The distance between the antic dividing and loading of food, water, tents, fishing gear, river beer, firewood and lots of good stuff at the put-in point to being swallowed by the verdant canyon and swiftly moving river is about 100 yards - when the rafts disappear around a 90-degree right turn.
During that time one also becomes reacquainted with the 9-foot-long oars of the large river rafts — or not. In the latter situation one tends to bounce off the first rocks and ricochet off the streamside willows while the raft spins around, and your companions reassess their decision to ride in your raft.
Soon, however, the peaceful rhyme of the river enters the soul, and the limestone cliffs become higher and more vertical. There are no house sparrows here, nor grackles or starlings, and only occasional crows. There are instead probably every variety of Montana songbird from orioles and sandpipers to warblers and dippers, and tons of mud house-dwelling swallows doing an excellent job of mosquito control.
Fat, elegant Canada geese keep watch over brown goslings. Rust-colored fluffs of baby mergansers frantically paddle to stay up with momma. The music of birds and river dominates the canyon.
This is rafting the Smith River Canyon, a 60-mile trip that, once entered at Camp Baker located northwest of White Sulphur Springs, cannot be left until the take-out point at the Eden Bridge near Ulm. Probably the most popular boating river in central Montana, the 60-mile stretch is by permit only for which application may be made starting in January.
Administered by the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department with recipients determined through lottery, applications cost $10. This year FW&P received 6,158 hopeful applicants and granted 1,061 permits: 821 to state residents and 240 to nonresidents. Each lucky recipient can take 14 others — each paying $25 - and nine such groups are allowed each day.
FW&P officers at Camp Baker brief each group before allowing it to leave and assign campsites for each of the usually three nights spent on the river, taking into consideration the location wishes of each group.
Dude ranches are located along the river and lots of other private land and places to stay other than the dedicated campsites, but these are outside the normal permitting process. There is also a partial golf course with bar, cabins and a very congenial owner about halfway down the river.
Pre-dug latrines with their white thrones hidden above each permitted camp are great places to contemplate the lush foliage of the canyon; every size and shape of leaf can be seen from the delicate filigree of a tiny fern and the bashful beauty of a virgin’s bower to the elephant ear-like leaves of cow parsnips and shy beauty of wild roses.
The river averages about 100 feet wide through the permit area with flows dependent on the North and South Forks of the Smith River, spring precipitation, and snow pack in the adjacent Big Belt Mountains to the west and the Little Belt and Castle Mountains on the east. Today, the middle of June, the river is at 1,100 feet per second, but it can range from 6,000 fps, as it did last year, to only 150 fps as summer and irrigation dry the river.
The Smith isn’t a hard, technical river to navigate, but one has to pay attention. It has fast water in places where the river turns sudden 90-degrees with the main current directly colliding with stone walls, some of which are deeply undercut. Failure to pay the necessary attention can very quickly cause capsized rafts and canoes, and one learns from experience that everything must be tied securely to the raft and that dry bags have to be carefully sealed to work properly.
If not caught in a strainer, the roots or branches of a tree in the water, a capsized raft can still float upside down, even though it may look like some deep sea monster coming down river with all the gear hanging from beneath the raft – and rafts can be retrieved. Canoes have their own issues.
At Indian Springs Campground across the river is a small, sparkling waterfall where water containers are refilled by pressing them against the smooth water-covered rock. It’s cold at the waterfall in the morning as some of the water splashes randomly over rocks and tree roots above, providing something of a very cold shower to anyone filling water cans; it is luxurious in the heat of the day.
The only accident of the day is an exploding aerosol can of sun block inside a pack. Late in the evening there is no wind, the setting sun nearing its summer solstice still filters through the pines, and the river murmurs and gurgles along over its rocky path between the deep green plants hugging its shore.
The hillside opposite is so steep the delicate fabric of shallow alpine topsoil is torn away along a ragged line above which the evergreens cling and below which is the sheer face of limestone. The pine shadows are a dark, uniform green, and the leaves of the few deciduous trees sparkle brightly in the forest darkness.
As the last sunlight leaves the top of the high ridges the river turns a dark, impassive, slate color. A damp chill settles over the riverside camp, a time for fire and hot whiskey, or chocolate, or — even better — a combination thereof.