When my good friend Cody first told me that he drew for the Smith River in early May I declined. After a seemingly longer than usual winter, camping during a cold, wet spring turned me off. It wasn't long after his offer when a news story appeared about a group of Smith floaters who were rather unlucky. They were the third group to float the river this year, and early April trips can be very cold. Waking up to snow on the tent is one thing, but group three woke up to a completely frozen Smith River. Fortunately they were close to a ranch road and were able to get help. That was April 8th. Cody's float was scheduled a full month later but its not uncommon to have snow up into July there. The Smith begins its journey to the Missouri River from the Castle Mountains in South Central Montana. It then winds its way through farm land and cattle country before entering Smith River State Park. Here, the river flows for fifty-nine miles through some of the most beautiful country around. The Smith's highly protected waters are the prize that so many cherish and will travel many miles to float. There are a limited number of permits given each year, via a lottery system, which 6,000 people that hope to draw, only about 1,000 or so will be lucky. It wasn't long before I changed my mind. Several warmer than average days came in mid April and I was itching to kick my cabin fever, let alone in one of this country's most beautiful places. I mean, what was I thinking saying no?
|Camp Baker morning of the launch|
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, May 7th was finally here. With my truck loaded full of gear and the raft, I began the two and a half hour drive north to the check-in station at Camp Baker. My plan was to leave Bozeman and show up a night early to reserve an early launch for the group, but by the time I arrived my name was already fifth on the list; apparently, 1 pm the day before isn't early enough! Camp Baker soon filled with nine groups, our group of four being the smallest, all the way up to the bigger groups, with around fifteen people. The scene at camp was a lively one. One hundred people all hanging out in a unique landscape, all there for the same reason. Not one soul had to work for the next five days, and the beer count was already taking a hit. The mood was very chill and relaxing. I was a little worried about tomorrows launch, unsure of what the river would throw at us. Did we bring enough gear? Do we have enough food? Is it going to snow on us? How bad are the whitewater rapids with these high flows?
|Ranger discussion at Camp Baker|
At around nine o'clock we had to register our campsites with the ranger.
|Last gear check|
|Our first mile on a new river|
It was this first day on the river that we spotted a sow black bear and cub. The mom had a watchful eye over the little one, who was grazing on riverside vegetation, talk about a shore-lunch. They didn't fear us, and watched as we quietly floated by. The day was warm and sunny, the river calm and peaceful. There was a calmness in the air, the smell of pine, the sound of the occasional duck taking off, or a gaggle of geese passing by overhead. There was a sense of wonder as to what would be around the next turn in the river. The current was pushing us at about four or five knots, it was tough to sit back and take it all in.
|Sow black bear and cub|
We made it to our first camp in a hurry that day. We left plenty of room for a longer than expected float, or in case something happened, we wanted to have tents up before dark. It only took us three hours to float the days seventeen miles.
|Boat camp Syringa|
I awoke on Wednesday morning around six o'clock. I made a cup of joe and took a hike with my fishing rod. The rest of the group was sleeping in. I figured it would be a good time to wander around and explore the area. I fished for an hour with absolutely no luck. The water didn't look all that bad really. At times the visibility was around eight inches. Once awake, everyone was feeling pretty energized and we were eager to get on the water. After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and biscuits 'n gravy, we consolidated a couple piles of firewood into the rafts, packed our gear, and headed downstream.
In the middle of a remote stretch of the canyon there sits an oasis to floaters. The Heaven on Earth Ranch is kind of an odd place. You almost have to see it for yourself. We had read about it beforehand and thought we may stop for a drink, or round of golf. Yes, there is a beautifully kept nine hole golf course out in the middle of the Smith River Canyon. They are happy to serve rafters free hard drinks but will take donations. You can also stay at one of their many cabins and enjoy a hot shower or soak in the hot tub. "Shall we stop?", Carly hollered. Dark violet and ominous, the clouds besieging us were moving in fast. There was friction in the air. "Can we keep moving?" I yelled back. A nod was given. I think we all had the same feeling.
|spring number two, before the storm|
The rain eventually subsided and we made it to our 3rd camp, Camp Crowsfoot. It seemed that right as we realized there were no trees at this camp to hang a tarp for shelter, the rain had stopped.
