Montana and the Missouri River
The past few weeks have been an incredible journey. We left Washington for Montana on June 20 and are just now trickling back a few at a time. Growing up in Montana (and truly loving its culture and natural beauty), it was a pleasure to be able to share it with the rest of the band as we toured the state. Not only did we get to perform in a few of my favorite cities, but we also performed at a couple weddings for some of my favorite people and got to be a part of their creating lifelong memories. What an honor! We enjoyed a perfect Independence Day celebration on Seeley Lake (thank you, Kurt’s Polaris) and were able to introduce Montana to the incredible music of Australian native Blake Noble. We didn’t waste our time between shows either. We fished, we enjoyed the farm life, we camped in Glacier National Park, we reacquainted ourselves with the great people and town of Seeley Lake, and we embarked on a two night paddle down the Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River National Monument. I would love to indulge myself by detailing every moment of this adventure, but I feel obligated to limit it to one good story. You’ll find that below, but first… THANK YOU to everyone that helped us, hosted us, hired us, hung out with us, and rocked out with us the last three weeks. Montana truly is the treasure state.
Paddling The Missouri
To me, rivers are the veins and capillaries of our world, and through those passages flow the lifeblood. Distilled in that substance is the unique nature of the country you’re in, and if you are given the chance to experience it intimately, you glimpse the fundamental character of the landscape you’re surrounded by. The Upper Missouri River National Monument in North Central Montana simmers with that lifeblood, and when you match its stillness for even a moment, the Missouri will tell you some of her secrets.
Packed, armed, bathed in sunscreen and bug repellent, toting a good measure of Songbird Syrah from Washington’s Red Mountain (as well as a healthy portion of layman’s beer from Montana’s finest pub), we boarded two canoes and a kayak and began river mile 1 of 43. Accounted for were our provisions, a tool for every job, a device for every possibility, and our rules. Of these, there were far fewer than gear… In fact, there were only two.
Rule #1 – Don’t capsize your canoe.
Rule #2 – Don’t get bit by a rattlesnake.
Though neither was a weighty nor controversial commandment, one out of two would be broken within the first ten minutes.
Grins broke under sun-squinted eyes. After all the preparations, we finally embarked… our direct destiny filled only with paddling, fishing, and solitude. As some in our troupe adjusted to the weight and drag of their boats, the canoeing at first was a little erratic, and it was found that some structural tweaks must be made. The focal point of our efforts was to be the pony keg of layman’s suds.
A thought flickered in the back of my mind that maybe we were acting greedily taking a keg with us into the wilderness to be motored around by our own grit and strength… But, what is one to do? Abandon the beer for more exceptional maneuvering?
Somewhere, we had heard these things would float given the chance (I may have even helped to spread that rumor), so we intended to smartly drag the keg behind a canoe. Thus, two problems were solved: where to put the keg and how to keep it cold… So, my friend Billy Pierce, with whom I have made this trek many times, tied a good knot around the device and another to the back of his canoe. He let go; the keg sank.
Luckily, it was tied on.
While retrieving the beer from the bottom of the river, the more scientifically leaning members of our group relayed their long standing opinions on the lack of buoyancy of a keg not yet tapped. Unfortunately, those opinions had not been voiced to full effect earlier, but lofty thoughts of vacuums and air pressure led directly the next logical step.
“We must tap the keg and drink down the beer.”
Drinking beer to promote exceptional maneuverability? Rarely yes, but at that moment… yes.
Amidst an eruption of warm, sticky foam, the keg was tapped. As a yellowy stain ran down my arm, I accepted my first cup. Foam piled onto foam, and it was undrinkable. So, after some moments of further deliberation, we decided to put it in a canoe. There were two immediate options:
Option #1 – Spitfire Betty. Manned by our percussionist Joe Catron and Billy, Spitfire Betty was the canoe I learned in. She’s tippy, but she’s fast.
Option #2 – Jolly Green Giant. Bassist Eric Miller and our singer Cody Beebe manned option two. She was a plastic Coleman special – a whale of a boat and nearly impossible to tip.
The only outside consideration while designating the location of our beer was this: Eric and Cody are gluten intolerant and don’t drink beer.
After we mounted the 120 lbs. keg to the tippy (but she’s fast) canoe, I turned around and pressed play on the small $20 boombox strapped behind me. Leo Kottke’s “Meadowlark” rang out, and the Western Meadowlarks in the trees around us chimed in their old tune. The mood was perfect.
