Swept Away

A misadventure on the Gallatin.

A few summers ago, my girlfriend Jo and I were beat up from biking trails beyond our ability and conceived a yen to float the Gallatin from the mouth of the canyon to Gallatin Gateway. We probably got the idea from a couple of friends who had raved about kayaking the same stretch the year before. Trouble was, neither Jo nor I owned a boat. We opted for tubes. Right away those kayaker friends pointed out (quite diplomatically, I thought) that “the water is pretty damn cold in early July.” We had an answer for that. Through Jo’s job at MSU, we planned to rent a couple of tubes with canvas bottoms attached from the Outdoor Recreation Center. That way, we could carry supplies like sunscreen and flip-flops, and wouldn’t be seated so deeply in the water. Our friends gave each other a look and let it drop—at least the part about water temperature. They did mention that the best way to navigate a tube in difficult water was by paddling backwards. Just like their caution about cold temps, the mention of rough water went right over our heads.

The following Saturday, we waited until the heat of the day, stashed my Honda at a turnout in Gallatin Gateway, and parked Jo’s Subaru on River Road just below the concrete bridge at the mouth of the canyon. We stripped down to our tubing attire—a green one-piece for Jo, a pair of blue trunks and a t-shirt for me—locked up the car, and dragged the inflated tubes down the bank. Before launching, we stood knee-deep in the river splashing water on ourselves and discussing how chilly the water was. We quickly shrugged it off and agreed that it was nothing we couldn’t soon get used to.

I don’t know where we got the idea—certainly not from our more experienced friends—but somehow we had it in our minds that this would be a pleasure cruise, something akin to floating the Madison on Sunday afternoon without the crowd—hence the beer that found its way aboard. Not very much beer, just two apiece.

The float was pleasant at first, bobbing along with the sun on our backs, the river clear, burbling, and slow. A dowdy little dipper dove for insects. A kingfisher gave us hell. The occasional fisherman blessed us with a nod, and a father and young son waved to us from Williams Bridge. Just below the bridge, we began to gripe about the cold.

The sun may have warmed us from the waist up, but the water cooled us from the waist down. When we floated through the shadows cast by the numerous green and whispering cottonwoods, our world turned flat arctic and each cold sip of beer produced lingering chills.

In retrospect, I can see that continuing our float while complaining about the cold was a mistake. Had we gone ashore just below the bridge, talked it over and come to our “it’s too damn cold” conclusion, ending the float would have been a simple matter of hitchhiking back to the car and retrieving the tubes. As it was, we ended up floating a good deal farther downstream, before pulling up alongside a downed cottonwood and concluding, “yes, it’s too damn cold.” We knew we should get out of the water, but that would have meant trudging (in flip-flops) across an unknown farmer’s land with all the possible repercussions. Even if that initial third of the trek went as well as could be hoped for, we were still going to have to hitchhike to the car, drive as close as possible, hike (in flip-flops) back across the farmer’s land, drag the cumbersome tubes through the band of cottonwoods and brush that lined the river… well, you get the picture.

We decided to tough it out. Since the beer wasn’t doing our body temperature any good, we tossed them overboard—full and empty cans alike. I’m not going to tell you I’ve never littered, but I will swear that I’d never before deep-sixed a full beer. Even in our goose-bumped and teeth-chattering state, we joked that it was an act guaranteed to enrage both Mother Nature and the powerful gods of Mexican beer.

Shortly after we pushed off from the cottonwood, the land sloped sharply downhill and suddenly the river was flowing faster, and sharp bends piled with jagged driftwood were coming at us—one after the other like a series of roundhouse kicks from a seventh-degree black belt. Just in time, we recalled that paddling backward was most effective, but setting up for each bend, surviving it, and setting up for the next one left no time for rest and no room for error. Again and again, we narrowly escaped the piled driftwood that threatened to snag us and drag us under.

I was beginning to think that I’d rather take my chances with hiking in flip-flops and an irate farmer—then I looked back to see Jo grinning from ear to ear.

At sixty-three, I should have been mature enough to deal with my girlfriend thinking me a wuss, a pansy, a coward, and a yellowbelly—but I was not. I sucked it up and continued stroking for my life. After half-a-dozen more close encounters with the scraggy driftwood, Jo waved and pointed emphatically to shore. We pulled over, clutching a tangle of roots that projected from the sandy bank, barely above an especially jammed and gnarly bend.

“You’re having fun!” I shouted above the roar of the river, pitching my voice in a hearty affirmative rather than revealing the fear in my quaking heart.

“I’m scared to freaking death,” Jo half shrieked, half sobbed, her dirty blond hair wrapped around her neck, her eyes bulging like blue marbles.

“Then why have you been smiling?

“I’m not smiling,” she screamed, “I’m too damn scared to know what my face is doing.”

We spent the next couple minutes bobbing together, encouraging each other, telling each other that Gallatin Gateway must be just around the next bend, but were too damn cold to rest for long.

“This definitely counts as a freaking adventure,” Jo said as we were about to shove off—a reference to our habit of calling any endeavor that scared the crap out of us, caused us to bleed copiously, or exhaust ourselves to the brink of collapse “an adventure.”

Thus far, the current had supplied a good deal of speed and momentum—but I had neither as I pushed off from the roots. My tube was quickly swept away and sucked half-under the huge pile of Medusa-like stumps and shattered driftwood. As I struggled to escape the grasping sticks and abandon ship, Jo’s craft slammed into mine and that wonderfully quick-witted woman had the presence of mind to grab my tube as she was bounced back into the current and yank me, tube and all, from under the clutching snags.

On and on we paddled, arms aching and the cold seeping into our bones, until we were both shouting for a rest. We pulled up on a tongue of land that punched out into the river and Jo managed to point out that I was bleeding—my back was all scratched up—before we collapsed on a field of stones green with slime. For who knows how long, we lay in that tepid green slime with our teeth chattering and the sun baking our backs.

When at last we washed ourselves off and clambered back into the tubes, Gallatin Gateway was indeed around the bend. We dragged the tubes up the bank, stuffed them in the trunk of my car and set my heater on scorch. Still shivering, we drove back to the put in, where we discovered that Jo’s freaking car would not start.