(c) Jack Ballard
It’s Monday. July 13 finds my protesting gluteus maximus on the hard, molded seat of a canoe, paddling down an enchantingly scenic river in central Montana. For the moment, though, the whimpers of the muscles connected to my tailbone are momentarily muted by more pertinent concerns. Lisa, my paddling partner, and I, are approaching a minefield of underwater boulders through which a single channel assures safe passage. But we have a problem. A driftboat, held in place by an anchor allowing the guide’s client to launch flies toward a promising stretch of water, has suddenly become unmoored. With a deft stroke of his left oar, the pilot swings the boat to the starboard side, its upturned prow pointed neatly into the channel. On collision course with a craft whose weight, length and girth greatly exceed every dimension of our canoe, we’ve no choice but to abandon the channel and thread a perilous passage through the stones.
Three-fourths of the way through the maze, I sincerely believe we’ll safely and successfully descend this heart-raising course of canoe slalom. Then I over-steer to avoid the serrated crest of an underwater boulder. Floating sideways in the current for just a moment, the bottom of the canoe catches on a rounded protrusion from the river’s bowels, a boulder the size of a submerged golf cart. The canoe tips dangerously downstream, water pouring into its bottom. With a concerted heave we free the craft before we’re swamped. Filled with six inches of water, the boat handles sluggishly as we encounter a final trio of grasping boulders, but we evade their clutches to gain the streambank. As we begin bailing, the sheepish captain glides by in his driftboat.
“Sorry about that. Guess I forgot to look upstream.”
It’s Monday. On July 15, 1805, another captain gazes upstream upon this river. Marking a grueling passage up the Missouri River, Captain Meriwether Lewis chafes under the burden of overfilled canoes, though not with water. His men, like children who return from a camping trip with pockets and luggage filled with stones, driftwood and decaying animal bones, have accumulated far too many mementos from their intended journey to the Pacific Ocean. We find it extreemly difficult to keep the baggage of many of our men within reasonable bounds; they will be adding bulky articles of but little use or value to them. But despite the aggravations of administration that plague this fine summer morning, Lewis is infatuated with the pretty tributary of the Missouri River near which his party camped the previous night. In his journal he writes, “this stream meanders through a most lovely valley to the S. E. for about 25 miles when it enters the Rocky mountains and is concealed from our view.” Conferring with his co-captain, William Clark, the duo dubs this “beautiful river 80 yards wide” the “Smith River” in honor of Robert Smith, the Secretary of the Navy.
Had the captains sent a party to reconnoiter the river where it disappeared from their view into the mountains, the chroniclers of the expedition would have doubtlessly blotted more ink in praise of the watercourse. For although “Smith” is as plain and common a name as any in the American vocabulary, the Smith River is anything but ordinary. Originating from a myriad of springs and melting snowdrifts in the Little Belt and Castle Mountains, the mainstem of the Smith River forms near the humble ranching community of White Sulphur Springs with the wedding of the river’s north and south forks. Not many miles downstream on its northward course to the Missouri, the river darts into some 50 miles of canyon. Towering abutments of limestone, some drab, others tinted in shades of red and orange as dazzling as the first and last rays of sunlight that kiss their stony faces, line the riverbanks. Stately evergreens stand stoically and tall on vertiginous slopes whose inclines thwarts all but the most determined hikers. The river finds a shady respite from midsummer heat in this deep arroyo. Its bends, boulders and riffles create an ever-variable, but enviable habitat for fish who love its cool waters, most commonly trout of the brown and rainbow strains.
Recognized locally as a treasure of rare beauty, the canyon portion of the Smith River began to attract an onslaught of recreationists in the latter decades of the twentieth century. To manage the throng, Montana’s stream managers enacted a ban on motorized boating in the portion from the river’s entrance to the canyon at Camp Baker to the first public access below the canyon at Eden Bridge in 1972. However, this move only heightened the river’s popularity, increasing user-impacts and conflicts between private landowners and various segments of the public: anglers, outfitters, paddlers and those who primarily viewed the float through the canyon as a scenic excuse for an extended party. In 1988 the state’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission approved a plan which limited the number of launches and group size, as well as requiring a fee to float the river. Subsequent management evolution has resulted in permit-only access to the canyon portion of the river from Camp Baker to the Eden Bridge. Of the applicants who annually apply for a Smith River float permit, roughly 25% are successful, a figure that varies in relation to the float season.
Applicants who opt for permits very early in the season find them easier to come by, and also frequently find their tents covered with snow and bitter winds whipping the canyon, even in early June. Permits for the season after Independence Day are easier to obtain, but normal years find the water level low in mid-July, marginally navigable in a canoe, with rafters spending many minutes and calories tugging their inflatable barges over exposed rocks. Apply to float in the prime weeks of late June and a decade may pass before you’re fortunate enough to pull a permit.
