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Temporary fix

On a trip down the Beartrap Canyon of the Madison River years ago, Brett French and his crew had to improvise a raft patch using pine pitch and duct tape.

A cutting torch is not the type of equipment usually required to launch a raft on the first float of the season. Then again, I’m not your usual rafter.

I tend to put repairs off until the last possible minute. But this season I got a head start and dragged my 16-year-old blue raft out of the garage, inflated it, and patched the holes that I knew existed — all of this the day before launching the craft.

I was feeling pretty smug.

Especially considering that last year, it wasn’t until I was driving out of town to go on my first float that I noticed one of the tubes on the trailered raft was already sagging. Unfortunately, it was too early in the year to find a patch kit at one of the sporting goods stores. I tried to improvise with a fishing wader patch kit, but by the time we got to the boat launch the tube was sagging again. The wader patch had failed. Playing it smart, we didn’t launch, giving a new meaning to the phrase “failure to launch.”

Even after patching the raft later, it still developed other slow leaks that plagued my bedraggled paddling crews throughout the rafting season. So in addition to bailing water out of the craft when waves lapped over the sides, we’d occasionally have to pull over or pump up the raft tubes on the fly to keep our heads above water.

All of these problems should make it clear to my spouse that it is time for a new raft — a self-bailing one at that. But as long as patches and bailers are cheaper and easier to come by than a raft, my argument is doomed to fail.

Rafting routes

I must admit I’ve gotten a lot of use out of the battle-scarred raft. One crewmate suggested it would be neat to figure out how many river miles the raft has traveled. I’m guessing it has easily crossed the state — about 560 miles — but it would take me too long to sit down and figure out the actual miles.

Maybe more telling than the miles it has traveled are the many travails it has suffered through. I’ve used it as makeshift lean-to while float-camping my way down the Dearborn River. I took it down the wood-choked bends of the South Fork of the Sun River, deflated it, and carried it around the river’s fish-stopping waterfall. When our shuttle boat didn’t show up at the head of Gibson Reservoir, a boater hooked a water-skiing rope onto the front and towed it the length of the lake. A couple of years ago we crammed six guys into the 13.5-foot boat — easily more than 1,000 pounds — and ran the Gallatin River’s notorious House Rock whitewater section when a hailstorm struck. That may be where the boat developed some of its current leaks, since we ping-ponged off numerous sharp rocks in the struggle to get downstream while being pelted on the head.

The boat has tackled some well-known Montana whitewater stretches, including Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone River and Bear Trap Canyon on the Madison. Up north, it has floated portions of the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River — beautiful stretches of stream where the water is so Bombay Sapphire Gin clear that the multicolored rocks on the river bottom glisten like jewels. The old blue raft has also run the bounding waves of Alberton Gorge on the Clark Fork River and cruised down sections of the slower-flowing, muddy and tranquil Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.

Health care

Maybe because of all of these trips, like my raft I’ve started sagging more, too. And I’ve had a few patch jobs. But the addition of the raft to my family has been the center of so many fun summer outings and memories that all of the work loading and unloading the craft, pumping it up and deflating it, rowing and paddling it downstream — and eventually sometimes patching it — seems a small price to pay for all of the entertainment the boat trips have provided.

What’s more, the raft is a great stress reliever. Rafting allows me to yell commands at my friends and family — “PADDLE HARD ON THE RIGHT, YOU SCURVY DOGS! HARDER!! DRAG ON THE LEFT!!” — without having to fear retribution. I am, after all, the captain.

The boat has been such a great investment in my sanity and overall well-being that my health care plan should pay for the watercraft. That’s my kind of health plan.

About that torch

There was no need to yell commands when I launched the raft on the Yellowstone River in a gale-force wind last Sunday. Instead of paddling the boat, I had secured the rowing frame and oars inside. The setup leaves all of the work in one person’s hands, the oarsman or rower.

Amazingly, although the temperature spiked into the 90s, we had the stretch of river all to ourselves. There were a few folks fishing on the banks and one other jet boat anchored at an eddy, but that was it. I was surprised.

The isolated nature of the float was a cool balm, despite the hot, windy day. It also served to settle my nerves, which had been jangled earlier in the day as I sought the key to the padlock on my boat trailer. I checked every key chain, every hiding place and could not locate the small metal device necessary to allow me to unlock the boat trailer so I could attach it to my vehicle. My theft-prevention device was preventing my trip.

So I broke out the reciprocating saw — essentially an electric hacksaw — thinking that it would race through the metal loop of the lock. I was surprised when, despite changing to a sharper blade, the lock’s metal was only slightly scratched by the saw. Hmm, what to do?

I unwound the cutting torch’s hoses and, after sparking the acetylene gas to life, quickly blazed through the lock’s clasp. Take that, Master Lock! Naturally, the next day I located the key in the one place I neglected to look.

Oh well, at least I’ve got that first bedeviled day on the water out of the way — the one that’s always so much work. Unfortunately, it seems there is another slow leak in the boat and the boat trailer’s carpeted cover disintegrated on the drive down the highway. And here I thought owning a boat without a motor would be so much less work.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.