I didn’t spend much time with my dad. At age thirteen I moved away from his house to live with my mom in another town. And although my dad was a great guy, one of the nicest people you’d ever meet, he wasn’t great at keeping in touch. And as I became an adult I wasn’t the best with that sort of thing either. Sometimes we saw each other only once every year, and as my kids got older and traveling became more cost prohibitive, our visits were even less frequent. I did always call him on his birthday though, and now that he’s gone I miss picking up the phone and having a nice, long conversation with him every year on November 21st. We’d talk about his garden, his plans for the future (he always had a plan), and often times we’d reminisce about the time we floated the Smith River in Montana.
Dean and I had been married for one year when my dad drove from Grand Junction to Missoula for a visit. When we asked him if he’d like to go rafting with us he sounded a little reluctant but then said he was game to try anything once. I interpreted that to mean that he wasn’t crazy about the idea, but he didn’t want to say no. Dean and I latched on to that “try anything once” statement and planned a four day rafting trip.
My dad was an outdoorsy guy, but he went about battling the elements very differently than Dean and I did. Let’s just say that his savvy came from more of a cowboy/huntsman place, whereas Dean’s and mine came from more of a backpacking, rock-climbing, REI catalog kind of place. It made for some educational moments on both our parts. My dad learned that while oiled cotton canvas might keep you dry should you get caught in a brief rain storm, it’s not really meant for rafting. Dean and I learned the nuances of fly-fishing for brown trout, and discovered that expensive gear really isn’t the key to catching more fish. While Dean could read the river and keep us out of harm’s way (for the most part), my dad could identify all the plants along the banks.
When our yellow rubber raft began to fill up with water on day two of our trip, my Dad didn’t panic or get stressed out. If he was worried at all he covered it well by cracking jokes and telling stories of his own youthful misadventures. At one point when we were trying to identify where the leak was coming from my dad held up his two pointer fingers about six inches apart and said, “I can’t see the tear in the bottom of the raft, but I think it must be about this long.” I asked him how he knew and he said, “Well there’s a fish about that size swimming around my boots.”
It became clear after a very short time that no amount of bailing was going to get us anywhere, so we looked for a good spot to pull over and repair the raft. Dean had planned ahead for this sort of thing and had purchased a repair kit before the trip, but the patches that came with the kit were way too small for the gash that we found once we emptied out the raft and turned it upside down on the gravel bar. To make matters worse, we realized we had forgotten to pack a roll of duct tape, something we had learned on an earlier trip to never leave home without. When Dean resorted to patching up the raft with year-old, used duct tape that had been wrapped around the handle of one of the oars, my dad expressed a little concern, by saying, “You go ahead and work on that. I’ll start praying.”
Other highlights of the Smith River raft trip include coming around a bend in the river and seeing a black bear cub standing on a boulder that jutted out over the water. We were silent and still as it watched us float past. I also remember my dad’s excitement at seeing a huge bush of ripe red currants. He insisted that we pull the raft over and pick them for a few minutes so he could make currant syrup for our pancakes the next morning.
We also spent a lot of time building huge campfires in an attempt to dry out my dad’s gear because even though our dry bags were superior for keeping the sleeping bags dry, he insisted on wrapping up his belongings in his Australian oilskin duster. He did have a bit of a stubborn streak.
When my dad came to visit Dean and I in Montana all those years ago we could have easily hung around the house the whole time or just taken a few sight-seeing drives, but instead we shared an adventure. Those four days of eating around a campfire, sleeping under the stars and floating down the Smith River have given me a lot of comfort over the past few years.