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The Yellowstone once was a Huck Finn river, idyllic for rafting; now there is as much flotsam as fun

Welcome Aboard!" reads the Jaycec pamphlet. "The Yellowstone River Boat Float...126 Miles of Scenic Beauty, Livingston to Billings." Mark Twain made it an American myth: Huck and Jim on the raft, swapping yarns over corncob pipes, drifting along with the current, free as the river yet bound to it, their lives linked to the mysteries of each unknown channel and meander. It is the sense of freedom combined with an implied risk that makes the myth so popular. "Bring your boats and adventuresome spirit," the Jaycee pamphlet says.

Unfolded, the pamphlet reveals a schedule of events and several snapshots of folks paddling kayaks and canoes and rubber rafts. Slogans abound: "Wet, wild and wonderful." "Anything that floats makes a boat." "Fun in a bunch." One shot of four ladies hiding their bikinis beneath bulging, kapok-filled life vests is captioned, "I'd feel naked without my life preserver!" The myth has been brought home to roost.

July 6, seven p.m.—Registration at launch site on Yellowstone River, Livingston, Mont. Pig barbecue—$1.

The barbecue is rained out. Only a few cars are parked near the stretch of rock-cobbled beach on the riverbend. Three yellow rubber rafts, glazed with rain, already inflated, lie in a line along the bank. On a flatbed trailer, bound with cables like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, is a barge-sized red wooden raft with pontoons made from twin rows of welded 50-gallon oil drums. Nearby four men in down jackets stand drinking beer in a haze of charcoal smoke. Spread across a table in front of them are some tattered shreds of gray meat, possibly pork and seemingly blasted from the animal with dynamite, that identify this as the site of the pig barbecue.

We ask where to register, raising our voices above the tattoo of raindrops on the canvas tarp overhead, and one of the men points to a tent a few yards away. Inside we sign up: a party of four. "You going to register for any of the prizes?" the lady behind the card table asks, eyeglasses glinting with lantern light.

We are told that trophies will be awarded at the end of the float for the largest boat, the largest participating family, most original costume, most original boat, oldest person and for the person traveling farthest to make the trip. We don't qualify in most categories, but Jada is visiting from New York City so we put her down as an entry in the farthest traveler division.

"All the way from New York?" the woman smiles, hugging her parka.

"That's right."

"Well, I hope you have a good time. Don't forget breakfast tomorrow at the fairgrounds."

"We'll be there. Thanks a lot.""

"You bet."

July 7, seven a.m.—Breakfast at boat launching.

An hour before dawn it is still raining, the temperature not much above 40. The prospect of spending the day in a raft half full of river water begins to lose a certain amount of appeal. Our deflated six-man raft serves as a tarp to cover the back of the pickup and we stash paddles and life jackets and other gear underneath. A six-man raft is the right size for four people; five would be crowded, six would verge on the orgiastic.

Breakfast is hot cakes and grilled ham served up picnic style by the Livingston Jayceens (the ladies' auxiliary of the Jaycees). Paper plates and Styrofoam cups, everyone elbow to elbow on wooden benches, another row of eaters facing you across the table.

The rain stops by the time we finish breakfast, although the wind continues and the sky is forbidding. It is a short drive to the launch site on the river which, in contrast with the desolation of the previous night, is bustling like the midway of a carnival.

Numbers of people wander up and down the riverbank admiring the gathered armada. Yellow rubber six-man rafts like ours are the favored vessel; perhaps a dozen lie in varying stages of inflation along the water's edge. There are also kayaks and canoes and one racing-hulled speedboat. The larger craft, including the big red raft with the oil drum pontoons, are moored to a group of willows farther along.

The Jaycees are selling aerosol cans of insect repellent and shoulder patches commemorating the ninth annual float trip. The patches are shaped like the state of Montana and picture a "River Rat" peering out from inside a circular life preserver like an anemic Mickey Mouse. Seasoned float-trip veterans wear wind-breakers emblazoned with the patches of past years. The same grinning rodent is featured on them all.

