Many of you know Terry Palm as a watercolor artist, born and raised in Billings. He now lives in Minnesota and his annual art show in Billings draws hundreds of admirers, but it is less known that for several years Terry has been writing short stories based on his early adventures along the Yellowstone River in what is now Josephine Park. Today’s installment, Living Dangerously, is the fifth in six short stories in a series he’s titled, “Always a River”
Always a River: Living Dangerously
College roomate, Mike Kinne, knew nothing about floating rivers and I knew less. But, Mike had a six-man rubber raft and one fall day, we wanted to float and catch fish. Float and catch fish – nothing to it.
We had heard that a good stretch of the Yellowstone was from Livingston to Springdale, about a daylong float. We dropped Mike’s motorcylce off at Springdale and drove the 12 miles upstream to the bridge at Livingston. It was early in the morning and at 30 degrees, it was almost too cold to be floating the Yellowstone. Mike was a stubborn pup. We came to go fishing and that’s what we’re going to do.
Before you hear this fishing story, you should know Mike better. He had a mental condition or attitude that seemed to always put him on the edge of being in serious danger. In high school, he played football and was on the gymnastics team (rings) in college. About 6’ and 185 pounds, he was built like a brick. Wide shoulders, narrow waist and strong as a horse. I suppose from the gymnastics training which included weightlifting, much of his strength was in his hands, arms and shoulders. He had huge biceps but when he wore long sleeves, he looked normal, maybe like a violin player at first glance. He loved to arm wrestle.
One time, we walked into the Muzzleloader in Billings and Mike noticed a table with four big cowboys seated, eating supper and drinking. These were big guys and looked to be in good shape. Their muscular arms bulged in their western-cut shirts. We approached the table and Mike said, “I’ll arm wrestle you guys for beer.” It got very quiet as the cowboys sized-up this lean-looking fool and hurriedly cleaned off part of the table, excited to put this guy down and collect the reward. The first went easily as 2, 3 and 4 eagerly awaited their chance. The outcome was the same although #4 lasted a little longer. “How did you do that?” they asked. Must have been technique. Instant friends, instant respect, and a pretty good payday.
We found a good place to hunt ducks on the Yellowstone but we had to cross some posted land to get there. We thought we were OK because of a Montana law which allows access to the river as long as a person stays within the high water mark of the river. The fifty feet of posted land was along a cutbank that dropped about 20 feet straight down to the rushing Yellowstone River. In the dark of the early morning, we would walk cautiously along this stretch, knowing that a misstep would spell disaster. We had passed the cutbank several mornings on the way to our duck blind but this morning was different. As we crossed the fence and started walking next to the cutbank, there was a big shape in the darkness ahead. It was the farmer-landowner and when we got to him, he said we were trespassing and that we couldn’t go. Nose to nose with the farmer, Mike spouted something about the highwater law and said that if he didn’t step aside, he would be thrown over the edge. The farmer disappeared into the darkness, we didn’t hear from him again and we hunted there several more times.
Another time, we were in Circle, Montana for our roommate Larry Jensen’s wedding. At 2 a.m. Larry and I were finishing the night, drinking coffee at the café on main street. At 2 a.m. Mike was walking into the Corner Bar, saying “Nobody leaves until I get a drink.” The bar was full and it was closing time.
Apparently, the cowboys didn’t appreciate this announcement and the biggest one grabbed Mike and threw him through the big front window and onto the front sidewalk. Someone charged through the front door of the café and said that somebody just got thrown through the window of the Corner Bar! That’s Mike, I said to Larry. We ran across the street and rescued Mike from a circle of cowboys getting ready to pound him.
I guess Mike was serious about his religion. So serious, that he often couldn’t stand being in the same car with my friend Martin Berlandt, who was Jewish. I don’t know what the rub was, but so many times I would be driving along and something would be said and Mike would shout, “You f-#@$-ing Jew!!” I would stop the car and they would hit the ground fighting, rolling in the dirt, punching, scratching, biting, doing anything they could to hurt each other. Mike was stronger but Martin was a tough guy and most scuffles ended in a draw, with the fighters going in opposite directions after the conflict. I got along fine with both guys and what the antagonism was about is beyond me.
So, back to my fishing story. It was time to float and fish. It was our belief that we push off from shore, paddle to the middle of the river, put the paddles away and fish, it was going to be a terrific day. The Yellowstone is a very powerful river, not for amateurs. We were about to find out how powerful and dangerous it was and how amateurish we were.
We each cast a few times when suddenly we heard a big roar up ahead. It sounded more like a huge waterfall than a fishing river. We sat up as tall as we could and got a glimpse of what was ahead. The river, which was becoming rushing whitewater, went down to a corner. In the corner, there was a big branchy cottonwood tree half submerged. We grabbed the paddles and paddled frantically, causing the raft to go in circles and not change direction a bit. We were speeding downriver right for the snag in the corner at an unbelievably high rate of speed. The raft’s impact with the tree knocked me out of the raft and left me hanging from a tree branch up to my neck in the swirling water. I was wearing a lifejacket but I was afraid to trust it to save me. If I let go, I thought I would plunge down into the swirling water that was full of limbs and branches and would probably get hung up and drown.
During my struggle, Mike had a struggle of his own going on. The strong current had compacted the big raft around him and there was nothing he could do while the cold water poured in. The raft was trapped in the snarled tree and Mike’s face was well below the water’s surface.
This was forty years ago and I still remember vividly the look of fear and helplessness on his face as the water poured in on him. Mike was afraid of nothing but this had him. Would this be nature’s deathblow?
Only a few minutes had past and the cold water made me numb from the neck down. I was leaning backwards as hard as I could against the rushing water and I couldn’t tell if I was holding onto the branch or not. Any strength I had was quickly draining.
The same current that suddenly captured and trapped the raft and its captain, suddenly released it and away went Mike. He didn’t say anything as he fumbled for a paddle as the river swept him away. He went out of sight around the next bend in the river but I knew he’d be back. I hoped he’d be back. Maybe he’d be back. I had no choice but to wait.
I was about twenty feet from shore. Between me and shore was the tangled mess of branches, limbs and rushing water. Jumping in would surely have bad results. Numbness was increasing and in a few minutes I wouldn’t have to decide whether to hang on or let go. Mike appeared out of the brush a hundred yards down stream and hurried along the river bank towards me. Now what? He grabbed a branch and held it out and for me to grab. Each time he tried to get the end of the branch near me, the current would wash it away, too far for me to grab.
“Okay, Mike, throw it out as far as you can and I will jump as far as I can and hopefully, we will connect,” I said. It worked. I held tight to the end of the branch and Mike drug me to shore. Both of us were soaking wet and very cold and the 7:30 a.m., thirty-degree weather didn’t help. I think we both wanted to end our trip right there and make our way back to the car and warmth, free from the dangers of the river. Neither would admit it so we decided to get back into the boat and head for any island we could find that had firewood. I had dry matches in my pocket, protected by a plastic sack.
The day began to look better after we dried out and warmed up next to a big roaring fire. We finished the float without further serious incident. We didn’t do any fishing the rest of the trip but we did pay close attention to what was ahead of us on the river.
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