Montana’s Smith River can be a fickle float trip.
The weather is notoriously variable — from snow to blistering heat. River flows can plummet to impassible lows early in the spring depending on the vagaries of runoff from the Castle, Little Belt and Big Belt mountains. But first you have to be one of the lucky people — or know a fortunate person — who has won a permit in the annual lottery to launch.
So for Harrison Fagg to push off in a kayak to paddle the stream at the age of 87 seems almost like a challenge to the Smith River’s capriciousness, daring fate. He compared it to what a flight instructor once told him about flying an airplane: “99% boredom and 1% sheer terror.”
Or, maybe not.
“It was not a whole lot different than when I was 57,” he said.
Harrison still had to watch out for the river’s tight corners where strong currents can push a boat into the tall limestone canyon walls, easily capsizing an unsuspecting captain. The eddy lines, where the river reverses current, are an almost invisible tipping threat to daydreaming kayakers. And there are always the “sleeper” rocks, barely hidden under the water’s surface lurking to tip or snag boaters.
“It’s a tricky river,” Harrison admitted.
“You don’t know the power of water until you get into it.”
That applies when out of the boat, as well.
“One day he was first to our camp (as usual), and when the first raft pulled in dad waded out to pull the boat in,” wrote Russ Fagg, his son, in an email. “Current and the boat caught him and he went 90% under water, still got the raft in, was soaked, and never once complained — even (though) it was raining as he tried to dry off. Pretty remarkable.”
Growing up in Billings, Harrison has been exposed to some wild experiences in his three-plus quarter centuries. He wrangled horses for his dude ranching uncle into the Beartooth Mountains as a teen. Then he set out to hike all the 12,000-foot peaks in the range, eventually urging his children and grandchildren into the high country. It wasn’t unusual for him to rack up 300 miles a summer carrying 40-pound backpacks. He’s kayaked the Green River as well as the Colorado through the notoriously huge waves of the Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon.
But old age challenges adventurous souls in new ways. Age can be humbling, make a person question their abilities, skills and choices.
“I had some apprehensions about beginning” to paddle the Smith River, Harrison admitted.
“At the very tail end, the Class II rapids magnified in my mind, but they were pretty tame.”
His advice for anyone else looking forward to taking an outdoor adventure at an advanced age was simple: Don’t gain too much weight and keep moving around.
“The tough part is getting old,” he said. “You can’t do what you used to do.”
The permit-only section of the Smith River flows from Camp Baker, near White Sulphur Springs, 60 miles to Eden Bridge, which is not far from the community of Cascade. In between the smallish river courses between neck-straining tall cliffs, past high caves decorated with Native American pictographs and past wide meadows lush with grass.
So far this fiscal year (which ended in June) Smith River State Park manager Colin Maas said about 4,500 people had floated the stream. That’s pretty good considering that it was closed the first half of April because of ice jams and May’s unseasonably cold weather kept less hardy boaters away.
“The fishing has been absolutely amazing,” said Nate Kluz, the river ranger for Montana State Parks.
With cooler weather, the low-flowing stream’s water hasn’t heated up, staying in the 66-degree range that’s more comfortable for trout. In 2013 by this time of the year, Kluz recalled, the river had already warmed to almost 80 degrees, a death sentence for trout as the high temps rob the water of oxygen.
As of Monday, the stream flow was still floatable by drift boat at 426 cubic feet per second after spiking close to 600 cfs on the Fourth of July thanks to rainy weather. The recommended low flow for drift boats is 350 cfs. For rafts it is 250 cfs, and 150 cfs for canoes.
Harrison and his crew of 11 launched June 19 when the flow was a comfortable 508 cfs. His grandson, Landon Fagg, had secured the permit. The flotilla included three rafts and two kayakers — Harrison and his son, Russ.
“The trip was fantastic,” Russ wrote in an email. “Five days, four nights. The Smith was in its glory. Everything was emerald green. The rainbows and browns were hitting. Nice water flow.
“It did rain quite a bit, but that is almost expected on the Smith.”
Together, the floaters huddled under a 20-square-foot tarp to avoid the downpours when camped out.
“The Fish and Game has done a remarkable job of keeping the campsites nice,” Harrison complimented.
It was Harrison’s eighth trip down the Smith. He’s also floated it in a raft and a canoe. The first time was about 20 to 25 years ago when he was a legislator. Back then, there was a feud between landowners and floaters over the Smith River, he recalled.
“It was open warfare. They were stringing barbed wire just under the water” to snag boaters, he said.
The float itself, however, hasn’t changed a bit, Harrison said, except for the increase in traffic.
“It’s a great trip,” he added. “If a guy my age can make it, anybody can.”
An 89-year-old woman was scheduled to float the river in July, Kluz said.
“That’s right up near the top” for the oldest person he’s aware of who has floated the Smith River.
“It’s really great to see them,” he added. “A lot of them have emotional connections to the river.”
“I hope I can do half as well at 87,” Russ said.