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Chapter 8

THROUGH THE FLATHEAD CAŅON


The next morning we wakened to sunshine, and fried trout and bacon and eggs for breakfast. The cook tossed his flapjacks skillfully. As the only woman in the party, I sometimes found an air of festivity about my breakfast-table. Whereas the others ate from a tarpaulin laid on the ground, I was favored with a small box for a table and a smaller one for a seat. On the table-box was set my graniteware plate, knife, fork, and spoon, a paper napkin, the Prince Albert and the St. Charles. Lest this sound strange to the uninitiated, the St. Charles was the condensed milk and the Prince Albert was an old tin can which had once contained tobacco but which now contained the sugar. Thus, in our camp-etiquette, one never asked for the sugar, but always for the Prince Albert; not for the milk, but always for the St. Charles, sometimes corrupted to the Charlie.

I was late that morning. The men had gone about the business of preparing the boats for the day. The packers and guides were out after the horses. The cook, hot and weary, was packing up for the daily exodus. He turned and surveyed that ghost-forest with a scowl.

"Another camping-place like this, and I'll be braying like a blooming burro."

On the third day, we went through the Flathead River caņon. We had looked forward to this, both because of its beauty and its danger. Bitterly complaining, the junior members of the family were exiled to the trail with the exception of the Big Boy.

It had been Joe's plan to photograph the boat with the moving-picture camera as we came down the caņon. He meant, I am sure, to be on hand if anything exciting happened. But impenetrable wilderness separated the trail from the edge of the gorge, and that evening we reached the camp unphotographed, unrecorded, to find Joe sulking in a corner and inclined to blame the forest on us.

In one of the very greatest stretches of the rapids, a long straightaway, we saw a pigmy figure, far ahead, hailing us from the bank. "Pigmy" is a word I use generally with much caution, since a friend of mine, in the excitement of a first baby, once published a poem entitled "My Pigmy Counterpart," which a type-setter made, in the magazine version, "My Pig, My Counterpart."

Nevertheless, we will use it here. Behind this pigmy figure stretched a cliff, more than one hundred feet in height, of sheer rock overgrown with bushes. The figure had apparently but room on which to stand. George stood up and surveyed the prospect.

"Well," he said, in his slow drawl, "if that's lunch, I don't think we can hit it."

The river was racing at mad speed. Great rocks caught the current, formed whirlpools and eddies, turned us round again and again, and sent us spinning on, drenched with spray. That part of the river the boatmen knew--at least by reputation. It had been the scene, a few years before, of the tragic drowning of a man they knew. For now we were getting down into the better known portions.

To check a boat in such a current seemed impossible. But we needed food. We were tired and cold, and we had a long afternoon's work still before us.

At last, by tremendous effort and great skill, the boatmen made the landing. It was the college boy who had clambered down the cliff and brought the lunch, and it was he who caught the boats as they were whirling by. We had to cling like limpets--whatever a limpet is--to the edge, and work our way over to where there was room to sit down.

It reminded the Head of Roosevelt's expression about peace raging in Mexico. He considered that enjoyment was raging here.

Nevertheless, we ate. We made the inevitable cocoa, warmed beans, ate a part of the great cheese purchased the day before, and, with gingersnaps and canned fruit, managed to eke out a frugal repast. And shrieked our words over the roar of the river.

It was here that the boats were roped down. Critical examination and long debate with the boatmen showed no way through. On the far side, under the towering cliff, was an opening in the rocks through which the river boiled in a drop of twenty feet.

So it was fortunate, after all, that we had been hailed from the shore and had stopped, dangerous as it had been. For not one of us would have lived had we essayed that passage under the cliff. The Flathead River is not a deep river; but the force of its flow is so great, its drop so rapid, that the most powerful swimmer is hopeless in such a current. Light as our flies were, again and again they were swept under and held as though by a powerful hand.

