Two weeks ago, I crossed a major item off my bucket list: float Montana’s Smith River from Camp Baker to Eden Bridge. After a few years of applying, my dad and I finally drew a permit. If I had to identify what truly connects me and my father, it would be river. Growing up, my dad would pile us into his big, green Old Town canoe, and as a family we’d spend summer weekends floating the small, winding rivers through the woods of rural northern Michigan.
As I grew older and my love for water increased, I bought my own kayak. On summer breaks from college, most weeks my dad and I would meet up on the Sturgeon River after work, with him soloing in the same old canoe and me in my new kayak. Once I moved to Montana, we continued to explore the Flathead River system together, and one July years ago I picked him up from the airport and drove him straight to the put-in for the whitewater section on the Middle Fork. A friend had lent a lifejacket and inflatable kayak, and I told my dad that if he used to canoe the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, he could handle this. My dad wasn’t as excited as I was for this adventure, but he did it nonetheless. He flipped once, but was still at smiles at the take-out.
Between owning a brewery and having a toddler, our annual summer float trips have changed a bit, but once my dad called to say we’d have to be in White Sulphur Springs on July 7, I knew we had to go. I rallied a small group of folks, and asked my mom if she’d watch my son for five days while I rowed our neon green raft through some of Montana’s most heralded waters. Both my dad and I were thrilled to float this river together, joined by my husband and friends. During the 59-mile stretch between put-in and take-out, our group, composed of newbies to the Smith like my dad, my husband and myself and veterans with multiple decades of experience, relished what I like to call river magic. Be it the dip of the oars in the water or the splash of riffles against river rock, or drifting off to sleep in a tent while thunder and lightning strike against the big, clear skies, something magical happens on the river. And to be on a special river like the Smith, after dreaming for so many years, made it even more spectacular. At the take-out in Eden Bridge, my dad said: We’ll be putting in permits now every year!
I sure hope so.
Maggie Doherty is the owner of Kalispell Brewing Company on Main Street.