Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Fall 2004, Volume 22.1

Essay

 

Robert B. SmithPhoto of Robert B. Smith.

Metamorphosis


Bob Smith, formerly a chemist, professor, university provost, and newspaper columnist, has contributed several essays to
Weber Studies. Now retired with his wife in the mountain village of Idyllwild, California, he wanders the high country of the San Jacinto Mountains, investigates their history, and relishes life in one of those "last, best places" in America.  Read other essays in Weber Studies by Robert B. Smith:  Vol. 9.1Vol. 11.3Vol. 18.1.

 

I lift my paddle to realign our kayak with the current, but a soft voice over my shoulder interrupts: "No, wait!"

By now, I trust Jock's instinct. So I wait—mute, motionless, as blind to what comes next as a tadpole awaiting frogdom, equally oblivious to how long it will take to begin making sense of this evening.

 

It's too late now to ask what a landlubbing city boy is doing here in Northern Montana, afloat a "wild and scenic" river, his week's duffel stuffed into the tiny prow of a homemade, two-seat kayak. Before the trip began, I had good reason to doubt the wisdom of coming along. It's not like me to venture far from potable water, a bed, table and chairs, a roof, and flush plumbing. I don't cook for anyone but myself. I don't enjoy rain. I'd never known a good night's sleep on the ground. I'd pictured the Missouri Breaks as a prairie crawling with rattlesnakes. The thought of traveling with an accomplished mountaineer had conjured images of "hikes" fraught with vertical ascents and descents on insecure surfaces that would prey dangerously upon my unsteady sense of balance. My worst phobia is the prospect of being entombed in water, fluid or frozen, and my imagination couldn't separate the words kayak and flip.

Yet a curiosity never quenched by schooling draws me to places off the beaten tracks—especially to this place. As a disruptive fifth-grader repeatedly banished to the back of the classroom, where I would rummage in its tiny library, I chanced upon a small book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition's amazing journey between St. Louis and the Pacific Coast. Instantly captivated, I've since devoured every account I've come across.
From the Montana plains to the Oregon shore I've repeatedly gone out of my way to visit readily accessible parts of the route they pioneered in 1805. I could hardly spurn this chance to explore a more remote segment: a hundred-fifty-mile stretch of the Upper Missouri River, barely touched by the twentieth century.

I suppose, too, that I felt flattered by an invitation from a world-class adventurer. But Jock and I had long been friends and academic kindred spirits: I a scientist, driven by ever-broadening curiosity; he a philosopher, ever seeking to tie loose ends of knowledge and experience into rational insights. He chose to remain a professor, luxuriating in solitary pursuits of the mind, while I migrated to administration, working through messy human relationships to achieve more mundane ends. Still, it seemed natural to mark our simultaneous retirements by embarking on an intellectual quest.

Given my apprehension, I was relieved, during an early-morning shakedown cruise on a nearby mountain reservoir just two days before departing our urban Utah homes, to find the kayak stable in the water and its propulsion easy to grasp. I left unmentioned the fact that this was my first encounter with a paddle.

Here on the river, my worries have continued to dissipate. In the comfort of foam pad and open-mesh tent I've slept far better than expected. I've come to relish Jock's creativity with Rice-a-Roni, garlic, onion, carrot, and added flavoring du jour. I couldn't have hoped for more accommodating weather. I've found our daily hikes to the canyon's rim a welcome change of pace. I've discovered the practicality of Teva sandals and airy fishing pants in, on, and off the water. I have also discovered the utility of cow paths for negotiating otherwise precarious slopes. Even the rattlers have been courteous, registering their circumspect presence only by leaving morning-after traces in the sand.

Beyond mere relief of anxiety, some experiences have been positively rewarding. For example, all I'd read about the influence of beaver on western waterways came abruptly into focus when we reconnoitered one small island in search of a campsite untouched by cows and found every last tree tasted, gnawed, or felled.

Awakening once in the middle of the night, I saw the northern horizon etched by a glow that silhouetted the straight trunks of two cottonwood seedlings beside my sleeping bag. Wondering drowsily which city must lie in that direction, I rubbed my eyes and recalled where I was: nearer the end of the earth than any city. A second glance showed the "seedlings" had transmuted into scrolling edges of a bluish-white curtain meandering across the sky—my first glimpse of the aurora in forty years.

