“See when you get ‘er going about 40 you barely feel the bumps!” I state proudly, spinning the wheel to avoid another pothole as the rental car drifts sideways around a sharp bend in the road, wheels riding across the tops of deep washboards.
“Ya it’s not too bad…where are we again?” My brother asks, dabbing a gas station napkin at a pool of coffee that had spilled from the top of his mug when we’d gone straight through the last set of potholes. On the car’s GPS screen, the blue triangle that represents us drifts along through a featureless splotch of green. A lady’s voice had asked me to “proceed to the route” twenty minutes ago, then gone silent. She’d sounded a little annoyed, which I’d forgiven as neither the app designers nor Chrysler could have anticipated a suburban grocery getter being used this way. Or misused, which is what the rental company manager would call it, explaining that no, the road side service policy certainly didn’t cover sending someone out “five miles or so east of Blacktail mountain” to pull a car out of the treetops beyond a steep bend in the road “like that Jeep in Jurassic Park.”
The raft rental guy in Missoula sighed and grudgingly agreed when I asked if he could drop the raft here the night before so we could get on at the butt crack of dawn. The rocky truck-width paths through the forest don’t have signs so I drive by memory, headlights prospecting through Douglas Fir and the rusty trunks of Ponderosa.
The raft slides down the first set of braids below the launch, corrected with short, unnecessary strokes because I like the greasy slosh of the oar blades dipping in and out of the water. A few early morning clouds hide the rocky bottom with surface glare and there’s a thick layer of frost on the tops of the raft’s tubes. It’ll be 80 degrees by noon. In front my brother swears as the shadow of a long trout flickers from underneath a root ball up against a bank, swipes at his streamer, and disappears.
“Big bull.” He snaps a short roll cast, picks up the sink tip and shoots the full length back toward the bank.
“Next time don’t stop the-“ A solid brown grabs the fly on arrival and shoulders for the bottom.
“What?” He asks, smirking.
The fish has its width set against the heavy current but doesn't gain against the deeply bent six weight. It gives up and throws a flamboyant tantrum mid river. Childish for a fish that ought to know better, I guess.
Free of the net, the trout holds sullenly for a moment in the slack of an inside bend, then pouts away across the current. Good start, which is simply that. Some days are kindly and up front about their intentions. Other days are stickier, little more rusted to the frame, the screws all rounded out. You reach for the breaker bar and JB 80 from your toolbox of over-analysis, stubbornly fish dry flies because it’s a better excuse, or go belly up and start speaking in clichés and taking pictures of your beer. This day started on the first pull which is, despite all the literary sweat poured into the challenge, plainly enjoyable.
The sun tops a burn scarred ridge behind us and the heat we’d be hiding from in a few hours feels good on my back as I work on the oars to slow our descent down a chute above a tall stair-step section of rapids. Cold standing waves force my brother to abandon his lean against the front tube. From the front seat he distractedly slaps the streamer down into the back eddies on either side of the raft. I angle us to avoid a boulder that split the first step in half. The front of the raft drops over the edge, the streamer and a few feet of sink tip landing in the white froth just ahead of us. The line immediately pulls tight, stuck fast to something beneath the churn.
“Not stopping,” I grunt as we spin in another direction to skirt a rock shelf and fall cleanly through the second step.
My brother wraps a fist in the line and pulls. We choose different swear words with matching feminine pitches when the kype of a large brown breaks through the whitewater. He jumps back and drops the line like he’d been dared to grab an electric cattle fence. The trout and the raft cascade down the final pitch in swirling confusion, our incredulous noise-making rising with the roar of the water to fill the canyon as the goat rodeo progresses. Finding its bearings in the sensible current of the bottom pool, the brute makes a dive towards a deep rock pile in the tailout. The run is rebuffed with a scoff and a hand clamped on the reel spool. There was a time and place to lose the fight and we had swept quickly past both. The trout rests in the net, visibly annoyed. We laugh off the horror of hooking a big fish in a bad spot.
Around the next bend, I work the fly in the familiar oxymoron of unsteady rhythm, leaving a dripping splotch against the dry bank rock and retrieving it to the rod tip, wary of boat-side muskie takes by the river’s playground bullies.
Turning around, I look up at the sun then down at my brother. "Tricos should start coming off soon."
He pivots the raft for a line on a pocket behind a mid-stream boulder, and I watch a fish eye reflection of me and the front of the raft shift in his sunglasses as he plots our route. “Probably.”
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