Another year, the Flathead may be a much simpler proposition to negotiate. Owing to the unusually heavy snows of last winter, which had not commenced to melt on the mountain-tops until July, the river was high. In a normal summer, I believe that this trip could be taken--although always the boatmen must be expert in river rapids--with comparative safety and enormous pleasure.

There is a thrill and exultation about running rapids--not for minutes, not for an hour or two, but for days--that gets into the blood. And when to that exultation is added the most beautiful scenery in America, the trip becomes well worth while. However, I am not at all sure that it is a trip for a woman to take. I can swim, but that would not have helped at all had the boat, at any time in those four days, struck a rock and turned over. Nor would the men of the party, all powerful swimmers, have had any more chance than I.

We were a little nervous that afternoon. The caņon grew wilder; the current, if possible, more rapid. But there were fewer rocks; the river-bed was clearer.

We were rapidly nearing the Middle Fork. Another day would see us there, and from that point, the river, although swift, would lose much of its danger.

Late the afternoon of the third day we saw our camp well ahead, on a ledge above the river. Everything was in order when we arrived. We unloaded ourselves solemnly out of the boats, took our fish, our poles, our graft-hooks and landing-nets, our fly-books, my sunburn lotion, and our weary selves up the bank. Then we solemnly shook hands all round. We had come through; the rest was easy.

On the last day, the river became almost a smiling stream. Once again, instead of between cliffs, we were traveling between great forests of spruce, tamarack, white and yellow pine, fir, and cedar. A great golden eagle flew over the water just ahead of our boat. And in the morning we came across our first sign of civilization--a wire trolley with a cage, extending across the river in lieu of a bridge. High up in the air at each end, it sagged in the middle until the little car must almost have touched the water. We had a fancy to try it, and landed to make the experiment. But some ungenerous soul had padlocked it and had gone away with the key.

For the first time that day, it was possible to use the trolling-lines. We had tried them before, but the current had carried them out far ahead of the boat. Cut-throat trout now and then take a spoon. But it is the bull-trout which falls victim, as a rule, to the troll.

I am not gifted with the trolling-line. Sometime I shall write an article on the humors of using it--on the soft and sibilant hiss with which it goes out over the stern; on the rasping with which it grates on the edge of the boat as it holds on, stanch and true, to water-weeds and floating branches; on the low moan with which it buries itself under a rock and dies; on the inextricable confusion into which it twists and knots itself when, hand over hand, it is brought in for inspection.

I have spent hours over a trolling-line, hours which, otherwise, I should have wasted in idleness. There are thirty-seven kinds of knots which, so far, I have discovered in a trolling-line, and I am but at the beginning of my fishing career.

"What are you doing," the Head said to me that last day, as I sat in the stern busily working at the line. "Knitting?"

We got few fish that day, but nobody cared. The river was wide and smooth; the mountains had receded somewhat; the forest was there to the right and left of us. But it was an open, smiling forest. Still far enough away, but slipping toward us with the hours, were settlements, towns, the fertile valley of the lower river.

We lunched that night where, just a year before, I had eaten my first lunch on the Flathead, on a shelving, sandy beach. But this time the meal was somewhat shadowed by the fact that some one had forgotten to put in butter and coffee and condensed milk.

However, we were now in that part of the river which our boatmen knew well. From a secret cache back in the willows, George and Mike produced coffee and condensed milk and even butter. So we lunched, and far away we heard a sound which showed us how completely our wilderness days were over--the screech of a railway locomotive.

Late that afternoon, tired, sunburned, and unkempt, we drew in at the little wharf near Columbia Falls. It was weeks since we had seen a mirror larger than an inch or so across. Our clothes were wrinkled from being used to augment our bedding on cold nights. The whites of our eyes were bloodshot with the sun. My old felt hat was battered and torn with the fish-hooks that had been hung round the band. Each of us looked at the other, and prayed to Heaven that he looked a little better himself.


Mary Roberts Rinehart

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