By Jerry D. Haight
As potentially disturbing as some of the frames might be, Charley found others positively wonderful. In this frame, he knew it was July and their second anniversary. A broad smile crossed his face as he remembered. He knew his beloved Lynn longed for children by this time. But she knew the burden it would have had on Charley and supported him in every way possible. He finished his master’s degree the month before, following two grueling years made even more so by his full time job. As far as both Newels were concerned, their marriage was everything hoped for in spite of the time he spent studying. Now, at last, the possibility loomed to have more time together, starting this weekend. Their plan was a fishing trip, the first one since they were married.
They had this trip on their minds for two years. The two received their boat and its equipment as a wedding gift from her dad, had kept it stored but never could find time to use it. Their craft, they called their “Green Crawdad” because of its color was just twelve foot long, had two pedestal swivel seats, just great for fishing. The Newell’s gas powered 3hp engine was oriental made and noted for its slow but steady trolling speed. Their destination was a big, beautiful river in Montana.
Seeing the craft brought back a cascade of memories: There was Fisher Lake, Fan Lake, Dunsmore Lake, all with stories of their own. With the seeming magic of the frame, Charley need only to think about the place and a flood of memories would refresh his mind as though the incident occurred just yesterday. “Let’s see”, he mused, what fly did I catch that . . . The answer flew into his mind and he could see the Rainbow trout as he worked the Caddis from his mouth with his red needle nose pliers. “I wonder what became of . . . “. “Yes, he remembered now, he gave the boat to Ralph, the son of his supervisor at the dam.
As an intern while studying for his master’s degree, Charley was a part of the engineering team at the huge dam near Libby. There he and Lynn spent a lot of time mostly for his work. The river flowing out of the dam first started as small creek in British Columbia. It made a thousand mile loop flowing into northwest Montana and the panhandle of Idaho as it gathered fresh mountain water from rivulets, lakes and estuaries. In Montana it passed through several small towns and after its confluence with the Yaak River flowed through a steep canyon to Bonners Ferry in northern Idaho. It then flows back north 500 miles or so into Canada merging with the Columbia.
In the frame, he saw the gorgeous Yaak River Campground. It was like the reunion between old friends. Unchanged was the small beach nestled among the tall cedars and his nostrils were refreshed by their aroma. It was the favorite spot for the Newells to play and enjoy the cool shade under the crystal clear Montana sky, dream of the family they longed for, and, of course, fish. Tears of remembrance came to his old eyes as he gazed upon the initials carved so long ago. They were encircled by a heart and said simply CN + LN.
The formidable Kootenai that passed the campground was swift, slowing ever so slightly as the water from the Yaak forced its way into the current. To an avid fisherman, no matter how wide a river, he might say "the fishing is always better on the other side". This was the thought of the two as they surveyed the south side. It was some sixty yards away where large cliffs jut into the river catching the current forming an eddy flowing backwards upriver. The best strategy would be to forget it but they chose to cross the river, float upstream with the eddy near the bank then move into the river and back again toward the cliffs.
As planned, fishing was excellent and their prey practically jumped into the boat. Their raucous laughter could be heard clear across the river. “This is a big one, best keep your mouth shut or you will be having sushi for dinner”; bantered Charley. “It’s just a baby, she teased back. And so it went for most of the afternoon. But all too soon the hours of total fishing pleasure came to an end. It was time to return to the other side. So, with the engine at full throttle, Charley in back with his hands on the tiller, the small craft started across. They had no idea then what terror was about to descend on them. In their mind, the reverse crossing should be as uneventful as the initial trip. They were so wrong.
Charley pointed the bow across river with a slight upstream angle in order to compensate for the current, just as before. But this time it began carrying the craft and its occupants downstream. In response, he turned steeper into the current until the little craft was pointing directly upriver. This helped, but just a little. While the two were able to stay on station they were unable to make any headway toward the campground and safety. Danger lurked ahead.