An unanticipated silence has blanketed the river, separating us from civilization, from the moment we left the streets of Fort Benton behind. While dams and cattle have already rendered the Upper Missouri more scenic than wild, and soon enough the commercial drumbeat of a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial will turn this stretch of river into a fluvial highway, throughout our trip the frontier ambience has rarely been diluted by other travelers. The feeling of isolation peaked on the third day, as we relaxed in camp on a grassy riverbank below Hole-in-the-Wall, surrounded by massive, multifaceted cliffs, listening to the river bubbling by, fish leaping in an eddy close at hand, geese honking on takeoff and landing at a distant bar. I sat mesmerized by the perfect circle of deepening blue sky framed in the Hole's white sandstone, now tinged pink by a setting sun and accented by a waxing silver moon.

Fading anxiety over daily logistics has freed my imagination to picture more concretely the Corps of Discovery's original passage. I greeted our first sunrise atop a dusty bluff overlooking the confluence of the Missouri and Marias rivers, the spot where Lewis and Clark pondered for days which fork to follow upstream. Their correct decision to overrule the unanimous opinion of their troops and to veer southeast instead of continuing west is admirable; as I stood on the site amid the confusing terrain, the gravity of that choice became palpable. Such decisive judgment recurs throughout the historical accounts of the journey. The contrast with Lewis's moody, self-destructive behavior before and after is so stark that I can only wonder at the power of wilderness to penetrate his inner being and to fashion, however briefly, a different person. I was pondering this puzzle again, when Jock and I spent our fifth night at the spot where the Corps of Discovery camped on 27 May 1805, the day after Lewis hiked from Cow Creek to the rim and caught a memorable first glimpse of what he mistakenly took to be the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. After dinner, we began to talk about reenacting Lewis's hike.

The prospect should have excited me, but by then my heart was no longer in this pilgrimage. Tedium had displaced anxiety and preempted enthusiasm. Once past the renowned white cliffs, mile after mile of dry slopes and sparsely treed bluffs became increasingly monotonous. As the week wore on, our destination seemed ever to recede, and the deep muck at impromptu landings, the denuded flood plain, the ubiquitous dung piles, all courtesy of free-ranging Black Angus and Galway Belted cattle, fed my growing irritation. Paddling twenty-five whitecapped miles against a headwind, to reach camp at the Judith River by dark, my upper-body muscles approached their limits of endurance. At that point the four-day trip from Fort Benton had offered quite enough variety in landscape, vegetation, wind, water, and history to satisfy me. Now we were floating the last sixty-one miles through the badlands only because it's here, the only available pathway to our parked van at Kipp's Landing. Nor were my spirits lifted by arriving at Cow Island Landing last night only to find the campsite's fence freshly breached. Cattle, lured inside, had raised the cow-shit density to a level that drove us outside to find habitable space for tenting and cooking amid a tangle of sage and prickly-pear.

Even so, that morning's first light, announcing our seventh day on the river, drew me out of the tent, prepared as always to hike. Apart from the inevitable cows grazing among the groves of pine, juniper, and fir on the rim, today's trek gave us our best taste yet of the flavor of 1805. What might have been merely a reconstruction of the unmarked course of a historic walk assumed an added dimension from the personal relationship Jock and I brought to it. As we hiked, my thoughts kept returning to a similar complementarity between Meriwether
Lewis and William Clark.

When Lewis tapped Clark to co-captain the great expedition, he was hiring not just an acquaintance, but his former commanding officer in the army. Lewis, the plantation gentleman, was manic-depressive and sometimes short-tempered, to be sure—his suicide was a climax never revealed to schoolboys of my era—but an ever-curious rambler, one who blossomed in the wilderness into a courageous, resourceful leader of men, with unmatched presence of mind in crisis. Clark, the frontiersman, was a superb judge of men, a steadying influence, accustomed to commanding troops but diplomatic in its exercise. Where Lewis brought to the enterprise an extraordinary range of knowledge, Clark brought depth of experience as woodsman, map-maker, and waterman. What made the pair greater than the sum of its parts was mutual respect and trust.

When Jock picked me, he was the professor recruiting his former provost. In this setting he's the impulsive adventurer, the self-possessed wanderer; I'm the cautious organizer, the studious map-reader. He fixes on goals, while I, anxious over each unfamiliar prospect, worry about how to reach them. But Jock seems to accept my inexperience, and I defer to his leadership. He steers the kayak; I navigate. I fire up the primitive burner; he cooks, and I scrounge up sage whisk and river gravel to clean utensils. He reads from the historical guide as we float past landmarks during breaks from paddling; I record our contemporary adventures during his catnaps ashore.

As we set out on our reenactment, the crude map in Jock's guidebook was barely more precise than Lewis' own vague intelligence from the "Minnetaree" Indians, but to me the one plausible route up from Cow Creek was self-evident. We threaded our way easily through badlands and upon reaching the rim ambled along its crest until we neared Lewis's obvious, if unmarked, lookout point. Disappointed that smoke from distant fires in Glacier National Park today concealed the celebrated view, we decided to halt one gully short of our goal and return to the river.

