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Facing Mortality on the Upper Missouri River
You, them, it and six friggin' days.
The first thing that is impressed upon you is that there will be nothing around to save you if things go wrong on the Upper Missouri River. It remains untamed, in many parts the same natural conditions Lewis and Clark found when they passed through in 1803. There’s no potable water or available food sources. No medical facilities. A few federal rangers may come along, but probably not. May through September is the busy boating season, but, come August, human sightings grow rarer because daytime temperatures tip over to 100 degrees and drought forces canoers to drag their boats through the shallows until they come upon deeper water. Be prepared for the sun and the moon to be doused by smoke from the fires rippling over the bluffs and canyons. People who know the country like to spike novices’ nerves by mentioning the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 that spread so fast over the steep ridges and down to the Missouri’s banks that it extinguished the lives of 15 members of the Forest Service’s elite firefighters corps in fewer than 10 minutes.
The Bureau of Land Management designated this section of the Missouri to be wild—not scenic or recreational. These conditions are precisely the reason why the experienced among you consider a six-day canoe trip to be walloping fun. Your husband thinks so, too, for the delusional reason that he was a Boy Scout with some of these experts. Left unexplored is the fact that, unlike them, he opted out way before reaching Eagle Scout. You, on the other hand, while appearing to be a game, good-natured sport, are pretty sure that his family, who collectively have never backpacked, never canoed, and rarely employed a single camping muscle, will die.
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People who will survive: husband’s three childhood friends, all of whom feel Montana is too crowded and have moved up into remote hills; two teenagers who grew up in the wild; one couple who are off-duty (one on disability) local backpack guides; one couple who live completely off-the-grid.
Essential personal equipment list e-mailed to the doomed family: No more than two changes of clothing, consisting of shorts, long pants, long-sleeve shirt, sunhat, good hiking boots, sunhat Small towel Toiletries: soap, antibiotics if you can get them and ointment as well, lots of OTC stomach meds, high SPF sunscreen Tent and sleeping bag (Family invites ridicule because they bring a camping mattress and canoe seats.) Water bottles, cups, and utensils (Family equally invites ridicule for the decorative, rather than utilitarian, nature of these implements.) Individual plastic containers with lids to use as portable toilets and to carry out the waste. (Don't get any of them started on this horrifying requirement.)
A three-truck caravan, each pulling two canoes, is formed at noon and drives four hours through high, flat land the color of the driest dust under a pale blue sky. The only break in the endless horizon is farm equipment, silos, galloping horses and grazing cows, and rusting iron gates marking old family graveyards. The women and children, provisions and canoes are dropped of at Judith Landing from where they will launch the canoes. The men, except your husband, then drive the trucks some 60 miles down river to Kipps Landing where, hopefully, this little troop will pull the canoes out of the river in one piece after those six days are over. The women know each other very well and settle into an enviable easy joshing as they set about loading the provisions and four huge Yeti coolers in the canoes and then start a fire to cook dinner. They don’t expect you to understand the work’s complexities, so you and your husband are obliged to settle down under the trees with books while the sons join the other children in a game of who can throw a Bowie knife the farthest. You wonder when and where in Brooklyn did they learn to catapult a menacingly large knife so well.
Someone from Kipp Landing bring back the men about the time evening slaps down an impenetrable blackness, the campfire light not enough to pierce it. By now, the large Dutch oven of chili and beans has reduced to a thick luscious dinner. Once the dishes are washed and put away and the rest of the chili secure in a bear-proof Yeti, your husband sneaks away to your tent to switch on the loud battery-operated motor that inflates the mattress. He’s used to the snickering trash talk from his childhood friends and gives some back. In fact, he’s pretty proud of himself as he observes that the mattress lessens by at least 10 degrees the hard ground’s uncomfortableness.
“Dinner was really good, wasn’t it!” he exclaims.
“This is going to be so much fun.”
For the sake of the marriage, you punch your dense backpack several times to form it into a pillow.
Up at dawn, rouse the crabby sons, quickly swallow oatmeal and coffee, and somehow settle into your canoe without tipping it over. Four of the canoes head straight out to catch the slow current rippling the river’s deep middle. Your and the sons’ canoes begin what will be an uncorrected zig-zag route from bank to bank. You and your husband launch into the first of many recriminations about paddling skills while the happy sons shatter the river’s silence with rousing renditions of current rap hits. The rest of the boats are now far away.
That first day establishes the routine for what you will come to call “another day on the fucking river.” Breakfast at seven a.m., on the water by eight. Noon, or a little before if the heat is unbearable, bump to shore for lunch and an hour or two of shaded rest. Pull out again by 2:30. The only relief from the burning sun is to soak your shirt, hat, or towel in the water, then slap them back on. They all dry out in 15 minutes, so you repeat the process. Or, if you know how to gracefully slide out of a canoe without capsizing, you swim alongside. Your family is clueless about how to do this, so they all stay put. Come late afternoon, the light begins to dim and the newest, sweetest thrill of your life becomes paddling to shore for the night.
Tents pop up and a kitchen arranged near the shoreline in less than half an hour. There is only one cook—the person who figured out the necessary provisions and menu, purchased the ingredients, and packed them in the order they will be used each day. The cook happens to be the wife of one of your husband’s friends. She is formidable, never flustered. A holster carrying a .38 is buckled around her waist. The second day you know her she tells the story about how she stared down a mountain lion who slinked too close to her daughter’s sandbox. You think she likes you, but she also politely ignores/shoos you away when you offer to help. It’s understood to be nothing personal.