Launching at Camp Baker on July 10, a lucky star shines unseen in the blue sky over my party’s departure. Though “late” in the normal floating season, there’s ample water to buoy our three rafts and trio of canoes. The weather report predicts four days of heaven: daytime temperatures in the low-80s with a scant chance of afternoon thundershowers. An lavish larder, clad in insulated plastic is lashed onto the rafts, wine, beer and elk sausage promising sinfully decadent hors d’oeuvres to a dozen outdoor folks more accustomed to freeze-dried dinners at a backpack camp. Spirits soar as we finish divvying the gear and grub.
Lisa and I rig our fly rods before pushing from the launch. Though midmorning, it seems we might successfully entice the river’s lazy trout to mouth a nymph from the bottom of a deep pool in one of the many bends of the stream. But the river has its own song of the Siren, a melody not always favorable to fishing. Cares drift away like powdery pollen blown from a streamside pine as we idle downstream. Casting a fly rod seems to demand much more concentration than the environment inspires. We picnic on a wide, sandstone ledge at river’s edge, intending to fish afterwards. But a yawn digresses to a doze, a doze to a full-blown nap. Awakening, it’s time to ply the paddles to make it to our campsite by the appointed dinner hour. We arrive, the black beadhead Hare’s Ear on the end of my line not yet dampened by the hypnotic waters of the Smith.
After dinner, as the sunlight marks an ascending retreat from the forested slope behind our camp, I notice a swarm of mayflies above the river. Retrieving my rod from the canoe, I tie on a small Parachute Adams and wade into the stream at the lower end of a docile run bounded on the far side by a tall wall of crumbling, khaki sandstone. Flitting overhead and swooping in determined arcs over the current is a small flock of swallows, their acrobatics aimed at snatching mayflies from midair. Whoever surmised that humans ought not eat and exercise at the same time evidently forgot to inform the swallows.
The telltale rings of several rising trout appear and fade on the surface of the river some thirty feet upstream. Casting to the outer edge of the feeding trout pod, my fly scarcely settles upon the water before it’s snatched by a foot-long, ravenous rainbow. Evidently the river’s underwater residents are as enthusiastic about the mayfly buffet as the airborne contingent above. In the next forty minutes another half-dozen trout clamp their speckled snouts upon my fly, an eclectic assortment of modestly sized browns and rainbows. Seeking larger game, I cease my casting to study the water. At the base of the cliff on the opposite side of the river, from between two current-buffering buttresses in the stone not a rod-length apart, the bulky body and yawning maw of a considerable trout emerge to engulf morsels from the current, then grumble back into its lair. Studying the angles and current-flow, I conclude that a well-aimed cast might yield several heartbeats of drag-free drift before competing currents sweep the line in an accelerating arc. A short wade upstream places me in position for the cast. When the fly lands just short of the target, I strip another two feet of line from the reel, pause pregnantly on the back cast, then drive the rod forward. The loop flattens in a satisfying line above the water. The fly and tippet first feel the tug of gravity, settling gently at the current’s edge a handbreadth above the last rise of my quarry. Congratulating myself on an exemplary cast, I’m unprepared for the trout’s instantaneous take and muff the set. The hooks catches in its mouth momentarily, then pulls free.
Doubting I’ll get a second chance, I nonetheless aim a third cast toward the target. This time, the fly is engulfed before it fully settles upon the water, not by the pinkish-white mouth of a four-pound trout, but the dark beak of a four-ounce swallow. Dumbfounded, I watch the bird flutter awkwardly above the water, firmly hooked on the end of my tippet. Losing strength to the weight of the line, it careens into the water and is unable to take wing. Reeling frantically, I bring the bedraggled bird splashing across the water like a would-be water-skier, unable to stand, neural apparatus momentarily thwarted by the fingers’ death-grip on the handle. The swallow flaps a soggy circuit to my outstretched hand. Observing the bird, I’m relieved to see that the point of the hook is perfectly embedded at the outer edge of its lower mandible, not impaled in its mouth or tongue. Once subdued, the fly is easily removed. I carry the swallow back to camp, primarily to procure a bandana to dry its feathers, partly to show the others my unusual catch. After a gentle toweling, I spread my fingers. For several seconds the bewildered bird perches on my palm, then manages a belabored flight to a nearby chokecherry bush where it fluffs its feathers and preens. Within minutes it launches again, this time on a grateful course between the trees and away toward the river. Not wanting to exceed my swallow limit, I stash my rod and head toward our tent.