My conservative sense of the topography counseled a retracing of the straightforward route we had taken on the way up, which would bring us back to camp in good time for a late breakfast before the day's abbreviated float. But Jock prevailed, dictating a circuit down unknown canyons, paralleling Lewis's looping route so vaguely portrayed in the guidebook. We made our way to the rim of the nearest ravine, paused to scan the depths of the chasm it fed, and agreed on an objective in the morning shadows far below. Silently, Jock disappeared down a precipitous wall of finely crumbled shale, leaving me no choice but to follow and to accept another lesson in trust. Landing intact amid dense brush, we emptied our shale-filled Nikes and continued downward, plodding through narrow, twisting ravines, paved at intervals with alkaline mud—the ice-slick goo oft bemoaned by Lewis. We emerged at last onto the flood plain, where the omnipresent network of cow trails pointed us back toward our tent and a refreshing dip in the river. If nothing else, the exertion had raised my mood from foul to ambivalent.

After a late launch and a skipped lunch, the campground where we planned to spend our seventh and final night failed to materialize by late afternoon. Baffled, we came ashore on a convenient island. There, screened from the stiff, hot breeze by tall grass, willow, and cottonwood, we cleared a makeshift kitchen and dined early on our last flavor of Rice-a-Roni, Jamaican jerk. During dinner, I was still puzzling over the vanished campsite when Jock suggested finishing our trip with a night cruise to Kipp's Landing. The thought of navigating narrow channels and avoiding boulders and riffles after dark scared me, of course, but recalling that a full moon was due, I once again let my reflex misgivings be trumped by beckoning novelty and agreed to the night run. While the sun coasted toward the horizon, we busied ourselves with chores: cleaning up, repacking the kayak for convenient access in the dark to overnight necessities, and dosing with Jungle Juice in preparation for Lewis's dreaded "musquetoes." With my worry eased by knowing at least where we'd be spending the night, I took a fully-clothed laundry dip in the river and emerged rejuvenated for our last launch from the mud-coated rocks of the riverbank.

Afloat again, threading our way among sinuous islands and gravel bars, I began to notice entrances to beaver lodges. Slanting sunlight bathed one early riser poised at water's edge, giving me my first glimpse of a beaver in the wild. Then, just moments later, nature upped the ante: we approached a huge, fully-antlered bull elk wading in the shallows along one bank. Seeing us, he froze. Paddles suspended, we froze and drifted by, elk and pilgrims engrossed in each other at thirty feet. Radiating dignity, he held his composure as we disappeared around a bend.

 

Now I move to reorient the kayak, hear Jock's "No, wait!" plea, and settle back in my seat. As his voice fades into the warm air, the braided current almost imperceptibly wheels us about, to face upriver. Suddenly, I'm stunned by hypnotic pools of orange and gold dancing before my eyes. Abstract images in sunlight tinted by the wildfire smoke on the western horizon dart chaotically across the water's surface. I stare spellbound, as the sun dips out of sight. The dusk is as still as my inert body, a silence even deeper than the usual therapeutic hush of river life after dark.

For five days, from when I'd carelessly let a cheap watch slip off my wrist and into the river, the passage of time has been detectable only through muscle fatigue, stomach growl, and the daily course of the sun. Now, suspended amid the sun's fire and the planet's earth, air, and water, even those temporal clues fade, and I'm swallowed by an acute sense of eternal present. Both space and time have vanished.

Surprisingly, this frees me to emerge, unwitting, from a multilayered cocoon in which I've confined myself all week—shielded from water by the kayak; shielded from wind by clothing and lip balm; shielded from penetrating August light rays by sunscreen, sunglasses, and broad-brimmed hat; shielded from mosquitoes by exotic potions; even shielded by waterproof gear packed close at hand from storms that never progressed beyond dry lightning and scattered raindrops. So enveloped, I've found it too easy to ignore the conglomeration of life with which I've been sharing this river.

My mind has known that the river provides a home for three hundred sixty-two animal species. But my eyes and ears have gathered little evidence of their presence, beyond a few flocks of Canada geese protesting our trespass and the omnipresent cows flaunting their status as prime beneficiaries of the Bureau of Land Management's dogma that the highest and best use of this land is overgrazing. Once, veering close to a bank, we did startle a pair of hefty carp, but nowhere did we detect the indigenous sturgeon or paddlefish. White-tailed deer browsed among cottonwoods or bounced over talus, but bighorn sheep remained aloof. On the river we saw a lone bald eagle and a smattering of pelicans, seagulls, and cormorants; but around our campsites we had to settle for scratching lizards, buzzing gnats, jumping fish, biting mosquitoes, and occasional interruption of dinner or slumber by bombardment from a bird overhead in a cottonwood. Though I was pleased never to have roused a rattlesnake, seven days of observation had returned little reward—the elk encounter having been the notable exception.

