Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Good River, Dude

I am sitting in a hotel lobby in Helena, Montana's capital, winding down from a three week whirlwind tour of work and fun. Yesterday I moved from President - Elect to President of the Montana chapter of the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) ...nationally there are 22,000 members, so now I am a true muckity-muck. I came to Helena on Tuesday, after arriving back in Missoula Sunday night from a 60-mile float trip down the beautiful Smith River. It was strange, having been on the river and in the wilds for 5 days, to turn back around and head over here and be "professional" again...I still have a faint "floating" feeling 5 days post river. The Smith River really is amazing, flowing between the Little Belt and Big Belt Mountains of Montana, through canyons and open spaces full of wildlife of all kinds.

As my friends and I said throughout the week, it was "good river, dude."

My friends Andy & Melanie Puckett have been trying to convince me for months that this would be a trip of a lifetime...and I am the kind of person who gets skeptical when I feel like someone is working too hard to convince me of why I am going to like something. So I entered Tuesday with a feeling of excitement but also wariness...after all, being a single man who enjoys his freedom entering into a 6-day trip where I had no control over anything was a daunting challenge.

We were slated to leave Missoula at 3:00 PM for the 4 hour drive to the Baker Camp put-in near White Sulphur Springs (WSS)...we left at 6:00 pm. Getting ready was a major chore, mostly for Andy & Mel who had to pack for their family and two bachelor's who had no clue what a river float down the Smith River would entail (Steve Larson came out from Providence). Mel, Andy, along with Pocatello, Idaho friends Tad & Paula Phelps, basically planned all the dinners & breakfasts and obtained all the cookware and other accessories that make a float a true experience. Andy strapped boats, packed coolers, arranged dry bags and prepared snacks as Mel crossed off her check list and gathered all the kids stuff. Our drive over was beautiful, even when we crested a butte only to see a huge snowstorm sitting right over where we were to camp. Arriving in WSS we happened upon Tad & Paula, their kids Megan and Julia and Steve, who flew to Salt Lake City, hopped a shuttle to Pocatello and then rode up with the Phelps clan...we ran into each other in the one gas station/casino in town. The attendent painted an ugly picture...it snowed twice that day and she predicted snow that night...ugh, thought I as we purchased night beers for the chill.

We sat our camp up in the dark and soon were joined by the final two in our party, "Mike Dude" and his 17-yr. old son Adam. It did get cold so we huddled by the fire, drank a few beers, stared in awe at all the stars in the night sky and then went to bed hoping there would not be snow on our tents in the morning.

On Wednesday morning we were met with chilly wind and weather, but the skies were clear and bright...a good omen. As with the getting packed, it took us a long, long time to get the 4 rafts ready for the river. I was surprised at how narrow the river was at the put-in, a confluence of what looked to me like two streams moving fast with winter run-ff from the mountains. I quickly discovered that a river float can be quite luxurious, and you can do so many things you can't do on a back packing trip. And because the Smith is a coveted wild place, access is limited to 8 groups a day and campsites are assigned. We got on the river late in the morning and our adventure began right away...it was a beautiful day, despite the wind and I got my paddling arms loosened up immediately. The river took a sharp 90 degree left turn 30 yards after put in and I nearly slammed into a downed tree as I got used to the current. Steve and I were in one boat, the Puckett's and Phelps in two others and Mr. Mike Dude and Adam were in the 4th.

Click here to see what we experienced.

What transpired over the next 5 days was nothing short of magical and stupendous. 5 days of paddling, floating, relaxing, fishing, eating, playing, hiking, bird watching, partying, talking, and unwinding! No email, no phones, no cars, no noise other than the river, the birds, the crackling fire, laughter and good conversation.

In short, the trip lived up to all the hype. We saw falcons, eagles, hawks, and all manner of bird. On the second night we ran across the remains of a deer, which had obviously been munched on by some unseen predator (that was a little eerie). We caught fish, ate elk, lounged in the crisp mornings and late nights and generally got refreshed.

More details in part two...for now I need to make the two hour drive back to Missoula and do some work. I'd rather be floating.