RUNNING THE RAPIDS OF THE FLATHEAD
It was now approaching time for Bob's great idea to materialize. For this, and to this end, had he brought the boats on their strange land-journey--such a journey as, I fancy, very few boats have ever had before.
The project was, as I have said, to run the unknown reaches of the North Fork of the Flathead from the Canadian border to the town of Columbia Falls.
"The idea is this," Bob had said: "It's never been done before, do you see? It makes the trip unusual and all that."
"Makes it unusually risky," I had observed.
"Well, there's a risk in pretty nearly everything," he had replied blithely. "There's a risk in crossing a city street, for that matter. Riding these horses is a risk, if you come to that. Anyhow, it would make a good story."
So that is why I did it. And this is the story:
We were headed now for the Flathead just south of the Canadian line. To reach the river, it was necessary to take the boats through a burnt forest, without a trail of any sort. They leaped and plunged as the wagon scrambled, jerked, careened, stuck, détoured, and finally got through. There were miles of such going--heart-breaking miles--and at the end we paused at the top of a sixty-foot bluff and looked down at the river.
Now, I like water in a tub or drinking-glass or under a bridge. I am very keen about it. But I like still water--quiet, well-behaved, stay-at-home water. The North Fork of the Flathead River is a riotous, debauched, and highly erratic stream. It staggers in a series of wild zigzags for a hundred miles of waterway from the Canadian border to Columbia Falls, our destination. And that hundred miles of whirlpools, jagged rocks, and swift and deadly cañons we were to travel. I turned around and looked at the Family. It was my ambition that had brought them to this. We might never again meet, as a whole. We were sure to get to Columbia Falls, but not at all sure to get there in the boats. I looked at the boats; they were, I believe, stout river-boats. But they were small. Undeniably, they were very small.
The river appeared to be going about ninety miles an hour. There was one hope, however. Perhaps they could not get the boats down over the bluff. It seemed a foolhardy thing even to try. I suggested this to Bob. But he replied, rather tartly, that he had not brought those boats at the risk of his life through all those miles of wilderness to have me fail him now.
He painted the joys of the trip. He expressed so strong a belief in them that he said that he himself would ride with the outfit, thus permitting most of the Family in the boats that first day. He said the river was full of trout. I expressed a strong doubt that any trout could live in that stream and hold their own. I felt that they had all been washed down years ago. And again I looked at the Family.
Because I knew what would happen. The Family would insist on going along. It was not going to let mother take this risk alone; it was going to drown with her if necessary.
The Family jaws were set. They were going.
The entire outfit lowered the wagon by roping it down. There was one delicious moment when I thought boats and all were going over the edge. But the ropes held. Nothing happened.
They put the boats in the water.
I had one last rather pitiful thought as I took my seat in the stern of one of them.
"This is my birthday," I said wistfully. "It's rather a queer way to spend a birthday, I think."
But this was met with stern silence. I was to have my story whether I wanted it or not.
Yet once in the river, the excitement got me. I had run brief spells of rapids before. There had been a gasp or two and it was over. But this was to be a prolonged four days' gasp, with intervals only to sleep at night.
Fortunately for all of us, it began rather quietly. The current was swift, so that, once out into the stream, we shot ahead as if we had been fired out of a gun. But, for all that, the upper reaches were comparatively free of great rocks. Friendly little sandy shoals beckoned to us. The water was shallow. But, even then, I noticed what afterward I found was to be a delusion of the entire trip.
This was the impression of riding downhill. I do not remember now how much the Flathead falls per mile. I have an impression that it is ninety feet, but as that would mean a drop of nine thousand feet, or almost two miles, during the trip, I must be wrong somewhere. It was sixteen feet, perhaps.
But hour after hour, on the straight stretches, there was that sensation, on looking ahead, of staring down a toboggan-slide. It never grew less. And always I had the impression that just beyond that glassy slope the roaring meant uncharted falls--and destruction. It never did.
The outfit, following along the trail, was to meet us at night and have camp ready when we appeared--if we appeared. Only a few of us could use the boats. George Locke in one, Mike Shannon in the other, could carry two passengers each. For the sake of my story, I was to take the entire trip; the others were to alternate.
I do not know, but I am very confident that no other woman has ever taken this trip. I am fairly confident that no other men have ever taken it. We could find no one who had heard of it being taken. All that we knew was that it was the North Fork of the Flathead River, and that if we stayed afloat long enough, we would come out at Columbia Falls. The boatmen knew the lower part of the river, but not the upper two thirds of it.
Now that it is over, I would not give up my memory of that long run for anything. It was one of the most unique experiences in a not uneventful career. It was beautiful always, terrible occasionally. There were dozens of places each day where the boatmen stood up, staring ahead for the channel, while the boats dodged wildly ahead. But always these skillful pilots of ours found a way through. And so fast did we go that the worst places were always behind us before we had time to be really terrified.
The Flathead River in these upper reaches is fairly alive with trout. On the second day, I think it was, I landed a bull-trout that weighed nine pounds, and got it with a six-ounce rod. I am very proud of that. I have eleven different pictures of myself holding the fish up. There were trout everywhere. The difficulty was to stop the boat long enough to get them. In fact, we did not stop, save in an occasional eddy in the midst of the torrent. We whipped the stream as we flew along. Under great boulders, where the water seethed and roared, under deep cliffs where it flew like a mill-race, there were always fish.
It was frightful work for the boatmen. It required skill every moment. There was not a second in the day when they could relax. Only men trained to river rapids could have done it, and few, even, of these. To the eternal credit of George and Mike, we got through. It was nothing else.
On the evening of the first day, in the dusk which made the river doubly treacherous, we saw our camp-fire far ahead.
With the going-down of the sun, the river had grown cold. We were wet with spray, cramped from sitting still and holding on. But friendly hands drew our boats to shore and helped us out.