There is so much water in Montana that they can’t even find a place to put it all. Even though we’re from California where people fight over water because there isn’t enough to go around, we’re not jealous. The problem with Montana’s extra water is that it’s in all the places we came to see, especially the skies and the trails. We had planned to explore Montana a lot more, but a big storm followed us into the state and planned to stay for so long that we wouldn’t have time to get back home if we stuck around to wait for the sun. So we picked a couple of trails that were on the way back to Idaho, and hoped that we would reach at least one of them when there was a break in the rain.
Lucky for us, Montana rain is like Washington rain that sometimes doesn’t even get you wet. Or perhaps the rain just isn’t as wet when you’re tougher and more confident, just like the mountains aren’t as high when you’re fitter. For whatever reason the rain left us be, and we were able to explore the full length of both trails without getting rained on. But that didn’t mean we didn’t get wet; our water troubles weren’t over yet.
The first trail we visited climbed up to a waterfall. Except that there was so much river trying to get through its lane between the mountains that it acted like a waterfall for the full 2.5 mile length of the trail! This river was much angrier than the Mad River, but in its thrashing it had dug itself into a pit far, far below where we were hiking. So it couldn’t reach us to attack like the Mad River did a few days ago. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t try!
There were actually 2 big waterfalls where the water didn’t look before it leapt, and fell a long way down to where the ground was there to catch it again. The lower waterfall was the taller one, and it fell a distance taller than 4 giraffes balancing on each other’s horns. The problem was that it was kind of far from the trail and hidden behind the trees from our vantage point. There was a bit of rock that stuck out right in front of the waterfall, and it would have been a perfect spot for a handsome dog to stand still and look tough while his Mom took a picture of him, but that spot was at the bottom of a very steep little trail. Mom put on my leash, and like a couple of rock climbers we belayed each other down toward the ledge. But Mom is a bad rock climber because we weren’t anchored to anything. You may remember that Mom is not a very good rock climber. You may also remember that Mom is embarrassingly afraid of heights. As we were getting close to the ledge, Mom’s foot slipped. It probably only slipped a millimeter, but that was enough to turn her into a screaming fool. The trouble was that the path was steep enough that when she turned around to flee, she found her nose right in my manly chest hair. Since there was a handsome dog blocking her escape, she screamed even uglier. The problem was that she had tied that handsome, trail-blocking dog around her waist, so he couldn’t get out of her way, no matter how ugly her screams. Luckily for both of us, we weren’t actually in real danger, just Mom’s imaginary danger, and after a very loud and long second, we were both back on less steep ground, where Mom took some really crummy and unimpressive pictures of our bravery.
On the higher falls, the water wasn’t in its corral, and we could practically walk right up to it. Up here, all the rocks were rounded like an egg, and the water just slipped off the edge like it had nothing to hold on to. Mom said that most of this water came from little streams that were only a couple of inches wide, but all over the two mountains to our left and right, they all came together at this spot.
“Is this all the water in the west?!” I asked. With the amount of water falling off this cliff, it seemed like there wouldn’t be any more left in all the oceans of the world.
“Nope. There are rivers like this coming off of all the mountains right now.” We had seen a LOT of mountains on this trip, and the idea of all that water made my head spin.
The next trail was supposed to be a very easy one; just 7.5 miles around a lake. We had picked this one just in case we needed something easy to do, but we’re finding that things are very seldom easy in the wilderness.
As we got closer to the far side of the lake, we could tell that the river had taken advantage of the lack of hikers during the week to take over the trail. In places it actually ran right down the center of the trail, turning it into a stream. In other places, where you could tell that people usually jumped easily from rock to rock, the river had swallowed up all of the rocks, and Mom had to leap across like the photo on an inspirational poster. Finally, when we were close to the very tippity top end of the lake where it reached a hole between the mountains, the river was so high that there was no way to get Mom’s socks across safely. In the very middle the water was deeper than an Oscar is tall, and flowing pretty fast. Not scary fast, but fast enough to change color.
Mom looked at the river for a long time, and then sat down on a rock. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“We can handle this, Oscar. We’re going to ford the river,” she said, pulling off her shoes and tucking her socks inside.
“We’re going to what?! We don’t have a Ford. Let’s Dodge the river!”
“We’re going to walk across.”
“But…! But…! Whenever you try to ford the river in Oregon Trail, someone in your party ALWAYS dies, and you ALWAYS lose a few animals. There are animals in OUR party too! Handsome animals that don’t want to die here.”
“Don’t worry,” Mom said, pulling out the leash again. “You won’t drown if you’re wearing this.” And then she hooked me up, and I had no choice as she dragged me into.
I stood on the bank for as long as I could while she slowly picked her way across. I was shocked to see the water get high enough that it got the butt of her shorts wet. But I wasn’t going to let myself get dragged into the water, so right when the leash was about to run out I splashed in and dashed across. Other than being wet and a bit cold from the water, both of us had had no real problems with fording the river, and no one drowned. Once Mom’s shoes were back on, she pulled out her phone. “People are going to want to see a picture of what the river looked like where we crossed,” she said. “Sit here, so that we can see the river in the background.”
I sat where she asked me to, but cockeyed and stared at her balefully so I could block the view of our crossing spot, and so she would know that I didn’t approve of subjecting a dog to such life-threatening adventures against his will. She moved around a bit to line up her shot, and then looked up. “Hunh. What’s that?” She pointed to something about 15 yards upstream.
I looked. “It’s a bridge, Mom. A bridge. Across the river.”
“Oh, well if we had used that bridge, you would sure be struggling for a story to tell about this run, wouldn’t you?” she said, tying her shoes and continuing down the trail.
Many hours later we had left Montana and were driving through the butt of Idaho when Mom woke me up from my nap. “Oscar, come here, I want to show you something,” she said, pointing out the windshield. The mountains had gotten shorter, but they were also cliff-ier. From below they looked like a bunch of surfboards all lined up next to each other. “Do you remember how the river looked like it was stampeding as fast as it could, and then when it reached the top of the waterfall it didn’t have time to stop its momentum before it fell off a cliff?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But the river is on the ground here, not up there on top of the cliff.”
“True, but the people who lived here before the explorers came to this part of the country used to use that spot to hunt buffalo.”
“What does that have to do with waterfalls?” I asked.
“Well, that’s the interesting part,” she said. “They used to dig a long trench, kind of like a river gorge that ended in one of those slots you see up there. It would take a lot of people a lot of work, but when they were finished they could start a buffalo stampede and direct the animals into the channel that they had built. By the time the buffalo at the front reached the cliff, there were too many stampeding animals behind them, and they would fall off the cliff and die, and the people would have more meat and buffalo skins than their entire tribe needed.”
“That’s really sad…” I said, thinking of all the times that I had tried to run on a slippery floor and crashed into stuff.
“True. It wasn’t environmentally friendly, but it is interesting, don’t you think? There are buffalo jumps that were so effective that there are still hundreds of centuries-old skeletons lying at the bottom.”
“Mom,” I said. “I don’t want to scare you, but I think that you should be more careful when you run in some of those big races…”
-Oscar the Adventurer