Fear and Loathing on the Middle Fork

By Beacon Staff

Just when I think I’ve seen it all on the Middle Fork some dude jumps off a cliff.

We were putzing along the other night, floating late. We had just entered Deliverance Canyon and, while it was still light, I realized it wouldn’t be by the time we made it to Blankenship. I like being on the water late, except that I worry about a mishap, forcing us to deal with a difficult situation in the dark. For a moment I wondered if that twilight float mishap had finally dropped into my lap.

Up high on the rocks 50 or 60 feet above the water I caught something moving out the corner of my eye. Then the movement flew off the cliff face. My mind raced through a mental checklist: constipated heron, dive-bombing bald eagle, worn-out folding lawn furniture being discarded in an unconventional fashion … then realized the shape was human.

My mind raced through checklist No. 2: suicide, homicide, worn-out dude being discarded by his girlfriend in an unconventional fashion … then realized he was probably jumping for fun.

I’ve seen plenty of folks leaping off the rock faces of the canyon, and of course there’s the old bridge just upstream of West Glacier that has teens falling off it all summer. Leaping from high places into water is popular sport in the Flathead. Too popular sometimes. I’ve had more than one trip spoiled by folks who didn’t understand that when you’re fishing you usually don’t want teenagers swamping your boat with cannonballs. But that dude launched himself from way up, higher than I’d seen before. He came from so far up it seemed he dropped off the lookout on Apgar Mountain.

It’s funny how quickly the mind works when the unexpected jumps off a cliff right in front of your boat. The flight couldn’t have lasted more than a moment or two, but that was long enough to process a laundry list of possible explanations.

I had a similar experience the first time I floated that stretch of water years ago. In one of the deep pools I noticed a huge shape swimming under the boat. My mind patched together a list of the possible suspects: sturgeon, wayward chinook salmon, a ginormous lake trout up from the the big lake on a tour of the forks … then got a good look and realized it was a beaver. The rodent seemed especially big due to the magnification of the water and the effect time has on memory.

Moments after the first dude crashed into the water, his partner joined him in the leap of faith. It wasn’t until that jump that my mind finally put it all together. They were the pair in kayaks who had passed us just upstream. They were obviously daredevils, and they were fortunately no worse for the leap once it was over. We joked with them a bit was we floated past, then got back to working the impressive — at least by Middle Fork standards — mayfly hatch that had the trout all riled up just as darkness began to take the river.

As we drifted through Devil’s Elbow we were joined by another species that appreciates plentiful insects. For maybe the last 15 minutes before it went completely dark the sky was full of what looked like thousands of small bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the boat. There may have been a PMD hatch on the Middle Fork, but by the time those bats had had their fill there wasn’t so much as a tattered, sail-shaped wing left on the river.

Then the bridge appeared and those leaping kayakers proved what daredevils they really were. They’d put in at West so late that they’d made it after 10 p.m., without a shuttle. Of course you’re not a serious river rat if you haven’t put in a time or two without knowing for sure how you’d get back upstream. During the day there’s almost always a ride.

But thumbing the scant traffic on Blankenship Bridge in the dark, with all those screeching bats filling the sky? Now that’s extreme sport.