July 19-21, 2014
Sleep in the Shitty Van came in fits, but it was more substantial than anything I had gotten in the past week. In fact, between the multiple all-nighters of my final weekend in Madison and the all-nighter I had pulled while moving out, my body desperately needed a good night's rest. The three or four hours I got felt like twelve.
I woke at dawn. We were driving across the flat landscape of western South Dakota, and the sky was still shrouded in a thick haze. We had originally planned to drive through North Dakota, but the others in the van had changed their minds at the last minute, opting instead for the southern route. I smiled, aware of their deception – North Dakota doesn't really exist. Every time I have made plans to go there, something has always come up that has kept me away. Perhaps someday I will stand at the border of this phantom state, gaze into the void and learn its true secrets.
When we entered Wyoming (which I can confirm is real), we stopped at an invasive species check (Wyoming is one of the only states that has yet to get zebra mussels). We took down our kayaks and the woman working there looked for standing water. When we told her that we were from Wisconsin, she said, “Wisconsin is extremely high risk.” It wasn't clear if she was referring to zebra mussels, us or Wisconsin itself.
We turned north as we continued through Wyoming, taking in the vast, expansive scenery. We talked about the different roads we had encountered around the world, some of which were in deplorable condition. I felt lucky to live in a country where you could drive for thousands of miles and only stop for gas, though I wouldn't be living in the US for much longer. At around noon we crossed into Montana but we didn't see any mountains until the end of the day.
We got to Missoula at about 9 p.m., hoping to spend the night in relative comfort. We made a few turns through a suburb full of tract housing, and a KOA entered our vision. If you've never camped at a KOA, it is a site to behold. With its named roads, the campground felt like a village located within the heart of the city. It came complete with a swimming pool, two hot tubs and several stand-up arcade games. Sadly, Tekken 3 was out-of-order. We snagged the final “tenting” site and passed out, surrounded by the gentle hum of RV air-conditioners.
The next morning we left the city, drove about twenty minutes northeast and found a nice campsite with plenty of open space. The big advantage of this new site was that it was located next to the Blackfoot River. Some of us did a couple of runs down the class II river as a warmup. I was glad to have had the practice – I had only gone kayaking twice this year, and I had almost no experience with the tank-like Jackson Zen I had borrowed for this trip. Before one run I filled my dry bags with water to simulate the effect of paddling a fully-loaded boat. The Zen became significantly less responsive, and I realized that I wouldn't be able to avoid the meatier parts of some large rapids on the Selway. I would simply have to plow through them, hopefully with enough momentum to clear their turbulent hydraulics.
Our Selway group was sixteen strong, a mishmash of current and former Hoofers. Everyone in our group who was already in Missoula met at the Montgomery Distillery. Most of us dressed up, and as I sipped my “Go Gingerly” cocktail, I had a hard time picturing the group in our element, kayaking down a whitewater river, eating dehydrated meals out bags and going a week without showering.
When Rebecca, whom I had just met, asked if I was nervous, I told her the truth: yes. “You'll see in the next few days that you're better than you think,” she said, calming my fears a bit. But then she stated the obvious: “The consequences of a swim will be far greater on the Selway than on the day-trips you're used to paddling.” I really didn't want to think about it. Whitewater boats can sink when filled with water. Losing my boat, food and camping gear, dozens of miles from the nearest ranger's station, would be bad news, indeed. Getting hurt while in the back-country would mean even greater consequences.
The night before our paddling adventure was to begin, we sorted through our group gear. Out of necessity, we had to take minimal stoves, pots, first-aid kits, throw-ropes and spare paddles, though their would be one raft on our trip, affording us a bit of extra packing space. I decided not to take a tent, even though I probably had enough room for one. After my clumsy trial run with water-filled dry bags, I wanted to play it safe by carrying as light a load as possible. And, I rationalized, sleeping under the stars would be pleasant during summer in Idaho.
Our first big problem emerged as we were making a final inspection of our gear. Dan C discovered a crack, about four inches long, in the bottom of his boat. Tadhg, our group's de facto handyman, went to work, melting the boat with a camp stove and sealing it with plastic. I was a bit apprehensive about taking a cracked boat, but Dan didn't seem to mind. While this trip would be a challenge to me, for several people in our group, Dan included, it would be a relative walk in the park, compared with the monstrous class IV's and V's they typically paddled. And our permit was only good for the following day; a single cracked boat wouldn't keep us off of the river.