When we awoke to snow on the surrounding mountains following our first night of canoeing and rafting Montana’s fabled Smith River, I thought we had dodged the nasty-weather bullet.
There was no snow on our tents, which was a small victory worthy of a short, high-stepping, fishing-wader-clad Irish jig. Snow on the forested mountains is pretty and serene, whereas a sheet of wet, frozen water clinging to your sheer nylon abode is worrisome, even a bit threatening.
Looking back, I should have known better. Such celebrations of good luck can be short lived in the mountains. This was, after all, springtime in the Rockies, when 70-degree days can be followed by a sideways blizzard, when blue skies can quickly be draped behind dark clouds.
Located roughly between White Sulphur Springs and Great Falls, the Smith River is well known for being Montana’s only waterway that requires a permit to float. Every winter, hundreds of people apply for the coveted launch dates of the late spring and early summer. The winners are chosen in a lottery.
Selecting the correct launch date requires some research, a bit of voodoo and good luck. Go too early and you could have low water, snow and cold. Go too late and you could have barely enough water to float a rubber ducky as runoff dwindles and irrigators draw down the flow. So, most applicants for a permit shoot for late May and early June as the best possible weather and water times.
This year my son’s friend, Russ Hartzell, drew a permit for the Smith and was awarded his third choice as a launch date — April 24. He was kind enough to invite me and my wife along, and as the date neared, I anxiously watched the weather report and the river hydrograph.
With my son borrowing my raft to haul his crew, I was hoping to launch a drift boat down the stream. But the river was staying lower than the recommended drift boat level — a minimum of 350 cubic feet per second. The minimum for rafts is 250 cfs and for canoes 150 cfs. I anxiously telephoned the Smith River State Park crew, as well as a Helena Smith River guide, to query them about how hard and fast the 350 cfs rule was for drift boats.
I was hoping one of them would say, “Heck, you could make it, no problem.” But without hesitation they both said I’d be in for a lot of rowing, and possibly some extreme damage to the drift boat, if I chose to launch the craft at such a low flow — which days before departure was hovering around 280 cfs.
Looking at the weather report, it was hard to tell if the forecast would help or hurt. Sunny weather prior to the launch had spiked mountain snowmelt and bumped the river up. But the forecast steadily worsened as departure neared. Would the cold weather drop the river? Would rainfall raise the water level? It was a crapshoot.
So I opted for the semi-safe decision to cast off in a canoe — sometimes derisively referred to as a “divorce boat” when a husband and wife team up to paddle the crafts, the reason being is that there is usually some shouting involved in giving paddling directions. And sometimes my directions can be confusing, such as: “Paddle on the left! No! Your other left!” when I meant to say: “Paddle on your right!”
Cold weather, possible snow and rain, low water and struggling to paddle a canoe through the Smith River’s notoriously tight turns while dodging barely submerged boulders: What could possibly go wrong? Or some people may ask: Why even bother going? My answer: Challenges are more interesting. Besides, bad trips make for the best stories.
The nice thing about canoes and rafts is that you can pack along a lot more gear than if you were backpacking. So I imagined the worst scenario and tried to plan for any eventuality. I took extra warm clothes, including heavy wool pants. I packed along a large tarp that could serve as an extra rainfly or snowfly to keep the tent dry. I decided to take our larger five-man tent so we could store all of our gear in it and possibly cook inside if needed. I included my winter snow boots for footwear and packed mittens, two pairs of gloves and liners for my hands. One website even suggested ski goggles for paddling in a snowstorm, so I took those and a facemask.
Then I started adding up the weights of everything on a bathroom scale and became worried that the canoe could not possibly float so much stuff. So I searched for the canoe’s weight capacity, suggested freeboard for the canoe (the distance from the water to the canoe’s gunnels) and luckily was below its maximum load. The 16-foot-long, 60-pound boat was rated to haul 1,100 pounds. With passengers, our load would easily weigh 400 pounds, making it more maneuverable than a raft but still sluggish and much easier to tip over than our wide-bottomed rafting brethren.
Dressed for success
The savior of the trip turned out to be good waders and comfortable wading boots. My wife chose to wear my hip waders, but to accommodate the larger feet had to cut away portions of her water sandals. Another floater tried to jam her wader-clad feet into her sandals and ended up walking around with only her toes snugged inside. Her awkward tiptoe walk provided some comic relief to the cold. She took offense, but we all looked somewhat ridiculous.
Toddling around in multiple layers of warm clothing shielded by water-repellent layers, everyone looked a bit odd. If anyone has ever seen the movie “A Christmas Story” where the main character’s little brother, Randy, has so many warm clothes on that when he falls over he can’t get up, you’ll have some idea of how some of us felt. There are consequences to being semi-warm and dry — a loss of comfort and maneuverability among them.
After our camp was doused by a steady rain through the first night, the second morning we awoke to snow on the tents and then cast off into a steady snowstorm. With all of the precipitation, the river’s flow had jumped more than 100 cfs.
By the end of the third day, the snow had halted and the wind came up, bowing my large tent so far over that I got up in the middle of the night to add some ropes and stakes to try and strengthen my tent poles against the gale.
Then on the final day of the trip, the morning dawned with a deep blue sky blazing above the cool, shadowed canyon. Layers of warm clothing were nervously stripped off, with anxious glances toward the sky since the weather had proven it could not be trusted.
As my wife pointed out, if we had nice weather on the first day instead of the last, our crew of nine floaters may have climbed out of the boats on the final day 60 miles downstream a bit downtrodden and dejected. Instead, the warm weather prompted a more euphoric yet still sleep-deprived celebration. Snow, rain and wind be damned, we had endured what the fickle Smith River canyon had dished out with only a couple of close calls with hypothermia.
Footnote to Smith River: Please do not take this last boastful statement to be a challenge to make sure it snows steadily for four days the next time I navigate your beautiful waters.