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There's a calming beauty to the Missouri River. There's a song that lingers within its current. Its songs of adventure and wisdom can be heard by travelers.
I gazed across the mellow water of the Missouri River tinted dark gray by the winds of time. My attention was drawn to a trio of children basking in the warm water. Their laughter echoed off of the trees subtly blowing in the wind. A crown of water rippled away from their circle of childhood games as they cleansed themselves with the water.
There was a bounce in my stride Friday as I thought about my weekend float trip down the Missouri River with several people I know and several I had yet to meet.
The group I was with consisted of 10 people, including myself: Karen Datko, Harvey and Cindy Brock, Stacy Mantle, Dave and Judy Greenwood, and Mike and Debbie Ritz, all of Havre; and Heidi Wright of Klamath Falls, Ore. We arrived at our Friday night campsite at different times. Jim and Laurie Catt of Havre joined us for dinner, but didn't stay. They knew well what we were getting into when the sun rose the next morning.
Each one of us pitched in on preparing dinner - boiled popcorn-sized shrimp, potatoes, green peppers, onions, link sausage and sweet corn on the cob. I leaped at the chance to shuck the corn. Growing up on a farm outside of Nebraska City, Neb., where the rows of sweet corn grow as far as the eye can see, you know a thing or two about preparing corn.
The steam said, "Come and get it!" as it rolled off the food mounded on a table.
That night we sat by the camp fire as it faintly lit our tents a few steps away. Judy, Debbie, Stacy, Cindy and I waited by the fire as the others made a 2-hour trip to Judith Landing to park our vehicles at the getting-out point.
I had my very first sip of gin and tonic. It didn't taste bad until I swallowed.
"Oh, this stuff is nasty," I said. "Was a pine car freshener dipped in this stuff or what?"
We had spotted two satellites in the sky. We tried to figure out whether they were satellites or shooting stars. Shooting stars happen in the blink of an eye. These slowly moving lights had to be satellites. I've never seen satellites orbiting the planet before. I followed both of them with my eyes until their twinkling lights couldn't be seen anymore.
When 10:30 p.m. rolled around, we began to wonder where the rest of our group was. Had they had an accident or stopped at a bar? But what could we do without a vehicle? Just when we joked about sending out a search party, they finally arrived.
Their car doors opened and they were laughing. I thought, "Yeah, they went to the bar." But I was wrong.
Karen was convinced Mars was going to be closer to Earth's orbit than usual that night, and it would be visible. Of course, no one believed her.
I fell asleep listening to coyotes howling at the full moon and someone snoring in a nearby tent. Mars never made an appearance.
I woke up about 6:45 a.m. and tried to loosen up my stiff back. Harvey and Mike made bacon, potatoes and French toast. I couldn't recall the last time I'd had breakfast. After that meal I wondered, "Why don't I fit the 'most important meal of the day' into my daily schedule?"
Following breakfast, we carried our coolers, backpacks, sleeping bags and other gear down to the boat ramp. Someone asked, "Is this all going to fit into our canoes?" Luckily, everything did.
I was a little concerned about our journey downstream because this was the first canoe experience for me and my canoeing partner, Stacy. Dave gave us a 10-second lesson as we entered the current.
Everyone was far ahead of us for most of the morning. Stacy and I decided to take off our life jackets to soak in the sun as we tried to figure out how to keep up with everyone.
We stopped for lunch on the riverbank about 11:30 a.m. Thank goodness Karen had bought me water shoes. She warned me that the Missouri River in Montana is different than in Nebraska. "OK, Karen, I've been on the river before," I thought. "You're such a mom."
She was right. Not only are the river banks soggy with thick, ankle-high mud, but there are jagged rocks waiting to cut bare feet.
We passed the massive white walls and other formations of the Upper Missouri River Breaks, which appear to be unchanged since Lewis and Clark passed through 200 years ago. Pelicans and geese glided along the water, cows and a llama grazed on the river grass and dragonflies skimmed across the water.