Another riverbank entrepreneur is a resourceful fellow who thought to haul in an air compressor on the back of his truck. For a fee of $1 he will blow up your raft. His price seems exorbitant until we spend 10 minutes using lung power and lie sprawled on the stones, dizzy as glue sniffers on an ether jag. We queue up with the others, dragging our limp raft behind us.

The Yellowstone in early July is a powerful river, swift and slate-colored, swollen with snowmelt from the high country. It is not unusual to see large trees sweep by on the current, and although the river is down a foot from the high-water mark, it is still no place to go wading. There is no official start to the launch: around 8:30 a few rafts begin to slip away from shore. A man in a single kayak waves goodby to his wife and paddles off. A small red car parked on the bank switches on its headlights and drives into the river. Moments later there are dozens of boats in the water. An estimated 75 leave the launching site that morning.

We shove off with me in the stern. Beau up front and Marian and Jada settled amidships. Overhead the clouds are breaking up and the sunshine seems a good omen. Friends with past float-trip experience warned us of the first major hazard, a pair of bridges crossing the river at a sharp bend four miles below Livingston. There have been drownings in the past, and we are taking no chances; everyone wears a life preserver. Sand particles in the turbulent water make a hissing noise against the inflated sides of our raft, and there is a moment of comic confusion before we determine that it is not the sound of leaking air.

Our first fast water comes considerably before the bridges at a point where the channel narrows and deepens at the end of a stretch of rapids. Large jagged boulders have been used here to form a jetty that turns the current sharply away from shore. Several rafts arc approaching at once, drawn into line by the force of the water funneling through the channel. The red amphibomobile is bobbing off our stern, headlights bright as the concerned eyes of the driver, and suddenly, perhaps out of some atavistic freeway survival habit, this preposterous convertible speeds up and cuts across our bow. We paddle sideways to avoid a collision and are swept through the channel broadside, shipping water and hopelessly out of control. Our enthusiastic fist-shaking and curse-hurling goes unnoticed. Jada begins bailing with a canteen cup.

We are wet but still afloat, a claim that can't be made by the people hauling their capsized canoe up the muddy riverbank or the fellow who calls out, "Got a patch kit?" as he sits on shore holding an expiring raft on his lap—casualties, and the trip is hardly under way.

The stretch of water immediately below Livingston is familiar to me from fall fishing, and even with eight additional feet of fast-moving river covering my favorite spots I know where we are from landmarks along the shore. One of the more prominent of these is the unsightly sprawl of an automobile graveyard, metal carcasses heaped by the river like discards from the studio of a pop sculptor. When this bit of Americana comes into view I know the dread bridges are just around the bend.

The rapids here are rough enough to make the previous stretch of white water seem like a practice run, but where a rigid craft such as a canoe would be in trouble, a rubber raft merely undulates up and over the hazardous chop. The first bridge is a railroad viaduct crowded with spectators eager for mishaps. In spite of our determined paddling the current drives the raft into a concrete abutment and the pliable rubber boat begins to buckle under the pressure. We push off and are swept safely away. Others are not so fortunate. A capsized raft floats near shore. Several more are being hauled onto the bank. The crowd is getting its money's worth.

Beyond the bridges the river levels out, smooth and even and swift. The red car is long out of sight, a lone entry in an aquatic Grand Prix. Ahead of us, sunk deep in the water under the weight of multiple cases of beer, a raftful of celebrants toss their empties into a smaller auxiliary raft towed behind like a dinghy. Nearby, a bearded fellow relaxes in a bathtub-sized raft, holding a double-bladed kayak paddle athwart his gunwales as he drifts in lazy circles down the river. The large wooden barge mounted on oil drums and powered by outboard motors passes, crowded with waving passengers. In the distance we can see Interstate 90, and the rushing traffic seems futile and a bit silly when compared with our stately progress.