Then, Joe and Billy broke Rule #1.
Initially, tipping over a canoe is funny. Everyone laughs and the water is refreshing. Soon after, the problem of righting the canoe and relieving it of the water it has taken on whilst floating down a fairly strong current and not losing all your gear dawns on your consciousness. It isn’t until later that you worry about the soundness of your dry-bags and the dryness of your sleeping bags.
A few Physics lessons solidly clunked in our minds at that point concerning buoyancy and centrifugal force. Full kegs don’t float and shouldn’t be strapped to the highest point of the most unstable (but she’s fast) canoe. Three quarters of an hour later, we set off again. We were still smiling, our gear was all accounted for (its dryness still not considered), and the keg finally sulked in the boat manned by our gluten intolerant conglomerate. Thus, we crossed into river mile 2 of 43.
A hawk glided down and called to us what we thought must be our welcome, and we soon passed two immense bald eagles perched as still as the dead of night on equally impressive cottonwoods. The sentries.
We paddled, floated, enjoyed some wine, tried to de-foam our beer, and fished. On a hunch, I told Billy he was going to catch the first fish as he had recently taken his sons fishing the Dearborn River. Good river Karma is good river Karma, and Billy soon had a catfish on.
Ten minutes later, I nabbed a goldeye. A goldeye is a particularly un-fun fish to catch. They don’t fight, there isn’t anything on them to eat, and it makes you question your river Karma. I can’t recall who caught the next catfish, but someone did and it wasn’t me. Then, I caught another goldeye, and shortly after I landed yet another goldeye. With banter and snickers, I was crowned The Goldeye King and really started analyzing any possible source for my river Karma.
And now for the Big Fish Story…
Drifting back behind the group, I continued to fish in earnest. I have heard that fishing is done at least 50% in the mind, and I steeped mine into its most predatory stance. I became part of my surroundings, and I became silent. Fishing even more intently, I questioned whether or not it is selfish to pray for a fish. Can I trouble My Maker just for a nice trout? Then it happened… Just as I moved my lips to begin my fishy prayer…
Something grabbed my eye from starboard side. I whirled to cast in that direction. A plomp (or maybe it was more of a glug) sounded from the surface of the river. My hand twitched to the reel. I cast.
The biggest Walleye I have ever laid eyes on floated to the surface – belly skyward and freshly dead just two feet from my boat.
Now, you may think at this point that my river Karma is of course bad, but I am not totally convinced of that. Consider this. I was floating well behind the rest of the group. Any one of them could have caught the fish (as they passed by directly before he died), but they did not catch him. Instead, a truly magnificent predator, wily enough to survive in well fished waters, died of old age right under me and floated to the surface right where I couldn’t miss him… I have great river Karma!
Of course, you may say, “How do you know it died right under you? It could have died long before and was submerged by the current and just happened to pop up next to you.” You could say that, but it is my fish story and that is how it ends. I have great river Karma.
Later, we arrived at Hole in the Wall, an incredible rock formation that is undeniably self descriptive and served as our camp site. Montana performed her nightly symphony with the sun and the horizon, and the stars materialized in an arch, blotted out only by a distant lightning storm on the prairie to the North. It is unclear when we discovered that the majority of the sleeping bags were quite wet, but it is clear that is was at that point that the fact became the most inconvenient.
The next morning was filled with the bustle of breaking camp, some more fishing, and another bit of that incredible Syrah. Beginning with a cloud of dust and gusting winds, a storm swept in from the West. It mostly missed us, but it demanded a measure of humility and respect. We paid our dues and virtually surfed the front downriver. Pulled and pushed by violent throws, we worked to keep our boats upright and pointed downhill. As we neared the final destination, the wind quieted and Cody, Eric, and Billy caught some more catfish. Billy even caught a nice walleye. Of course, I topped it off with another goldeye or two.
We rounded the final bend, landed on the boat ramp, and wished we were going a bit further. Powdery dust billowing, my brother Matthew soon flew over the hill in his black pickup and pulled up next to us. We loaded up our crafts, and we headed to Pep’s Bar and Lanes in Big Sandy for the nation’s greatest hamburger, some cold beer, and an audience for our stories. Our keg rode home as full as it had departed (minus some foam) and everyone followed Rule #2 to the last letter.
Sometimes, the secrets you learn take a while to understand. Sometimes, they appear in your work down the line and it is then that you realize you heard them.
- Aaron Myers (keys and piano)