A Canoe Trip Down the Yellowstone River

A Canoe Trip Down the Yellowstone River

A repeat journey down a legendary river honors a first step into manhood.

By Alan Kesselheim
Published: November-December 2007

But he's game--the one who will take on the new sport, embrace the next adventure, step into the frontier. When we broach the possibility of spending a year in a foreign country, Ruby and Eli groan, but Sawyer would pack up tomorrow.

When we began this series of coming-of-age expeditions, it was as much an excuse for adventures as any thought-out program of adolescent transition--our version of Walkabout. It just so happens that each child was in the womb on a major river trip. It seemed a circumstance to take note of.

Besides, what are the alternatives? What serves in our culture? Getting a driver's license, being able to buy a beer, joining the military, leaving home, the fretful cruising of main streets and malls? I can't claim that anything particularly momentous or definable happens on our trips in terms of leaping from childhood to adulthood. It is simply a recognition, and a nod of homage to this individual and to Mother Earth.

But then, these journeys are an engagement with something larger and significant--having to do with overcoming adversity, taking responsibility, doing your share, learning skills, building fires, keeping the canoe straight, reading water, being a solid partner, finding bits of amazement lying around everywhere. In that way there is no question that it serves.

Today each of us places our symbolic item at our feet, inside the circle. Ruby plants the feather upright in the sand, Eli sets the candle down, Marypat pours her water, I drop my rock. Marypat steps forward and presents Sawyer with a silver bracelet we had engraved. It is a simple band, decorated in a wave pattern. On the inside it says Sawyer Kesselheim--Yellowstone River '06. He slips it onto his thin, brown wrist. It gleams in the sun. Marypat kisses her boy, holds his face in her hands, looks him in the eye. He is several inches taller than she is.

It comes to me, watching them, that this business is as much about us coming to grips with transition as it is about Sawyer's evolution. We have to acknowledge our son for who he is, who he is busy becoming, growing inexorably away from us. As much as we accepted him as our child, held him and nourished him as our baby, the product of our marriage, it is now our challenge to appreciate his singularity and let him be--someone undeniably of us, but also irrefutably his own.

Easy enough to say. Almost cliche. Hard to do.

Sawyer could do worse than the Yellowstone for his birth river. It is water that has seen some life, experienced hardship, asserted its place. Riding along it, we sense, through the hulls of our boats and up the shafts of our paddles, both fatigue and fortitude in the currents. We sense, as well, that it will outlast us.

The Yellowstone River is an apt metaphor for the trials and triumphs of life. It endures the onslaught of civilization. It is sucked off into irrigation canals at diversion dams, sullied by runoff and treated sewage, used to lubricate sugar beet plants, oil refineries, and power plants, and tapped to provide municipal drinking water. Its banks have been riprapped and leveed to combat flooding and to control the meandering that is a river's natural tendency. Six major diversion dams punctuate the channel between Billings and where it meets the Missouri.

Yet the Yellowstone is astonishingly resilient. In spite of the demands and restrictions, it operates largely as a river should. It floods, sometimes with awesome force. It moves islands, piles up driftwood, erodes banks in whopping chunks, distributes cottonwood seeds, escapes its banks.

There are cattle on the floodplain, and sometimes in the river. Herds of sheep graze nearby. But there, too, thriving and adapting, are the flocks of terns, a startling number of bald eagles, deer flashing off into the willows, white pelicans clustered on the downstream ends of gravel bars, trout rising, rattlesnakes swimming the flow.

There is something delicious about slipping through the vise of civilization, just off the radar. The river skirts the edges of Columbus, Laurel, Billings, Miles City. We camp each night on sand islands and gravel bars. We cook on driftwood fires. In three weeks we don't ever use the stove.

We swim many times each day. The kids plummet, arms stretched overhead, to see if they can touch bottom. There are long stretches where they can't. For hours we drift along, moving at the whim of gravity, reading out loud, retelling family stories, hatching plans. The dome of sky arcs overhead, whispering with clouds. Pastel landscapes reel up before us. The river eases us along in 25-mile daily chunks. Never once do we encounter anyone else camping.


Now all of us move in toward Sawyer. His family surrounds him, closing into an embrace. Arms, warm skin, faces, the eyes we share; it converges into a messy, sensuous knot of limbs and smiles. Nothing is said. What could you say? The sun is warm. The sand soothes our feet. The river roils past.

"Let's go swim the rapids," Sawyer says.

The embrace breaks. We step out of the circle, leaving our offerings and the ephemeral marks of ceremony. This evening's wave-train thrill ride beckons. None of us is old enough to resist. In fact, our habit is to locate campsites near a section of fast water and big waves. Many twilights are spent indulging this version of wilderness amusement park ride through rapids.

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Alan Kesselheim

Alan Kesselheim and his family live in Bozeman, Montana.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


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