More rapids: this time we are veterans and take them laughing with pleasure, steering into the very worst of the white water. The raft slithers over the boiling waves like a fat yellow sea serpent. The river rushes past steep limestone walls, and then unexpectedly, off to one side, a whirlpool 30 feet across threatens. We can only stare helplessly as we sweep past to safety. Only luck had us far enough in the middle of the river to avoid the sucking maw.

A chorus of "Wow!" resounds from the raft in four-part harmony. The question "Did you see that?" is the closest anyone comes to coherent speech. There is the definite feeling that we have seen the very worst the river has to offer. Anyone sensible would know better.

A hundred yards ahead a rubber raft all at once stands on end, leaping into the air in a burst of spray like the tail walking of a freshly hooked tarpon. The two occupants pitch headfirst into the river, the raft cartwheeling after them. When we draw closer we can see a concrete diversion dam creating an eight-foot waterfall.

There is no time for preparation. Near the brink we spot an interruption in the even flow of the falls, a point where the water angles to one side like the pages of an open book. A sharp J-stroke turns the raft and we shoot safely through this unexpected chute, a summertime sleigh ride. Farther along the two men overboard hang laughing to the sides of their upended raft, no harm done, and a Fish & Gaine Department powerboat holding against the current along the shore lets them drift past unaided.

Noon—Lunch at Springdale.

"Musquetors very troublesom." This complaint appears frequently in the journals of Captain William Clark, who camped here with his party of explorers near the present site of the Springdale bridge. That was on July 16, 1806. Clark was on the return trek from the Pacific, having left Meriwether Lewis and the other half of the expedition on the Bitter-root River two weeks before. He crossed over into the valley of the Yellowstone following what is now called the Bozeman Pass. It was not called anything by the white man back in 1806, and even the Yellowstone was still known as the Rochejaune (Clark spelled it rochejhone), the name given it by French trappers and explorers.

Clark had hoped to float the Yellowstone and meet with Captain Lewis at the point where the river joins the Missouri, but he failed to find cottonwood trees large enough for dugouts and he and his party made their way along the bank on horseback, plagued all the while by the "troublesom musquetors."

The insect life at Springdale would still seem familiar to Captain Clark, even today with rubber rafts and aluminum canoes beached on the shore and crowds of beer-drinking, sun-pinked Americans wandering through the woods in bathing suits. The mosquitos rise in dark swarms out of the grass the moment you step onto the bank. Clouds of mote-sized furies hover above the lines waiting for hamburgers and pie or queuing up in front of the portable toilets. The 4-H Club of Springdale has set up shop under the trees; hungry floaters are everywhere in the woods and along the shore, balancing paper plates on their knees and swatting frantically.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition has been a focal point for the annual Livingston to Billings float trip ever since its inception. Floaters in the past made the trip garbed like 19th century pioneers. It was not unusual to see men wearing coonskin caps or middle-aged matrons costumed as Sacajawea, with fringed buckskin skirts and plastic papoose dolls strapped to their backs. Once a party consisting of the mayors of the various participating towns embarked in a long dugout hewn from the trunk of a cottonwood. The price paid for authenticity was an almost immediate dunking in the cold swift water. (Clark eventually felled two trees large enough for a pair of canoes 28 feet long, but he lashed them together for stability and avoided the fate of his future imitators.)

The first float trip used Lewis and Clark as its theme. This year, according to the brochure, the theme is "Park, Man and His Environment." The Yellowstone, in spite of occasional glimpses of ranch buildings and highways, is essentially unchanged from the time when the first white explorers made their way along the shore. It is a wild river; no large dams check its seasonal flooding; there is almost no industry and very few towns along the way.

All this soon may change. The use of new sophisticated equipment now makes it worth mining the immense low-sulfur coal deposits in eastern Montana and northern Wyoming and has brought about a resurgence of the same boomer mentality that left the state a legacy of ghost towns, abandoned smelters and unsightly tailing ponds in the wake of the 19th century gold fever. Strip mining operations have already begun in Montana, giant generating complexes are being built and the power companies are fond of describing the area as "the Ruhr of the Northwest."

