Canoes and Cold Hands

An ode to being broke and fishing anyway.

Our green Coleman canoe gets some strange looks at the Gallatin put-in. There’s snow in the forecast for the afternoon but for now the sun is out and warms up my waders that hang from the rear-view mirror. We pull the canoe off a cutbank into a small eddy.

“If we tip over here, we just swim back to the car, right?” I'm joking, but the water is winter-cold and I really, really don’t want to go for a wader-swim. Two men attaching a spare oar to a shiny RO driftboat look at us with concern as we stack a six-pack of beer into the middle of the boat, then charge the nose of the canoe through the current. One wobbly turn later, we’re moving downstream.

When I guide, I call any double-paddled craft "a divorce boat." Both my boyfriend and I would rather be unloading a handcrafted driftboat off a custom-welded trailer, but we’re both a little broke, a little cocky, and a little wild-eyed in love with floating on water. We use the resources that come cheap and easy to spend time out here. This canoe has been sitting in my back yard abandoned and covered in weeds all winter.

“Might as well see if it floats,” Casey said this morning, pushing it over with his foot.

Paddling downstream, we edge the canoe off shallow bars of gravel, giving strainers of piled driftwood a wide berth. We ram the canoe’s nose (sorry canoe) onto an island and Casey swings a streamer deep into the run and back toward us.

Back in the canoe, we yell at each other a few times because this is what you do in a duo-paddled bucket that doesn’t turn because it’s designed for lakes. My hands are numb but I dig in J-strokes as Casey casts another streamer into a frothy eddy. I hear a yelp and watch him land a thick rainbow, its scales just a shade darker than the snowflakes that have started to fall. I smile as I turn the canoe back into the current, because now he owes me one.

As the snow begins to dump in earnest, I decide to save my “hold-the-boat-here” card for later. We paddle hard for the take-out, making jokes about taking maidens and furs downstream. We bask in sarcastic mountain-man fantasies and a rainbow-trout high. At the car, we huddle around the heater, thawing our hands and wishing the canoe would put itself back on the roof.

Someday, we’ll have a nice driftboat and trailer. Maybe I’ll buy a pair of waders that aren’t hand-me-downs from a fisheries-tech friend. Maybe in the future Casey’s fly rod won’t be the most expensive thing he owns, vehicle included. We both love spending time on rivers more than fancy appliances or Paris vacations, so I know where our first bit of expendable income will go. But for now, there’s something scrappy and delicious about these backyard canoes, begged-and-borrowed rafts, numb hands, and lunches of dark beer. I know that in ten years, Casey will feather the oars on our RO driftboat while I catch a rainbow in that frothy eddy (he owes me one, after all).

“Remember that time we canoed this stretch in late March?” he’ll ask.

“If you’re gonna be stupid, you gotta be tough,” I’ll quote off a beer can.

Then we’ll laugh and hope the river and its trout remember that we came and loved them even before it was easy to do so.