Instead, you join the others staring up at the sky to gauge the weather. They have taught you that this is one way to stay alive because conditions change quickly on the Missouri. One afternoon, seemingly in the split of one paddle stroke, the wind picked up, thick dust barreled down the river toward the party, and a mass of swallows hurled into their nests under the cliffs. There was just enough time to tuck into the cliff beneath their nests.
To you, though, the weather is secondary to how the sun and clouds perpetually transform the landscape—from dazzling ivory to pale yellow, velvet green to raw brown to rippled black. A mesmerizing and fearsome evolution that constantly draws you away from your paddling duties.
The days drift on in their varied sameness. You are always starving but never hungry. The stupid camping mattress rarely supports sleep. You do not share your husband’s opinion that wolf howls are an improvement on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway traffic noise. And, yet, when sleep finally latches on, your dreams are fantastical.
On the last full day, the cook guides the party early onto a gravel bar to build a big fire for what she calls her “we’re almost there stew.” Basically it’s what you call “cleaning out the refrigerator stew,” and she finally welcomes your input. You pour together the last of the melting perishables consisting of leftover beef stew, ground turkey, pasta sauce, potatoes, and mushy vegetables. For dessert you suggest an apple crumb—sliced sautéed apples under a toasted granola/trail mix crust. Once everything has gotten itself nicely percolating, you wander down the shoreline because you haven’t been alone in what seems a gazillion years. There, in a bend, is discovered the remnants of a small cabin not so much collapsing as leaning into itself. A BarcaLounger in the most beautiful shade of teal blue is angled on the porch in such a way that the occupant would take in the illusion of the river caressing the far-off mountains. Except for a darkened oval on the back where the owner’s head would have rested, the Naugahyde remains remarkably unblemished. Although you know you risk deadly mice ticks and all manner of snakes, you step through the cabin’s doorless entrance into a room with a green-painted pie press in the corner, a few cans on a shelf, an enameled stove like they had in the 1940s, a gateleg table, and one chair. A couple of the walls are covered in newspaper and magazine pages. In the other room there is an iron bed frame still holding a double-size mattress beside a glassless window. You know you would be happy in this little house because there is no discernable road nearby and yet there is the view from a teal-colored BarcaLounger and a double bed beside a wide window, both holding tight to the river and the sky.
The full night decides to wait until all the stew and the apple crumb are devoured by the group and then it snaps down close around them. The canoers sit in a circle around the dying fire and the off-the-grid couple takes turns imparting lessons on astronomy and bits of history about the Blackfeet, White Clay, Crow, and Cree nations whose land the party has floated through. No one seems to want to be the first to end the evening. But they know it will be a stretch tomorrow to reach Kipps Landing. They have also been told by a passing boater that from here on in the river runs low. Eventually they all decide to stand together and make their way to their separate tents. You and your husband have finally drawn peace over errant paddling and the incompetent deflating mattress. For the first time in five days your husband’s shoulder feels soft and inviting.
Before sunrise they wake to a BAM! and another BAM! right after. The sons run excitedly into the tent—gunshots!
“I told him to please move off,” the off-the-grid woman says when they all rush up to her.
There, before her tent, stretches a seven-foot rattlesnake.
“He was stubborn,” she says.
“Barbecue rattlesnake for breakfast!” the cook says.
The rattlesnake is thrown over a high tree branche and everyone goes back to their tents an pretend to sleep a few hours more. By the time you reluctantly rise and dress, all the children are gathered around one of the ex-Eagle Scouts. He’s attached a large safety pin to where the rattlesnake’s head once was and is carefully pulling it down over its pale flesh, attempting to keep it in one piece because it’ll make a terrific hat band. (You try not to think it looks exactly like struggling out of a girdle.) Once the skin is hung to dry, the cook quickly guts the snake, cuts it into pieces and throws them into the grill. She forms biscuits from the last of the flour and arranges them on the bottom of the Dutch oven to bake. Everyone agrees it’s a fine breakfast, possibly one of the best.
Once more unto the breach we go. The canoes, minus the full coolers for balance, rock thrillingly from side to side through a short run of rapids. From then on the river’s flow alternates between a puddle and a lazy trickle that requires a grunting combination of pulling and careful maneuvering. They reach James Kipps Landing late in the afternoon, overheated and sore. The canoes are hauled up into the truck trailers, the coolers and equipment stored in the bed, and then they head for a diner attached to a worn motel occupied by hunters and fishers. From their long table in back your party orders glasses of ice. The others slurp on their cubes while you decide to pour the ice into your hat and then drop your whole face smack into the coldness. The bracing sensation can be inappropriately described as the best orgasmic experience you have ever had, second only to the hamburgers, Coke, and huge bowls of ice cream that follow.
Joints and muscles lock during the hours spent in the booth. No one is too proud not to moan when they stand and shuffle out to the trucks. You find yourself wedged between your husband and the cook. A son hangs over the back of the seat.
“What’re we doing next year?” he says.
The cook replies for you, “the Badlands.”
“Seriously?” He can’t wait!
You stifle a scream and close your eyes, released into merciful sleep.
And talk to me people! I’m all alone here and would love to hear about your adventures!!