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  May/June 2000 Articles:
Beyond the Sunset
Big Sky River
Core of Discovery
Buffalo Nation
How to Heal Our Cities
 
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Sierra Magazine
Big Sky River

(continued from page 1)

It's difficult to imagine those first explorers on this river. It's one thing to float down with a strong, albeit gentle, four-mile-an-hour current behind, but what must it have been like towing a 55-foot keelboat that drew three feet of water against this current? Lewis talks about how his men are much of the time up to their armpits in water, with mud "so tenacious that they are unable to wear their mockersons, and in that situation draging the heavy burthen of a canoe and walking acasionally for several hundred yards over the sharp fragments of rocks which tumble from the clifts and garnish the borders of the river; in short their labour is incredibly painfull and great, yet those faithful fellows bear it without a murmur."

We make our first camp a mile or two inside a section of the river called White Cliffs. The walls here are cut by centuries of flood and fabulously eroded by wind and storm. Composed of a soft sandstone, they have weathered into an architectural symphony of columns, spires, pedestals, flying buttresses, alcoves. (Prince Maximilian saw "pulpits, organs with their pipes, old ruins, fortresses, castles, churches with pointed towers.") Across from the low promontory above the river where we pitch the tent, the canyon rises nearly 300 feet, and from the dark shadow in a split just below its escarpment, thousands of rock swallows flicker up into the twilight sky like bats out of the mouth of a cave. A flycatcher peers at me with evident curiosity from a dead cottonwood behind the tent, cocks its head and hops around the backside of a limb to peek at me again, upside down. And when I descend to the river on a sweep for firewood, a great Canada goose lifts out of the marsh grass at the edge of a gravel bar, soars across the water toward the sandstone cliffs, and then veers upstream, climbing steadily until it is lost in the aura of the setting sun. Night comes down with a pair of mourning doves softly calling from the trees below the camp.

We turn in early and I lie watching the night sky through the open tent flap, great thunderheads creeping up from the east on a full moon, monstrous anvils of silver-gray cloud, black-hearted and shot with lightning, beginning to pile up into a space so littered and bright with stars that even when the moon is finally eclipsed I can make out Nabokov, cocooned in his bag, snoring peacefully in the aftermath of his strenuous day. I roll on my back, thinking about the river, wild, virtually unmarked, missing only the roving bands of Minnetarees, Blackfeet, Assiniboines, the buffalo and the grizzly bear. Which is a lot, actually. The frontiersmen may have tamed this wilderness, made it safe for the likes of us, but at the same time they profoundly diminished it. That should be some kind of lesson.

Early the next day, about a mile or so above Stonewall Creek where the river narrows through a steep-walled channel, we are swept into an eddy by the current and quite by accident spot a large nest high up on the cliff face with three or four downy fledglings peering down at us over their barricade of twigs and sticks. We nose the canoes into the shelf of mud at the base of the wall and clamber out, cameras at the ready. Nabokov wants a shot from above, and he is halfway up a chimney he's found that will take him to the top when a big red-tailed hawk appears a hundred yards downriver, screeching like a banshee and swooping toward us as fast as her wings will propel her. In a matter of seconds her mate appears directly overhead, and together they circle the nest, shrieking their outrage and dive-bombing my companion, who changes his direction and his mind about photographing baby hawks.

We proceed southeast with measured stroke, led, it seems, by two great blue herons who lift from their mud-shoal perch as we approach, flap a time or two, retract their ungainly legs, and settle into a long, graceful glide that carries them a quarter mile downstream, where they wait for us to come loafing along. Mallards appear in the side channels. Killdeer, tanagers, and a profusion of magpies throng the brush along the cutbanks, and just before we stop for lunch we round the point of a low, treeless island and startle a pair of double-crested cormorants into flight. In real life I am not much a watcher of birds, but their presence and variety in this wilderness is so insistent that even an apathist cannot remain indifferent for long. I find myself paddling hard to catch up with the other canoe because its occupant, Bob Lewis--no relation to Meriwether--is an ornithological encyclopedia.

We stop again at the ruins of an old stone cabin, once a sheepherder's camp, no doubt, now a couple of standing walls with the ax-hewn window headers still intact and a pile of scree where winter snows have toppled in the rest. Rusted bedsprings and the remnants of a cookstove. Weeds and some small white flowers in the chinks between the mortared walls. Our map tells us that Maximilian and Bodmer camped close to this spot in the summer of 1833, and we walk the canoes down to a point that resembles one of our reproductions of the Swiss artist's paintings and sprawl on the bank, lunching on salami and rye-not-so-crisp.

By late afternoon the country has opened up once more and the cliffs, though still steep and high, have fallen back from the main channel as much as half a mile. The wind has died and it is extremely hot. Nabokov confirms his growing reputation for careful and considered action by suddenly standing up in the bow and levitating himself over the starboard gunwale into the river. He emerges whooping and blowing with only his idiotic head visible above the turbid water, then enjoins my idiotic son to follow, which nearly overturns the canoe. I curse them sullenly for 15 minutes until they begin to complain of the cold, and whine to come back aboard. More buoyant than they, I spin off with a flick of the paddle, and let them float into camp.

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