Sunday, June 21, 2009
Last night I went walking down the big coulee in our west pasture. The golden light of late evening intensified the green of the grass and threw the contours of the land into sharp relief. A coyote sprinted up the hillside, casting wary glances over its shoulder as it loped away. I flushed a porcupine from a patch of buck brush, and a dozen yellow-brown puffballs from the berm of the reservoir, closely followed by a mother duck who made sure I didn’t linger. Below the reservoir, the creek meanders on toward the Milk River. Here and there in the bogs that flank it I found the inevitable flotsam of nearly a century of ranching. The upper curve of a rusty barrel, its body buried deep in the muck. The skeleton of a cow too old to weather those three days and nights in January when temperatures dipped more than thirty degrees below zero. Within a month the bones were picked clean. Hawks, coyotes, foxes—survival of many from the death of one. On downstream, I found the first board. A weathered two-by-four, five feet long. Then a pole, cut to the same length. I recognized them immediately, and had to laugh. Thirty some years later, pieces and parts of The Raft are still hanging tough. I blame it on Huck Finn. After reading the book, I was obsessed with having a raft of my own. A challenge, considering we live two miles the nearest river—which immediately exits into Canada--and a bone-rattling hour’s drive from the nearest lake. But luck was with me that year. The culvert under the road below the house froze solid, and the spring snow melt backed up to form a decent sized pond. I set about scavenging broken posts and discarded boards from the pile behind the shop. My design was simple: four poles laid parallel and topped by a platform of boards. I hacked away with a handsaw, making little progress. Finally, my dad took pity and whacked everything to the proper length with the power saw. I hammered it all together. Completed, it looked like an oversized, mangled feed pallet. It was beautiful. And heavy. Eventually, though, it arrived at the bank of the pond. I heaved and shoved it into the water…where it promptly sank. If you’ve ever seen a log in a river, you understand what I didn’t. Wood doesn’t float on top of the water. It’s density—especially the hard pine I had used—is only slightly less than that of the surrounding pond. Like those logs, my unloaded raft just barely peeped above the surface. When I stepped aboard it sank another foot, flooding my boots with icy snow melt. Disappointed but not defeated, I reworked my plan as I changed socks. Obviously, I needed more wood. I dragged more poles to the pond, upended the raft, and inserted additional cross-members. To my amazement, adding extra weight didn’t make it float better. Go figure. Next, I removed all of the cross-members except the outermost pair. The raft sank faster. Had my future high school counselor been watching, I’m sure he would have reconsidered his decision to guide me into engineering as a career. Which may have shortened my stay at Montana State University considerably, as it could have averted that mid-stream change of majors. I dragged the raft to shore and sloshed off to the house for yet another pair of dry socks. What I needed was something lightweight and very floatable to insert under the deck of the raft. Aha! I raced to the shop, dragged out one of the rubber inner tubes that were always at hand in those days before tubeless tires. I fired up the air compressor, pumped up my tube, and listened to the air hiss right out again. Once again, my dad came to the rescue, this time with a tube patching kit. I rolled the innertube down to the pond. Through no particular planning on my part, it fit nicely inside the framework of my raft. I wrestled it into place beneath the platform. The effect was much like a saltine cracker perched on a chocolate donut, and decidedly top heavy. I shoved the whole works into the water. It floated. Hallelujah! I grabbed the long pole I had procured for the purpose of steering and propulsion and stepped aboard. The raft listed. My feet skidded across the wet boards. The inner tube popped out the other side and floated jauntily away. When I was once again clad in dry jeans, socks and boots, I reassembled the contraption and studied it carefully. The trick would be to center my weight directly over the middle of the inner tube. I eyeballed what I judged to be the correct spot, took a deep breath and a long step. It worked. I was so amazed I nearly fell off from the shock. I grasped my pole and shoved gently away from the shore. The craft rocked alarmingly, then steadied. I shoved again. The raft lumbered across the pond. I was floating. In the next week, I refined my balancing act to the point that my mother could stop washing socks on a daily basis. I merrily poled back and forth across the tiny pond, imagining that it was the mighty Mississippi and I was embarking upon adventures of all kinds. Then tragedy struck. The culvert thawed. I came home from school one day to find The Raft beached at the edge of a murky puddle that was the only remnant of my pond. Even if my dad hadn’t thwarted my efforts to replug the culvert, the spring runoff had long since ended. For days I stared glumly at my glorious, land-locked craft. There must be a body of water somewhere… The reservoir! On horseback, the reservoir was but a few minutes from the house. It couldn’t be all that hard to transport the raft down the road and across a short stretch of prairie to the coulee. I removed the innertube, heaved the raft onto our trusty Radio Flyer wagon and pulled with all my might. It barely budged. I needed more manpower. Dad was out moving cows. Mom was busy in the house. But my younger brother and sister were lolling around the yard, doing nothing important, as is usually the case when you’re six and eight years old. I persuaded them to assist me with a combination of threats and promises of rides on The Raft. They pushed. I pulled. The Raft rumbled slowly up the road. Things proceeded nicely while we were on the road, despite a few ruts and complaints that I may have slightly misjudged the distance. The first fifty yards inside the pasture were a piece of cake, being downhill. Then we started across the flat. The wagon dropped into holes, lumbered over rocks, and hung up on brush. Fatigue and starvation set in. Our progress slowed considerably. By this point, my indentured helpmates threatened mutiny. And back at the house, my mother had gone out to call us to lunch and realized we were all missing. A frantic search ensued. Dad set out on horseback and found us there, floundering across the prairie. Probably best not to repeat his opinions on the wisdom of the enterprise. Once he’d calmed, though, he attached his rope to the tongue of the wagon and dragged it the rest of the way to the reservoir. When my mother assured herself that the water was barely above my waist at the deepest point, The Raft and I were allowed to continue our journeys. The rest of that summer, I took every opportunity to escape to the reservoir, pushing my trusty raft across the water, or simply floating, laying on my back in the sun and contemplating fantasy pictures in the clouds. When winter came, the innertube was brought home, but the raft remained. By spring, ice and snow and trampling cattle had dismembered it. For years its skeleton remained, but it gradually disintegrated, the boards and poles carried down the coulee by the spring runoff. Even now, though, a few scattered pieces remain. And with them, the lingering yearning for adventure.