Easy Drifting: What, Me Paddle?

Pack the cooler, then float and bloat on Montana's Smith River

The mild river: slow mo on the Smith    

IT'S 58 MILES from the Smith River's Camp Baker put-in to the Eden Bridge take-out—a lazy five-day float, if you want it to be, which I always do. That's because halfway through the canyon in a kayak or raft or canoe or inner tube, after two and a half days of bumping off rocks and drifting in circles, of casting for brown and rainbow trout, something mysterious begins to happen.
Five days of laziness requires a bit of surrender. On day one, while the river bends through cottonwood groves, I crack open a beer to prepare. In a few hours, when the canyon swallows us, there will be no turning back. Rock walls rising 500 feet soon sprout from the river's edge. We pass high caves and trees rooted in ledges. We see red cliffs and gray cliffs and cliffs growing crystals, like thousands of white teeth, in their fissures. In places the river widens and ripples over fist-size rocks, and then collects itself in deep turquoise pools. If I'm guiding, I suggest tossing a fly there. Or maybe here, in the big boulders. We pass clearings in the thick Douglas firs, boat camps, an occasional cabin. The river turns and braids, and we can pull over and hike to see ocher cave paintings left by the original Smith River floaters.
Or maybe not. The river can quiet your ambition. This is how it works: I once guided a woman from southern California who'd just turned 40. She liked to catch fish, and she did, but for the first few days she was lonely. She said she missed her children, she missed her husband, and when it got chilly and the wind blew, she wondered aloud how she ever got here. But late on the fourth afternoon, when half the canyon lay in blue-green shadow and the caddis flies were hatching so thick they looked like mist coming off the water, I found her lying on the bank, curled up in the grass. I asked her if she was all right.
"Yes," she answered. "I'll be ready in a moment. I'm having a really big feeling right now."
DETAILS: Montana Outdoor Sports in Helena (406-443-4119) rents rafts and canoes for $27-$29 per day. For a permit, call 406-454-5861. Lewis and Clark Expeditions (406-449-4632) offers fly-fishing trips on the Smith from May through July.

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