The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we launch to a carefree itinerary that replicates the previous day’s agenda, but offers even greater delights. From the Rock Creek to the Sunset Cliffs campsites, the canyon grows ever deeper, wilder and more flush with wildlife. We glide past several broods of common mergansers, surprise an adolescent black bear cooling itself in the river like an overheated grade-schooler of the human species and spy a duo of tawny, delicate whitetail does mincing along a hedge of pale, gray-green willows whose narrow leaves wave languidly in the air currents swirling up the canyon.
Just before noon, we round a broad bend in the river that terminates where the current pounds ineffectually against a wall of stone jutting from a steep hillside into the stream. Seemingly frustrated by the limestone, the angry river has sublimated its energy into gouging a cavernous indentation in the substrate, an idyllic, cool abode for a trout on a warm summer day. I steer onto the gravelly bank, disrupting the reverie of my sunbathing boat-mate sprawled across her seat and a mound of gear conveniently topped with a pair of sleeping pads in the front of the canoe.
“What are we stopping for?” inquires a sleepy voice from inside a ball cap and sunglasses.
“You’re going to fish.”
Pulling a pair of shorts over the bottom of her swimsuit, Lisa wades into the river. Her rod already rigged with a strike indicator, I slide it up the line to achieve more depth on the drift, then tie a hefty black beadhead onto her tippet, a fly created by Tim Wade of Cody, Wyoming. Unless I’ve badly missed my guess, I’m sure the Smith’s trout will favor his deep-running North Fork Special as much as those on its namesake branch of the Shoshone River.
As I tie the stern of the canoe to a clump of willows for an added measure of security, I hear an excited squeal from the river. Standing in water over her knees, as untamed and lovely as her surroundings, Lisa is locked in a contest of wills with a determined trout. When it tires, she hefts two handfuls of dripping brown trout from the river for my inspection.
I smile and nod. My luck as a fellow goes far beyond successfully procuring a permit to float the Smith River. Lisa is all smiles as I free the hook from the cartilaginous lip of her darkly spotted trout. As I squat on bare heels on a spit of coarse blonde sand, she lobs the indicator and fly back upstream for another drift through the hole. The orange orb of rigid foam bobs along like headless rubber duck in the world’s smallest regatta. Suddenly it disappears under the surface and zips upstream as if instantly possessed of a jet-propulsed demon. Lisa’s lifts her rod tip, slowly and elevating the trajectory of the indicator gone mad. Unable to reach the bottom of the hole, the indignant trout comes leaping from the water, its body contorting like that of a freshly decapitated rattlesnake. Another breach confirms my suspicions that this trout belongs to the oncorhynchus genus, not the salmo clan of her previous catch. Sure enough, when the fish attempts to zip between her bare legs, it clearly displays the spotting and coloration of a rainbow.
Arriving at our campsite several hours later, I’m somewhat puzzled by its name. Sunset Cliffs is a fine place to pitch a camp, a grassy bench on the riverbank shaded by a grove of towering, elegant evergreens. Opposite the campsite is a soaring rampart of stone, interesting to the eye for its mass and texture, betraying nothing in appearance or location related to the sun that sags in the western sky behind its bulwark.
The next morning, the trill of a robin, melodious but very loud outside our humble abode of nylon and tubular aluminum banishes any hope of early morning slumber. I slither my way outside, shove my feet in unlaced hiking boots and shamble down to the river in hopes that a face full of cold river water will bring me fully to consciousness. Clearing the trees, my stupefied gaze ascends from my shoelaces to a tapestry of light and color as glowing and magical as the most lavishly arrayed curtain on Broadway. Whoever named the Sunset Cliffs obviously hadn’t viewed them at sunrise. The canyon wall blazes in color, from the brassy red highlights of a brunette with locks long exposed to the summer sun to golden hues the color a brook trout’s flank to bold blondes similar in shade to the buff shoulders of a bull elk in September. Forgetting the face wash I turn for the tent on the gallop, nearly bludgeoning my ribcage on a protruding tree root when I trip on my own shoelaces. Grabbing the camera and my sleepy sweetheart, we hustle back to the river, frantically composing photos before the light loses its early lustre.
It’s Monday. Idling down the river, free of the Smith’s enchanting canyon, my mind wanders back to the splendor of the Sunset Cliffs. I contemplate what I’ve experienced in these few short days on the river. Away in the Pacific time zone, at this very hour, persons are scuttling to their jobs at banks, brokerage offices and accounting firms. No matter your station in life, the weekend’s demise is inevitable. I’d take a month of Mondays in a row, I conclude, if I could face them all from the Smith River.