I had just won the lottery.
No, not the one that awards winners millions of dollars, but the one in Montana that many fishermen pray to win; a permit that allows them to float “the Smith.”
Smith River State Park is located northwest of White Sulphur Springs and south of Great Falls. The river flows through a remote canyon, bordering Lewis and Clark National Forest. Only 26 miles of more than a hundred miles of river shoreline are public land, but there are 52 campsites and 27 boat camps in the park.
Although I’ve lived in Montana almost 20 years, I had not heard of the Smith River float until our neighbors went in 2014. The Smith River State Park river trip is a multiple-day float that encompasses 59 miles, with only one public “put in” at the beginning and one public “take out” at the end. Because of the magnificent scenery and excellent fishing, it is so popular that the state holds a lottery to determine who can go and when.
In 2015 there were more than 8,000 applications; only slightly more than 1,000 were awarded. Each launch group is limited to 15 participants and no more than nine groups, including a limited number of commercial outfitters, are allowed to launch each day.
I had been lucky to be awarded a spot.
We quickly called our son, Nick, who loves to fish with his dad, Eakle, and my husband’s brother, Matt, and wife, Alicia. Count them in.
Our neighbors were going to be out of town that week, and since we were virgin river floaters, they suggested we call Eakle’s previous bird-hunting friend, Rand, who has been on the Smith more than 30 times. Count him, and his buddy, Steve, in as well.
Drift boats, canoes, kayaks and rafts are all acceptable, depending on river conditions. My vision of a raft was flat and wooden like the one Huckleberry Finn used on the Mississippi River, so when it was decided to use rafts I was very hesitant. I learned, however, that these rafts were inflatable boats with no engines that are rowed by individuals.
Floaters decide which campsites along the route to camp at, and the list of who gets to choose campsites first is selected on a first-come, first-served basis the day before you set out. We camped for two nights at the “put in” camp, Camp Baker, 27 miles from White Sulphur Springs, to sign up for the list first thing in the morning. I expected it to be like lining up for Beyoncé tickets, the "Star Trek Beyond" movie, or the latest iPhone, so I got up two hours early to “stake my claim” as first in line. Ironically, no one else was there when the ranger brought the list to sign, although he mentioned that it becomes more competitive later in the summer.
After choosing our campsites the next morning, we packed three rafts with dry bags, coolers and raft equipment. Shortly before noon, we were off. It took most of the afternoon to discover how to properly row; at first it was a bit like carnival bumper cars, hitting banks or ricocheting off or over boulders. What is most confusing about rowing is that the rower is often facing upstream, which can be very discomforting if one can’t see what is coming downstream. We often became “navigators,” coaching the rowers as to what to expect. Thanks to Rand and Steve’s rowing support and patience, we felt much more confident by the end of the trip.
Our first campsite, Rock Creek (8.9 miles from Camp Baker), was a great location; the camp lies opposite a 100-foot rock cliff and the intersection of a small stream. Although it had rained the whole afternoon on the river, the weather cleared when we arrived at camp so putting up tents and getting the camp kitchen organized proceeded quickly. Each camp had a metal grill for fires and an open-pit toilet; the latter quite a distance up the hill, located in the center of a beautiful meadow.
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We had a National Geographic moment at this camp. The night we arrived we noticed a Canada goose perched nearly 50 feet up on the rock cliff sitting on her eggs. Early the following morning, the eggs hatched and five baby geese were high above the river. As we debated how they might survive, the mother and father geese flew down to the water. Within seconds, one of the new goslings leapt from the nest. Bouncing three or four times off the rocky shelves and outcrops, it plunged deep into the rushing river. We thought it couldn’t possibly have survived the high dive and rocky hits, but the hours-old gosling popped up and swam to the mother while the father coaxed the others to jump. All four followed in the same manner; miraculously, all five survived.
The following day we hit the river hoping the waters would be clearer so the fishing would improve. Mother Nature had her own ideas. It rained most of the day, but we were able to catch a few fish. Nick almost landed his very first. The fish made it to the outside of the raft, but escaped before it could be netted. Alicia was luckier; she caught and released her first fly-fishing catch. Steve and Rand, experienced anglers, caught several. It has been said, though, that catching fish is really a “bonus” compared to the beauty of the canyon and the river.
On the river map, it indicates there are Native American pictographs at Mile 16.6. They are located on a rock overhang in the bend on river left. As neophyte rowers, we would have concentrated on getting the raft around the curve and would have missed the pictographs had Rand and Steve not drawn our attention to them. We stopped at Upper Cow Coulee Campground (Mile 22.8), which was quite wet from the day’s rain. Eakle’s and my 30-year-old tent was certainly showing its age; everything was soaked both inside and out.
I wish I could say the third day was bright and sunny, but no luck. In addition to the rain, we had high winds and hail on the river. It took most of the day to get to our next campsite, Upper Parker Flat (Mile 37.5). The longer day allowed us to spend more time looking at the magnificent scenery. People say the Smith River is the “Little Grand Canyon” of Montana. Although there are many private cabins along the river, the canyon walls can be hundreds of feet high, and there is a sense of remoteness and sereneness in the canyon.
The fourth day was basically a day of leisure; we only rowed seven miles to Upper Ridgetop Campsite (Mile 45) and arrived early afternoon amid the continuing rain. After falling into the river trying to dock the boat, I was as cold and wet as our tent. But Mother Earth must have heard my prayer, for less than 30 minutes after we arrived at the campsite, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We quickly set up our wet tent and put out our clothes to dry. The wind started to blow and helped dry everything. It was windy that night (up to 50 mph), but Eakle and I slept in a dry tent, despite having to tie it to a tree. The metal fire ring was surrounded by water, but we were able to start a great fire with the wood we brought on the boats.
We broke camp early on our final day. While it is known that the final miles of the river are pretty mild and the fishing isn’t as good as the first couple of days, the weather cooperated with us. The current was fast because of the previous rains, leaving the water muddy. This was the day that I got to finally try rowing. I had been paying close attention to instructions and thought I would be just fine. Within minutes I was doing a decent job, steering as we faced downstream and rowing “backwards” facing upstream and around corners. Perhaps because I was too proud of myself, or maybe to remind me that I really wasn’t in control, Mother Nature started to blow.
No matter how hard I tried to row, she was pushing me further and further into the bank. A 90-degree curve was coming up, so Matt diplomatically asked to take over the oars. My glory was cut short and humility restored.
Fifty-nine miles from the beginning of our journey, we arrived at the take out at Eden Bridge. Although I was ready for a hot shower, I was reluctant to say farewell to this glorious, isolated environment. Despite our personal challenges, this trip was a reminder that life, like the Smith River, continues to flow.
No, I hadn’t won a money lottery, but a life lottery.
Wildlife abounds, and even though we never saw a bear, we encountered mule deer, mink, rabbits, geese, ducks, eagles, turkey vultures and many more species of birds, wild flowers and animals. I was mesmerized by the colors of the trees and flowers along the river and their reflections in the light each evening and morning.
We had arrived at Eden Bridge. We had successfully floated “the Smith.”