In order to make it possible for electricity generated in Montana to run the air conditioners and pop-up toasters of Birmingham, Ala., water as well as coal is required—millions of gallons of water. The master plan calls for containment dams to be built on the Tongue, the Big Horn and the Yellowstone and for an elaborate system of aqueducts to transport the water to a power plant that will dwarf even the monstrous Four Corners operation in the Southwest. Above the dams will be huge lakes, the rivers lost forever beneath the feet of future water skiers. Below these engineering marvels the flow of water will be artificially controlled. No more spring runoff; the rivers will be tame, managed, machine-tooled. Not everyone regards this as progress, and petitions are circulating to have Congress declare the Yellowstone a "scenic river."

Late Afternoon—Arrive at Big Timber. Supper served at fairgrounds.

The afternoon is hot and sunny. The day which began as gray, drizzling autumn has evolved into broiling summer. What once was said about New England weather holds true in Montana: "If you don't like it, wait five minutes." Stripped down to life preservers and bathing suits, limbs glistening with tanning lotion and eyes masked by sunglasses, our only regret is the failure to have brought beer and a portable radio.

There is little to do in the raft between rapids. Jada sings choruses from her inexhaustible mother lode of oldies-but-goodies. We dream of beer. A discovery is made: the movement of bare flesh against the sides of the raft produces a sound remarkably like flatulence. So good is the imitation that our apologies are continual. We recall the inflatable rubber bladders called whoopee cushions sold in novelty shops and guaranteed to make you the life of the party. Remember the embarrassment of the unsuspecting? The raft, by some extension of sunstroke logic, suddenly appears to be no more than a gigantic whoopee cushion, a Claes Oldenburg exaggeration of the banal. We wonder if we have accidentally hit upon the exact metaphor for the float trip.

July 8, nine a.m.—Reed Point.

Plans for an early start have been modified by sleeping late, and a bobbing procession of floaters is ahead of us. Our basic supplies now include two six-packs of beer bought from the American Legion concession at the fairgrounds. These are secured with a length of nylon cord and dropped over the side to cool. With a load of beer trailing in our wake we feel we have entered into the true spirit of the float trip at last.

By midmorning the sun is blazing like a Bessemer converter and the beer is gone. The danger of sunburn rules out the comfort of bathing suits, and we swelter in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. The river seems to be running at half-speed. Even the few rapids we encounter are tame compared with yesterday's white water. We lie sprawled in the raft like the survivors of a freighter torpedoed in the Coral Sea.

In a little while we are greeted by a peculiar riverbank tableau vivant. Posing beside an antique buckboard are a man and woman costumed in gingham and homespun as a 19th century ranch couple. Above their heads flutter colorful plastic pennants (the kind seen at gas stations and the grand openings of supermarkets) and a banner that reads: COUNTRYMAN CREEK ESTATES. A Smaller sign invites floaters to stop for a free drink. It seems altogether appropriate in this age when even war is televised to interrupt a float trip for a commercial message.

Farther along, the sight of a crowded bank and several dozen beached rafts brings joy. We wade ashore, dragging the raft after us, and join the lines for lunch. The Reed Point Bar is donating free beer and an enthusiastic crowd surrounds the keg. Instead of the traditional hamburger, the VFW Auxiliary is serving Sloppy Joes. We carry our dripping plates into the shadows under the Reed Point bridge, happy as trolls in the fragrant ooze of river mud.

Late Afternoon—Arrive at Columbus. Meals served next to bridge.

In 1875 Horace Countryman reopened his saloon at the mouth of the Stillwater River. He moved down from Benson's Landing on the Big Bend of the Yellowstone (present site of the town of Livingston) when the Indian Agency across the river relocated. The Southeastern side of the Yellowstone was the territory of the Crow Nation, and selling whiskey there was prohibited by federal law. But on the opposite bank free enterprise flourished. Horace Countryman moved to keep up with his clientele. The new location was first known as Eagle Nest; this became Sheep Dip, then Stillwater and finally Columbus.

