Yesterday, I was going through some archived pictures on my computer that I’d taken back around 2002 with an old, low resolution camera – which, back then, most of them were low resolution. Still, they captured a wonderful trip that my friend, Ray and I took together up in Montana. It was a trip that at one point, we thought we were gonna die!
I had been infatuated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition that occurred after Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Lewis and Clark led a small team up the Missouri River to chart the land that had just been purchased, and attempt to find a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. I had read all that I could about the expedition and was in the process of either hiking or canoeing as much of the trail as I could. The trek started in St. Louis and ended in Astoria, Oregon.
In the summer of 2002, Ray gave up his annual rancher’s trail ride in Wyoming to come do this trip with me. We’d made plans to canoe about 40-50 miles of the Missouri River, beginning in Fort Benton, which lies 30 miles northeast of Great Falls, Montana. Our roadtrip from his ranch in Wyoming had taken longer than expected, so we didn’t get to our canoe livery until almost closing time. We registered, made pickup plans at our take out spot, and hopped into the company bus that would drop us off at our river start point.
As we were loading the canoe with our waterproof packs and cooler, the sky behind us grew dark with storm clouds. Our driver, a sturdy cowgirl, took one look at the thunderstorm that was brewing, and said, “Y’all aren’t going to put in now, are you? You’re fixin’ to get blown away!”
Being the big, strong frontiersmen that we were, of course we ignored her warning and put in anyway. We found our balance and paddled slowly downstream, hoping to put some distance between us and the storm.
I doubt we had been in the canoe more than 20 minutes when first the ice-cold wind hit us and blew us against the riverbank and then second, the torrential downpour let loose on us too. We had our rain gear on, but that didn’t matter. We were in deep trouble. Wind, pounding rain, and lightning bolts big enough to energize 10 Frankenstein monsters were hitting all around us.
We paddled frantically to a small sandbar island in the middle of the river that was covered in grass and good sized trees to ‘protect’ us. We pulled the canoe up next to a fallen log and scurried under a big tree. We huddled down at the trunk and covered our heads in case some branches broke and fell. Beavers had actually been at work on some of the nearby trees, and they could easily topple with these violent winds. The sky was purple-black, the lightning was greenish-white, and we were scared shitless.
I sat there for a minute saying a little prayer, naming all my sins just in case I died, I’d have a clean slate to enter heaven. Ray, finishing his meditation too, turned to me with the most serious face I’d ever seen him with before, and said, “We’ll, if we’re gonna die, we might as well smoke the cigars I bought”. Then he warned me not to tell his wife, Kathy about him smoking a cigar in case we survived this mess. I had to laugh at that one!
Realizing that this truly might be my last moments on earth, and that lighting actually liked to hit trees and zap anybody sitting under them, I too had a moment to think. I chose to document our last living moments with a picture. I set up my camera and snapped this shot.
We hunkered down and waited, prepared to meet our doom.
Needless to say, we survived, and were able to get back on the river once the storm passed about an hour later. We still laugh about that evening, though we both realize how stupid it was to not respect the power of Nature. We really thought we were gonna die!
Oh, and Kathy still doesn’t know about the cigars. Shhhh!