Aug. 3, 2000: You want ADVENTURE?: Instead of battles with wildlife, try a botched, boring river float with family and friends

2013-12-29T07:02:00Z 2013-12-29T07:17:06Z Aug. 3, 2000: You want ADVENTURE?: Instead of battles with wildlife, try a botched, boring river float with family and friendsBy ED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 29, 2013 7:02 am  • 

I haven't seen "The Perfect Storm" yet, but I know enough from the previews to say that my vacation outing on the Swan River was not nearly as dangerous as the last voyage of the Andrea Gail.

Ludicrous, maybe, absurd, ill-planned, poorly executed and laughably botched, but not perilous; nobody suffered even a scratch.

Still, as far as small-scale disasters go, our float down the Swan deserves a monument — I'm picturing a punctured inner tube raised on a piece of worm-eaten driftwood.

The outing came in the middle of a vacation at Flathead Lake and ultimately involved 14 people — family, friends, in-laws and hangers-on.

Our first mistake was failing to round up enough tubes for everyone. This might seem like an impossible oversight, but when you've got 14 people in five cars converging on Bigfork from three or four different spots on the lake, with plans to pick up inner tubes at three locations, the math isn't so simple.

And we were on vacation. There wasn't a Type A personality among us, and on vacation we all slipped from Type B to Type C, the kind of person who will spend an hour in a lawn chair trying to decide whether it's time to jump in the lake or get a little something to eat and then will doze off before deciding.

It didn't help that our directions were lacking in precision. All we knew was that we were supposed to go to a convenience store in Ferndale, a little hamlet a few miles up the Swan from Bigfork, and ask how to get to where our float would begin. On the way there, we spotted a likely bridge over the river and figured (actually, this was my idea) that the bridge had to be the take-out point, so we left one car there and pushed on to Ferndale.

The guy at the convenience store, however, said most people floated the Swan farther upriver, a 45-minute excursion that ended at a bridge just a stone's throw from the convenience store. To leave from that bridge and float down to where we left our car would take about an hour and a half, in much slower water, he said.

So we decided to do the longer float, believing that one trip made more sense than trying to get 14 people to make several shorter runs.

I had discovered that we were at least one tube short of the required number when I stopped to fill them earlier, but two more were already flat when we started pulling them out of the back of my sister-in-law's van. For that matter, some of the supposedly good tubes looked highly unreliable, particularly the one that had a hole plugged with a cigarette filter.

After getting down to the river, we spent 20 minutes divvying up the tubes and trying to sort out who should ride with whom. It became obvious that at least two members of our party were too young to make the float, and that none of the tubes was capable of bearing two passengers.

After my wife and sister-in-law volunteered to stay behind, I selfishly concluded that things were going to work out somehow, so somebody might as well get on the river and start floating. I was quickly joined by my youngest daughter and six other members of the party.

Before getting out of earshot, we told those on the bank that we'd all rendezvous at the convenience store in an hour and a half.

The younger floaters, who had been persuaded to go tubing as an alternative to hitting the water-slide park in Columbia Falls, were soon complaining about the marked lack of thrills. There was nothing resembling white water in sight, and the only hazard was in shallow sections, where we risked scraping our rumps against rocks.

We inched along on the sluggish current under the broiling sun, moving so slowly at times that we could have made better progress on a lake with a light breeze. I had no complaints, being old enough to think of quiet and serenity as good things, but my nearly comatose contemplation was shattered occasionally by cries of "Boring!'", "This stinks!'' and "When do we get to the car?''

Our first inkling that the excursion had been poorly mapped out came when we encountered a man and woman standing in front of their riverside house. We asked how far it was to the bridge where we left our car.

"About 10 miles,'' the man answered cheerfully. "You're about four or five hours away.''

We concluded he was nuts. Hell, it was only four or five miles from Bigfork to Ferndale. And yet ... we had gone around some pretty sharp bends, and none of us, we realized, had any clear notions about the geography of the river.

We asked the same question of a few more people in the next half hour, and the lowest estimate we got was that we'd be on the river for at least another two hours. Just about the time we decided we had to get off the river and try to get back to the convenience store, the cigarette filter popped out of my nephew's inner tube, and my daughter's friend reported her tube was rapidly losing air, apparently along the seam.

They both plugged the leaks little-Dutch-boy fashion for a while, but my nephew was soon swimming downstream with the deflated tube over his shoulder, and my daughter's friend was walking along the bank, which turned into a marsh that she wished she hadn't tried to cross.

Thankfully, we spotted a good place to get out, and by the time we clambered up the bank to a road on the north side of the river, we were already late for the rendezvous. We tried hitchhiking, but nobody seemed interested in stopping for eight half-naked people toting inner tubes. Not knowing what else to do, I waved my arms at the next vehicle, to indicate we needed help, not just a ride.

Our savior, a big guy in overalls who seemed to get a kick out of our tale of stupidity and woe, was driving a beat-up van awash in empty pop cans, newspapers and assorted other debris, but we didn't mind. I climbed in with my nephew and one of my daughters, and five minutes later we were at the bridge where we'd started.

Five minutes! We knew the river was slow, but none of us had dreamed it was that slow. We got one of the cars we'd left at the bridge, picked up the other floaters and returned to the Ferndale store to meet up with those we'd left behind. They weren't there, so we passed the time by sampling an assortment of junk food.

After an hour of waiting, even the hot-dog-shaped hamburgers began to lose their luster. We finally concluded that the others must have gone home without us.

We left, too, but minutes after clearing out of Ferndale my nephew discovered a note on his dashboard, saying that most everyone else had indeed gone home, but that my friend, Tom, and my wife, Lisa, had decided to go tubing and were about an hour behind us on the river.

Back to the Swan! My nephew and I set off in different directions, driving down virtually every narrow, dusty, heavily rutted road on that stretch of river in hopes of catching a glimpse of Tom and Lisa. Forty-five minutes into our search, my nephew heard from his mother (via cell phone — God bless technology), who said Tom and Lisa were waiting for us at the Ferndale store.

I sent my nephew back to the cabin and made one last drive to Ferndale. There were Tom and Lisa, looking perfectly calm and pleased, as if we'd planned the whole thing down to the minute. They informed me that they had come to the same conclusions we had, got off the river at the same point and stuck out their thumbs. They got a ride on the back of a flatbed truck and were dropped off at the Rocky Mountain Roadhouse just across the river from Ferndale.

Tom, who was out visiting from Minnesota, says he'll never forget that bar, or the hospitality of the bartender. He entered the roadhouse wearing nothing but a pair of cutoffs and old tennis shoes, clutching a half-deflated inner tube. The bartender took one look at him and offered him a free beer.

So Tom had a good time, as Tom usually manages to do. Lisa and I were satisfied, too, though I wish I had done more floating and less driving on gravel roads. As for the younger members of our expedition, well, they're still incapable of thinking of the day as anything but a disaster. Worse, a dreadfully boring disaster.

But they'll remember our outing as surely as Tom will remember the roadhouse. And next time, we promised, we'll take them to the water slides.

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