Cars and campers crowd together under the cottonwoods here. A mountainous pile of highway department sand is the most prominent landmark; traffic on the two-lane road nearby is continual. At sundown the odor of hundreds of hamburgers cooking mingles with the settling dust. We pitch our tents along the riv-erbank and head for town in search of a restaurant.

Ten p.m.—Dance at Air Bowl. Trophy to be given to couple with most authentic Lewis and Clark costumes.

The Air Bowl has nothing to do with football. It is a combination bowling alley, bar and restaurant located in front of a flat grassy field that serves as an airport. A few Piper Cubs staked down in back add aeronautical verisimilitude. Inside, the place is packed. Terrazzo floors and stainless steel trim remind one of a bus terminal. In the bar a cowboy trio wearing string ties and snap-front shirts plays Me and Bobby McGee to a sullen crowd of dancers. There's not an authentic Lewis and Clark costume in sight.

We return to town and seek out the New Atlas Bar, also jammed with floaters. Assorted trophies decorate the walls: elk, deer, antelope and a two-headed calf mounted in a glass case. The back room holds a few tables and here, under the crouching figure of a stuffed cougar, an egg-bald man deals cards.

July 9, nine a.m.—Launch for Laurel.

The most treacherous rapids of the float trip occur in the stretch of river between Columbus and Park City. This is where people drowned in the past: one in 1967, two in 1970. As before at the railroad viaduct, wherever the county road chanced to parallel a dangerous section of water, numbers of cars and pickups are parked; front row seats for potential disaster. Seeing these kind people lining the bank makes it easy to understand why the Roman gladiatorial contests were sellouts. But two days of braving rapids have made us cocky, and we wave with cheerful insolence at our curbside admirers as the rubber raft bobs through the white water.

Our only mishap comes without an audience. We miscalculate the hazards of a large submerged boulder and are caught and held by a turbulent backwash. The raft buckles, and a torrent of water drives the stern beneath the surface. I go completely under, losing my hat but not my paddle; then suddenly the raft floats free, full as a bathtub, and miraculously I'm still aboard as we continue down the river, laughing and bailing.

No sooner are we around the bend from the lunch stop than the flaming smokestacks and squat storage tanks of the Laurel oil refinery come into sight. We breathe deeply the noisome aroma of petroleum. It is the smell of death: rotting dinosaurs, corpses a million years old. The odor follows us down the river long after the towers and pipelines of the refinery have passed from view.

Late afternoon—Arrive at Billings.

The last lap is a letdown. The river here is broad and slow, and floating begins to seem more a chore than an adventure. Where before we might float for hours without glimpsing a house, now there are trailer parks and mobile homes crowding the shore. And in contrast with the sandstone cliffs and canyons we drifted through only this morning, here the river is riprapped with hundreds of junked car bodies strung on cables along the bank.

The car bodies only serve as an introduction to the grotesque. Downstream we encounter the carcass of a dead horse stranded against a pile of driftwood in the middle of the river. Belly up and bloated, legs standing stiffly in the air, it is right at home among the discarded refrigerators, washing machines and sodden mattresses that have been dumped into the Yellowstone. The horse is an obscene reminder that in three days we saw more trash than wildlife. There were occasional ducks, and once a sharp-shinned hawk circling above its nest, but what a contrast with what Captain William Clark wrote in his journal 167 years ago: "Saw emence heards of Elk feeding on the opposit side of the river. I saw a great number of young gees in the river...for me to mention or give an estimate of the different Species of wild animals on this river particularly Buffalow, Elk, Antelopes & Wolves would be increditable. I shall therefore be silent on the subject further."

The float trip ends as it began, without fanfare. Once again the sky threatens rain. The Fish & Game powerboat is on hand to assist at the landing site in Josephine Park in Billings and it speeds out into the current to pick up a small plastic raft full of beer that broke away from some floaters farther upstream. Several spectators wait on the shore, watching for the arrival of friends and relatives. No hamburgers for sale here. The Jaycees have closed up shop.