|Evening view from Camp Crows Foot|
|several pictographs from Camp Crows Foot|
|The canyon walls grow taller|
The canyon walls were at their tallest this day, and within them, there was a 'pictograph cave' that we were on the look-out for. It was river mile thirty-eight we discovered it, high above the river. A small trail came into view around a slow bend. The shore was so steep here that instead of landing the rafts, we had to tie them to trees and let them float. We strapped both rigs together to make a large barge that we used to change into more fitting clothing.
|Riley sits on the shore in front of pictograph cave|
|Our boats at Upper Ridgetop|
A short trail from our boats led to our sheltered camping area. The fire pit sits in the middle of a triangle of three towering conifers trees, and each tent-site is isolated, a few yards from where we would all gather for dinner. It managed to stop raining for the few hours, we set up camp and cooked our dinner. We feasted on elk chili and other snacks on this night. The gang preferred to drink coffee in the evening over beer, I guess we are getting old. Speaking of old; it was the day before Cody's thirtieth birthday! What better way to spend a milestone like that than floating down one of the countries unique rivers, in Montana?
|Fun around the campfire, Upper Ridgetop|
The rain that night once again determined when we would get into our tents and go to bed. This time, I strategically placed my tent under a large pine tree to avoid as much moisture as possible from the monsoon like rains. I tried to position the tent onto a hump, so water wouldn't pool inside, and I added an additional rain tarp over the original for added coverage. Despite my best efforts, the rains were just too strong and consistent. I was tired during the night that I didn't let it bother me as much, and woke up inside a half soaked sleeping bag. I couldn't believe I still managed to get wet, along with most of my stuff in the tent, that wasn't in a dry bag. It was difficult to get up and pack but there wasn't much else to do. Annoyed that we woke up to a very cold and rainy morning, we brewed some coffee, water proofed our bodies and got to work taking down camp.
|Staying dry during the rain|
We donned every piece of dry, waterproof material we had. The rain was falling at a steady rate and there was a stiff breeze blowing upriver. We turned our boats and backs to the wind again and held our heads down as we paddled seventeen river miles to Eden Bridge. The terrain turned from mountainous canyons, much like that of the Gallatin Canyon, to a whole new world. Suddenly I felt like we were in New Zealand. There were flocks of sheep grazing in fence-less, wide open spaces. Giant rolling hills of green were shrouded in a thin layer of mist. The absence of roads, telephone wires, fences, buildings, and people, gave the scenery a boost of remoteness. Still, the river making sharp turns every few hundred yards. Black Angus cows dot the landscape along with huge cuts of exposed earth and limestone caves. The pines gave way to small trees here and there with geese still all along the banks. The river began to widen up and slow its current. To make up some time I paddled ahead of Cody's boat and imagined a warm, dry Toyota 4Runner patiently waiting for us at the take out. We passed under a privately owned bridge, which read "Eden Bridge take out 5 miles". I was thinking we were much closer than five miles. After the bridge I entered a pretty large farming operation. Someone was sheering sheep in a huge metal barn. As I silently drifted by, sheep would joyfully run from the barn to regroup with the others. I remember thinking how happy those sheep looked. They do live in a pretty spectacular place. It wasn't much longer after this when I caught up with a group ahead of us, three boats. I was cruising along pretty good, my back downriver; every now and then Id glance back to see where I was going. To my relief, Eden Bridge was much closer than the five miles the sign read. The river narrowed here, braided a few times, I didn't want to miss the ramp. As I made my final turn on this magnificent river, a friendly gentlemen kindly grabbed my throw rope and pulled me in hard against the fast current. We exchanged a few words and I began unloading my gear. About ten minutes later, Cody, Carly, and Riley came down and I caught their rope.
Eden Bridge has some of the nicest changing facilities I've ever seen at a campsite. I guess this is where part of my floater fees comes in, and I'm more than happy to pay them if this is where it goes. There's dumpsters there to get rid of all the trash we accumulated and a camp host who is happy to answer any questions you might have. From here we loaded both rafts onto the trailer and we began the long drive back to Cascade, down to Helena, Townsend, back over to White Sulphur Springs, then north to Camp Baker. Once my raft was in my own vehicle we made the two hour drive back to Bozeman.
|View from our hike looking for the cave|