By Steve Gillbert
Steve Gilbert on the Missouri River.
In honor of Steve’s final term as an MEIC board member, we’re reprinting a story he shared in 2015 in our Smith River Defender newsletter.
Montana’s Smith River is beautiful from head to toe, from its Belt, Little Belt, and Castle Mountains origins to its confluence with the Missouri River between Ulm and Great Falls. The roughly 60-mile-long stretch of the Smith most commonly floated or paddled reaches from mountains to plains and passes through a spectacular limestone canyon. Lots of people love this float, and floating permits are getting harder and harder to come by.
I consider myself lucky to have spent seemingly countless days and nights beginning in about 1980 along the river from the put-in at Camp Baker to the take-out at Eden Bridge. I’ve also been lucky to have seen the river many different ways. I guided fly fishers on the standard 4-night, 5-day floats for about 20 years. I’ve been on many similar floats with family and friends, and have been there in rain, snow, and sun in every month from April through October. There’s something wonderful about every trip down that river regardless of the weather. It is a very special place to thousands of people.
Some of the more memorable Smith trips are the ones I’ve made in a canoe with a variety of longtime paddling friends. We’ve paddled it in tandem and solo canoes, on leisurely 4-day and 5-day trips, and on quicker 1, 2, and 3-day trips. Of those trips, two stand out in my memory.
One was in early June 1996. A friend and I spent the night at Camp Baker and after a no-rush breakfast, launched at about 8:00 a.m. River flows, as I recall, were neither too high nor too low, somewhere between 600 and 800 cubic feet per second … comfortable paddling flows. We didn’t push hard and traded ends of the canoe occasionally. We had lunch in the sun at the Fraunhoffer Boat Camp, and then paddled on to Eden Bridge, arriving there sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, about 7 or 8 hours on the water. It seemed very smooth and fun, and I recall joking that we could have done it twice that day if we had planned for it.
And so the next year, we did just that. In late May 1997, we checked in with river rangers at Camp Baker to explain our plan to leave very early in the morning and paddle the 60 miles twice, each launch with a separate permit. We were up at 3:15 a.m. and were on the water at 4:10 a.m. It was as dark as the inside of a cow and our little headlamps were worthless. River flows that day were almost uncomfortably high, between 1,400 and 1,650 cfs. Somehow we put the sound of rushing water out of our minds and concentrated on staying upright and afloat in spite of not being able to see anything. We reached Rock Creek Boat Camp and the first streaks of dawn a little after 5:00 a.m., about 9 1/2 miles from the put-in. We waved at yawning friends emerging from their tents at Parker Flat around 7:30 a.m. and saw them again at Ridgetop during our second run.
Throughout the day, we stopped every hour for five to ten minutes to stretch, eat, drink, and swap ends of the canoe.
Our first trip to Eden Bridge ended at 10:30 a.m., 6 hours and 20 minutes for the 60 miles. A friend shuttled us back to Camp Baker, we launched again at 1:30 p.m. We were off the water the second time at 8:30 p.m., so our two 60-mile trips took 13 hours and 20 minutes. We celebrated briefly, and then drove back home to Helena.
Fortunately, neither of us has seriously contemplated a repeat of this double, but we continue to apply for permits and one way or another seem to find a way to enjoy the magic of the Smith River’s water and canyon at least once a year.
If we can put the threat of a mine on Sheep Creek, an important tributary of the Smith to rest, the Smith, just as we have known it, should make people smile forever.
To learn how you can help protect the Smith, sign up to receive the Smith River Defender on www.saveoursmith.org.
This article was published in the March 2022 issue of Down To Earth.