alone, as if Norman himself had willed me the river.

Then I entered the canyon.

This was not totally unexpected. But in my haste to abandon civilization, I had failed to fully assess the river at low water, and the first cataract came as a bit of a surprise. Nonetheless, it was intoxicating to ride the river’s quickening pulse. Shadows grew longer as the walls grew taller, and the rapid spit me out in a deep gorge, raft spinning, feet dangling in cold water. I looked over the edge and saw many large fish moving upstream along the bottom. I believe they were bull trout, a threatened species, and perhaps an omen.

Once, long ago, I heard a skydiving instructor refer to the parachutist’s false sense of security as “the rapture of falling.” It’s the paralyzing bliss of believing that one is flying when he is actually plummeting toward disaster. Rapture prohibits clear thought (like reaching for your rip cord). On a river, our proclivity for fatal misconception lies in the drift itself, the false flight that beckons us downstream, buoyant with timeless promise.

It is enough to say that I was relieved to exit the canyon, ego rapped right along with my knuckles. Pushing evening, a quick GPS check suggested I had at least three more hours of hard rowing. Overhead, the blue sky had gathered a storm, and the first mist of rain tickled my cheeks. Scudding clouds threatened to overrun me as thunder rumbled through the southern tree line. A cold wind stood up downstream, and I countered the oars to put each gust at my back.

Out of drinking water, I stopped rowing long enough to drop the intake of my portable filter into an eddy. I dallied once more to tighten the oarlocks with my multi-tool, noticing that the post holes were so augured out as to require twice the effort on each stroke. Coming around a bony bend, I backstroked furiously to line up with the tailout, pulled hard on the left oar, speared a rock with it, and heard a crack! The top half of my oar blade went bobbing past. I scooped it up, tucked it under a boat strap, and doubled my back into the task.

Another night and full day on the river lay ahead—18 miles total—including, as it would turn out, an even more challenging canyon the next day. Now it would be with a broken oar. I was almost out of food, losing energy, down to burning pinecones at my campsite. I had not even remembered to bring a life preserver. No one from work knew where I was. Before my phone died, I’d had three unanswered texts from my wife, the last of which said simply: “I miss you.”

Drifting midstream atop a metal rowing frame, with what amounted to a graphite antenna trailing off the rear rod holder, it suddenly dawned on me that I might now be falling rather than flying. Just as I looked up, a bolt of lightning cleaved the sky overhead. It appeared wicked, uncaring, though the thunderclap might as well have been a voice booming out, You are pushing your luck, son. Go home!

I thought of Paul Maclean, Norman’s ill-fated brother, gambling with the patience of the universe. And at that point I was done. I no longer wanted to be on a river that did not want me on it. The desire to be alone had been swept away like cottonwood seed on the wind. I had commitments. There was work to do. People to love. I had not been home in exactly one month.

So I spun the raft again and rowed hard to get where I needed to be, downstream by nightfall, toward some place that finally felt like progress. ✦