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Have I ever told you the story about how I almost jumped my pickup truck on my motorcycle?

It was one of those beautiful spring days when the sun beckons your winter-weary soul to come outside and play. But for some reason I was being hesitant, almost resistant to going outdoors. Maybe I knew at some subconscious level what the day had in store for me.

Finally, my wife took the initiative and prodded me into action. We would travel to the Stillwater River for a day of whitewater rafting. Although I have an aged raft, more than 15 years old, we’ve negotiated a lot of the state’s waters in that well-patched blue tub. And it is a tub, with no self-draining mechanism it holds any water splashed inside until it’s bailed or tipped out. In whitewater, this no-drain feature can mean a lot of bailing.

They do make self-bailing rafts, but I don’t own one. So my bailer, more often than not, is my wife. It is not a task she enjoys.

The upper Stilli

The spring is the only time that the water is high enough to navigate the upper stretches of the Stillwater River as it exits the Beartooth Mountains. We launched around 1 p.m. from the Moraine fishing access site and were traveling to Cliff Swallow FAS, about 8 miles downstream.

With the flow at around 5,000 cubic feet per second or more (there’s no gauge on this upper stretch) we were in for a wild ride. The rocky riverbed provides some big roller waves, in addition to a lot of smaller choppy waves, none that are rated higher than Class III whitewater. (Rapids are rated one to six, with six being the most difficult except where waterfalls are present. Advanced and expert rafters can usually read and run Class III rapids, but less experienced boaters should scout rapids.) Every now and then there is a big drop on this section, or a large boulder that sneaks up on rafters out of the chaotic white spray. So the possibility of tipping is always present.

The warm air that day had the tangy scent of fast-growing leaves and grass mixed with the rich humidity provided by the river’s spray of cloudy water. The sky was blue and the hillsides green, birds were singing and the roar of the river was all encompassing. It was a complete sensual overload, and I was loving it. I shouted a “thank you” to my wife for encouraging me to get motivated and get outside.


Then, I screwed up. Trying to row forward, which is less powerful than rowing backward, I attempted to avoid a downstream log jam. But the current was too strong and swift. We drifted into the log and the raft stalled.

The fear in this situation is that the water coming downstream will flow into the boat and pin it broadside on the logjam, flipping everyone out of the boat and into the logjam at the same time. To avoid that, we all climbed to the high side of the raft, close to the logjam, and worked to push the raft free.

Unfortunately, during that scramble my upstream oar disappeared unnoticed over the side of the raft. Despite a frantic shoreline search and some probing of the logjam after we were free, I couldn’t find the oar. It probably sank to the bottom and was pinned in the woody debris.

For just such an occasion, many rafters carry a spare oar or even tie their oars to the oarlocks. I had done neither. I have to chalk that oar loss up to an expensive lesson.

Oar your boat

Luckily, we were about two-thirds of the way through the float and past most of the more difficult whitewater. We had two paddles on board, so my wife and daughter supplied the momentum up front by paddling while I used the 8-foot long remaining oar in the back to awkwardly steer. Surprisingly, we made it downstream with no problems and pulled ashore at Cliff Swallow FAS wet, sore and happy that nothing worse had happened.

What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with jumping a truck with a motorcycle? Well, often when we float alone I use my 125cc Suzuki motorcycle to shuttle from the takeout back to the truck. I bought it specifically for that purpose after struggling to hitch rides or ride my bicycle on backroads. We don’t always go where a shuttle service is available or convenient.

On my way back to the truck on the cycle, the engine died, meaning I was low on gas. I pulled over and moved the petcock valve up to reserve, allowing me a short distance of riding before I would run completely out of gas. I hoped that the tiny reserve was enough, hurrying to make it as far as possible before draining the tank.

Happily, I made it to the truck without running out of gas and was feeling pretty lucky, foolish me.

Load ’er up

By myself, I can’t push the motorcycle up into the back of the pickup. The bike is too heavy — about 250 pounds. So years ago I built a wooden ramp that I prop on the tailgate and ride up into the back of the truck.

Mistakenly on this trip, I was going a little too fast when I reached the truck and didn’t realize until the final second that the ramp seemed angled a little more steeply than usual. As the front wheel of the motorcycle cleared the ramp I noticed that it was at a height that seemed about right to sail over the top of the cab, which is probably about 3 feet higher than the bed. I hit the front and rear brakes, as I always do, to slow down and the front wheel dropped, punching a bowling ball-sized hole through the truck’s rear window.

The force of the impact sent me toppling over to the right side where my elbow skinned along the rim of the truck bed for a short distance before my right tricep and ribs hit the rim with a solid thwack. I heard a crack, which judging by the pain I figured had to be the sound of my upper arm breaking. On my way down, for good measure, my helmeted head also bounced off the rim of the truck bed.

With my right leg pinned under the cycle, my head resting on the truck bed’s rim and my arm screaming in pain, it took me a while to notice that my leg was in contact with the cycle’s exhaust pipe. I repositioned my leg and laid there for a while, taking stock of my pains. Scrunched between the tipped over cycle and the truck bed’s wall, it was an awkward push up and lift up to get out from under the cycle.

Next time

After lifting the bike and anchoring it down, I softly probed my bruised arm and ribs and figured out that nothing was broken, although some purple blossoms were already forming.

Dang, my fun day of floating had sure turned out to be expensive. Yet with that image of the top of the truck’s cab rapidly approaching my front cycle tire seared into my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if the tire had cleared the top.

I’d like to think I would have flown over the truck, smoothly landed and had a good, adrenaline-fueled laugh, wishing the feat had been captured on video for posterity. More likely I would have caught the back wheel on the cab and catapulted headfirst like a human arrow, pile driving my head into the dirt and breaking my fool neck. Then I would have lain around for an hour or more moaning in pain before someone happened by or my family figured out that something bad had happened and organized a search.

Understandably, my wife says no more using the motorcycle for a shuttle. I’m thinking I just need to slow down. At the worst, maybe I could rig up some kind of pulley system to help me push and pull the motorcycle up the ramp rather than risk punching out another rear truck window.


Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.