The float trip was running smoothly, and the stream of cool water from Debbie's squirt gun felt great against my baked skin.
Then our luck changed.
A big gray patch of clouds approached. The wind became deafening and seemed to come from all directions. My attitude quickly changed from, "Let's take our time getting there, Stacy" to "Oh my God! We're all going to die!" The waves rocked our canoe. I began to mentally prepare for a capsize. Stacy and I tried to keep control of our canoe, but it was nearly impossible because of the wind.
Finally, we made it to our halfway point, Hole-in-the-Wall. The wind became even more powerful. We all took a break inside log shelters before we set up camp. My head was spinning and my body shivered. I went inside the tent and took a nap.
I woke up to the aroma of steak, potatoes and barbecued beans. The wind had died down a little.
That night we relaxed and listened as Dave plucked on his ukulele. I was one of the last people to go to sleep that night. But when I finally curled up in the tent, I fell asleep to the wind violently flapping the tent walls and to snoring from a nearby tent. Mars was still nowhere in sight.
I got apple juice from a red cooler. I thought, "Why is this cooler tied to Harvey and Cindy's tent?"
The wind was so powerful during the night that Harvey and Cindy's tent fell on top of them. Cindy moved all of their gear into the log shelter, but there were too many bugs. They decided to use the cooler as a weight to keep their tent on the ground.
Stacy also had problems. She said she woke up four times during the night to pound her tent stakes back into the ground.
Breakfast was waiting for me when I got up. Pancakes were on the menu. I looked down at my blistered hands, rubbed my aching shoulders and looked at the still overcast sky. My excitement about continuing down the river was minimal.
By 9:30 a.m., we were paddling in the middle of the river. This time around, Stacy and I were keeping up fairly well with the leaders. We eventually caught up, and Dave and Judy held our canoe so we could float beside each other. The rest of the group eventually caught up with us. We laughed as Karen and Heidi repeatedly tried to steer their canoe toward us but missed and had to try again. I let out a sigh of relief as I stretched my legs. This was the float trip I was expecting.
The air was slightly frigid as we floated as a unit down the river. Cindy pointed out various rock formations that she and Harvey had named. For example, one formation resembled the Virgin Mary, so it was called Virgin Mary Rock.
By late morning, Harvey said we were more than halfway between Hole-in-the-Wall and our stopping point, Judith Landing. However, whenever someone asked, "How much further?" someone would always reply, "Just an hour and a half" or "Just around the next bend."
I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of water sloshing against our canoes.
Our snug group eventually decided to break up and tackle that endless final hour and a half paddling to Judith Landing. Stacy and I trailed behind as the backs of our companions became barely visible.
Then, finally, my eyes widened with anticipation as I saw the landing spot.
My arms felt as if they were going to fall off.
"OK, just a little further," I thought.
Mike caught Stacy and me at the boat ramp so we wouldn't drift down the river. We all helped unload the canoes and carry them out of the water. It was about 3:30 p.m. and we hadn't had lunch. We gathered at a picnic table to fix sandwiches and had a group photo taken by a ranger to remember our achievement.
It's amazing how a group of strangers can succeed and overcome obstacles by working together as a team. Our campsites were like a small community where everyone has to do their part in order to survive. Mother Nature posed a threat to our floating adventure. But when you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere, all you want to do is get back home. That's one goal we all had in common.
Another was to have a good time, which we also accomplished.
I gained respect for the Lewis and Clark crew for their two-year expedition up the Missouri River with their belongings - and they went against the current.
I, basically, grew up on the Missouri River. Only my family would take our boat for a float. Usually when we would float, me and my brother dove off of the boat deck into the water to swim. We stopped at sandbars where I would fish or build water canals in the sand. I have a lot of fond memories of the Missouri River.
Would I ever go canoeing down the Missouri River again? You bet. However, I don't think I would paddle 37 miles in one weekend.