After the confluence with the Yaak River, the Kootenai immediately entered a deep canyon with large boulders, fast moving class V rapids and high cliffs on either side. While the ride should prove delightful for kayaking during the day, they were not equipped for that kind of ride in their small boat and the Kootenai had every intention of moving them down river en route to the nearest egress 32 miles away.
"Quickly", Charley hollered to Lynn; "Get the oars and start using them". She didn't realize at the time what was happening and her reaction time cost precious ground against the river. And, yes, they were battling against the mighty Kootenai, a contest they could not hope to win, or could they? As Lynn finally started rowing, the craft began to hold station against the current again but still with every turn of the tiller, the current pushed the two further downstream toward the point of no return.
It was about 5:30 in the afternoon and the sun began its journey toward the mountainous horizon. When the magnitude of their plight dawned on Lynn, for the briefest moment, she panicked. But as soon as she caught the look of resolve on Charley’s face, a trusting calm settled over her and although she didn’t know what the immediate future held for them, thoughts of spending the night in the canyon loomed ominous. “We need an answer”, she said with some urgency in her voice. “Now would be just fine”, she sallied. Charley admired Lynn’s trusting confidence. Her timing and unruffled steadfastness made him realize how lucky he was to have her. This was a portend of the nature of their marriage. They were soul mates, partners and best friends
The situation was desperate and any wrong decision could easily lead to disaster for the couple in the tiny boat stacked against one of the mightiest forces on earth. If a solution was not forthcoming, the speed of the current could take the craft to Bonners Ferry somewhere around midnight, but getting there in the impending darkness, navigating around massive boulders and through the narrows; all obscured by darkness . . . and then there were the whirlpools and the falls. . . the Kootenai falls .. the falls that turned frothy as the waters churned rapidly over the boulders before plummeting downward some fifty feet at the narrows to boil and stir before turning brilliant blue green as it continued on.
The energy of the mighty Kootenai River could be felt through the hull as a persistent quiet hum under the boat. The deep crystal clear water, big sky, spectacular scenery was a sharp contrast to the danger of the moments and it was mesmerizing. Charley could sense Lynn wearing out as she manned the oars. Lynn knew well the dangers lurking ahead as she and Charley had traversed the distance in their kayak several times. She didn’t mind, however, because if she were to die, she would be with him.
“What was that scripture?” Of course, Phil 4:7. It speaks about God’s peace passing all understanding. It was this peace that came over Charley. The Charley in the hall remembered his thought, similar to Lynn’s; Even if they were to die in in the river, he simply loved the women in front of him and his life would still be complete.
In spite of the danger, his mind was at rest, and he paused a few quick moments to drink in the beauty of his surroundings. But he also noticed something quite unusual. There was a thin trail of white flesh in the water. From his time working at the dam, he knew immediately what had happened. They had opened the gates at the dam increasing the flow of the river. The flesh was remnants of fish chewed up by the turbines. The trail of chewed fish left the main current about 10 yards away from their position. As he studied the trail, it appeared it was caught up in another current moving toward the confluence of the Yaak and Kootenai where it seemed to slow down momentarily just before the Yaak confluence.
Just maybe a solution was at hand. If so, it required some fancy navigation. At just the right time, he spun the boat around (it was still headed into the current), letting the current propel the craft downstream toward the trail of flesh. According to plan, Lynn stopped rowing; he moved the tiller to the left and then the flow of the Kootenai became their ally. As they moved downstream toward the point of no return the tiny engine powered them toward the thin trail of fish parts where the current guided the craft into the slower stream of the Yaak.
Once there, their small engine managed the slower current just fine and they made shore on the west side of the smaller river. They got out of the boat and simply walked across the Yaak to the campground. Voila! With more than a little pomp, they felt like conquers as they immerged hand in hand, soaking wet, grinning from ear to ear; towing the craft by the small rope attached to the bow.
Both would say of that day, they were more alive and in love than any other time of their marriage. It also was the beginning of life for their precious child, Lindy.