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Wanderer at Rest – Flailing the Madison

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By Jamie Balke Columnist

While my dad was in town visiting from Illinois last month, I decided we should float the Madison River. I’m campaigning hard for my parents to move to Montana, and I wanted to show him some of the amazing opportunities here.

Some people might think it madness to tube a river in May in Montana, a place renowned for fearsome winters and correspondingly chilly snowmelt-fed rivers, but that just gives me more room to flail about in a tube.

We got a slow start to the day and had some difficulty coordinating the schedules of everyone involved. We made it out the door by about 1 p.m., knowing we had to be home early in the evening for an appointment. As we went to pick up the tubes, I realized most rational people would pull the plug right about then. Clearly, we didn’t have enough time. Members of our group started to raise these concerns, but I would hear none of it. It was, after all, a beautiful warm day.

As the stress level started to rise, my dad, boyfriend and I stopped at a large department store well known for good prices and being evil. In a hurry, we purchased tubes and a pump, and then picked up my brother before finally starting to head in the direction of the river.

On the way, as if the fates knew about our tight schedule, we hit road construction. By the time we arrived at the take-out point to drop off the first car, we were starting to wonder if there was enough time for the full float. After talking to a very friendly camp host (who I’m pretty sure had a pet pigeon), we settled on an abbreviated version of our intended trip and began to inflate the tubes.

The first inflated without incident, but the rest all came pre-punctured. Our defeated, borderline maniacal laughter broke the tension. We’d reached the point of no return, and now even the initially reluctant members of the group were determined to make this float happen.

The manufacturer had the foresight to include some inadequate repair tape, and we went to work. While one person pumped, the others circled around the pile of tubes, ears pressed to the plastic, identifying and addressing leaks with the shoddy tape.

Suited and geared up, we slathered on sunscreen and walked down the boat ramp with our questionable vessels. There, at the river’s edge, our feet first encountered the frigid water of the Madison. With grim determination, we flopped into our respective tubes and shoved off into the lovely, yet cold river.

As we floated, the sun played off the water’s gentle ripples, and clouds lazily passed above. The river was quiet that day, populated only with the occasional fishing boat.

It took approximately three minutes for my boyfriend’s tube to almost fully deflate.
I laughed as he splashed and flailed around in the shallow water, desperate not to fully immerse himself.

As I was mid-belly laugh, I saw him winding up for a flying leap in my direction. Before I could react, I found myself awkwardly squished on my one-person tube, unable to do much other than continue to laugh like a lunatic and hope he would accurately steer us, because I couldn’t move.

Next, my brother’s tube started slowly deflating. This didn’t deter him from offering a colorful commentary on the sluggish progress of my severely overloaded craft. By the end of the trip, his tube had enveloped him like a taco. It was apparently a good thing that we had chosen to take the short float.

My dad was the only one who made it down the river with his dignity and tube intact. I was glad he enjoyed the peaceful, albeit cold, float experience.

Massive equipment failure and lack of planning aside, we all had an incredible amount of fun. In fact, I would say that it was a smashing, non-traditional success. We even made it back in time for my brother’s appointment. It remains to be seen whether my parents will move to Montana, but I don’t believe they’ll be able to resist this excellent type of adventure for long.

Jamie Balke moved to Bozeman in fall of 2009. She can generally be found behind the cover of a book, meandering down a trail or desperately trying not to kill houseplants.

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