From the corners of my eyes I begin to see shadowy treetops drifting by, reawakening my sense of motion and time. I notice dark shapes dipping low overhead—shrikes, swifts, bats—and beaver slipping from their lodges into the water around us. I remain motionless in the waning dusk, all senses alert, still barely aware of the change overtaking me. But just as the morning's hike connected me with an episode of the river's past, my assimilation into the evening's silent pageant of water and land and life is connecting me with the river's present.

Whap!

The first tail-slap of a diving beaver, fifty yards downriver, pierces the stillness like a gunshot. The kayak rocks from our startled reflexes. Jarred from my trance, I plunge my paddle into the water, and we wheel about to head downriver. Emotionally drained, I remain silent, while the intensity of the moment transforms my week's accumulated anxiety into a burst of energy. Several minutes pass before Jock breaks the silence with a chuckle: "Hey, I think you could pass for a beekeeper." The image is too obvious. I reach for my hat, find it coated with insects, and slap it back on my head, not wishing to pursue their identity. That would become apparent soon enough. I return to the task at hand. Paddling strongly now, our muscles conditioned by the week's continual push and pull, we can afford frequent pauses to watch beaver heads glide to and fro. After the first half-dozen reports, their slaps merely blend with the rhythmic slosh of our paddles.

As darkness sets in, the full moon appears over the low hills ahead, beckoning us onward. Stronger than the diffuse glow of the aurora, cooler and gentler than the dull orange sun that each dawn explodes over the horizon, the moon's crisp, silver gleam serves as our headlight. We welcome its help to negotiate the river's hazards, to monitor the rippled wedges that betray beaver stealing across our path, and to track our location by comparing bends in the river with vague memories of the map. The last ten miles fly by. All too soon, the lights of a pickup jiggle along a hillside, the roar and clatter of an eighteen-wheeler echo from an invisible highway bridge, and we know we're approaching the landing.

But our voyage is not quite over. Just past the bridge, the Missouri abruptly turns south, and reflected moonbeams can no longer light the way ahead. We don headlamps to search for the boat ramp. Time passes. Jock dithers. My suppressed qualms resurface. What if we've slipped past the darkened landing? How would we muster strength to return against the current? Could we float fifteen or twenty miles into Fort Peck Lake and expect to be found?

My brooding is interrupted by a new wedge of ripples merging with our path. All evening, beaver have been veering away from the moving kayak—why is this one undeterred? As it closes on our bow, I sense inevitability. I warn Jock. Directly in front of us now, the beaver slaps and dives. The soaking shower adds minor injury to the insult of being lost, yet I laugh it off. Somehow it seems not an affront, but a gesture of initiation. The riparian world and I have opened up to each other. Borrowing from Thomas Berry's words, a collection of objects has become a communion of subjects. I must belong here after all.

This realization has barely begun to sink in when an unusual heap of boulders looms dead ahead. In the darkness above it I can make out a straight, diagonal line, surely a man-made structure that could only be the landing. We paddle gingerly around the rocks and turn with a final burst of energy to flee the current and skid onto the concrete ramp.

As I trudge by moonlight up the steep slope to the campground, relief and elation merge with a peculiar sadness. Meriwether Lewis' last discovery comes to mind: the hazard, fatal in his case, of returning from adventure. Immersion in nature simplifies life. Unfamiliar surroundings demand heightened awareness, focusing attention and energy on the present moment, burning events into memory, planting seeds of nostalgia. Steady William Clark himself felt compelled to remain at the Missouri's mouth, settling into a long career in St. Louis. But the mercurial Lewis, who had found salvation in the western wilderness where daily challenge and Clark's reliable support stabilized his erratic personality and brought out the best in his character, soon learned that leading the Corps of Discovery was far simpler than mastering the politics of civilized society. Mismatched with his reward, the office of territorial governor, he was overwhelmed by the demands of higher authority, the temptations of influence, and the vanity of celebrity. Unable even to begin preparing his journals for publication, Lewis during his final three years drifted from the apex of a career into a haze of alcohol and opium. The relative rarity of suicide makes us think it an aberration. But for Lewis, suicide fit a pattern; it was his wilderness leadership that begs explanation.

I think I'm beginning to understand. Lewis faced an unknown West for two years. I've spent barely a week learning this river and its neighborhood, reading its history, pondering its artifacts, finally joining the company of its inhabitants. Suddenly, I realize that I'll see it no more. I may never be able to explain what has happened to me this evening, but walking away from the riverbank feels like leaving home.

 

Back to Top