A Mad Float on the Madison

Kent Goodman

It was a typical summer day, with the tinnitus sound of insects buzzing in the air and the sun beating down upon towering metamorphic crags. It was the mid-1970s and a perfect day for a lazy float down the Madison. Well, it all began innocently enough…

When I woke up that morning, I was surprised. Not by the fact that my dog Max had gotten into a skunk and was now sleeping next to me. That happened often enough. And not by the fact that I was actually in my own bed (a bit rarer of an occasion). No, I was amazed when I looked out of the window to see bright, blazing sunshine…on a weekend! Since I was working on a farm, weekends had little meaning anyway, but fortunately the farmer decreed that working on a Sunday (it was) would guarantee that “the devil would getcha by the hind legs.” Which meant that I wouldn’t be bucking bales with the Bridgers as a backdrop, although it also meant there wouldn’t be time for myself and fellow “worker” Kevin to play Best Man Falls in the hayloft.

There’s nothing worse than sweating at work under the hot sun. Strangely, there’s nothing better than sweating at play under the hot sun, and that was certainly the plan. First thing on the agenda (besides a tomato juice shampoo for the damn dog) was to gather the Innertubing Party. Hearty and stalwart volunteers all, the Party consisted of my friend (and fellow Scourge of Cottonwood Canyon) Darrell, the wild and somewhat dangerous Carol, Short Andy the Beer Drinker, my uncle John, a couple of sisters and Long Tall Jim.

We gathered all the necessary supplies (a couple of cases at least) in our convoy of pickups (come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything but a pickup in Montana) and filled the bed with a herd of assorted innertubes, even a few of the coveted tractor innertubes. We pulled into a gas station and soon had the airhose snakes hissing and bloating our tubes like so many drowned cows. And it didn’t cost anything – believe it or not, air was free back in the day! Them with a squeal of tires, the Party was off.

“Ah, those young sprouts, what fun they must be having,” the elderly gentleman at the gas station must have been thinking. That’s not what I was thinking as I tried to get my old Ford, known affectionately as Found On Road Dead, to start. I tried the most logical and time-tested methods of starting reluctant vehicles, but I soon ran out of swear words and horrible threats. The humility of it all! I organized this trip! MY Innertube Party had gone off without ME! Arrrrgh!

“You should try pulling out the choke.” It was that old man again.

Eyes bulging out of my head, I clenched my teeth and snarled “Don’t you think I’ve tried that?!” But just to show him how insulted I was at being taken for an idiot, I pulled out the choke and stomped on the gas. Perversely, it started right up.

In no time at all, I was screaming towards the Beartraps, ropes and jumper cables flying out the back. Apparently, you could hear “Wait for meeeeeeeeeeeeee” all the way to Norris. Panting and crazed, I skidded into the Embarkation Zone by the lazy river only ten minutes after the rest, thereby setting an Unsafe Land Speed Record. I gathered up the crew and addressed them suspiciously.

“Have you been having fun without me?” I demanded. There was a lot of shuffling around and looking down sheepishly. “Well, I just hope you would want to stop and think about your actions until…..NOW!” With that, I jumped up and started to have fun before anyone else. “Lookit me, having fun!” I yelled, my voice unnaturally high. The others glanced at each other as if there was a madman in their midst. Finally, my nerves settled enough for me to simply demand that we all have fun.

And the first piece of fun, we all knew, was to walk down to the river with uncle John. That’s because he was deathly afraid of snakes, and even better, couldn’t see that well. As soon as we passed a stick lying on the trail we’d shout out “Look at the size of that snake!” “Snake? Where?!” John would invariably shout. Then we’d throw the stick at him. He’d jump out of the way, arms flailing, panicked. How the suffering of others makes for belly laughs!  

We would continue this merrymaking until we reached the Madison. Then Long Jim and Darrell threw all the innertubes in the water, with the refreshments strung out behind. The resulting flotilla would have been far too big for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but at about half a mile (or twenty feet, close enough) long, it was just right for our purposes. Then came the hard part – getting into the water. Even though people on shore were quickly melting into pools of fat, the water in the river was always glacially cold. And so, like penguins, we shuffled closer and closer to the bank, pushing and shoving, testing out mettle until the girls heaved an exasperated sigh and got in first. Once again, our cowardice had won the day, and with scientific precision we would study their response to the water’s temperature, and judge how much courage we’d have to drink before getting in. After much stalling, we’d finally all be in the river together. I remember floating past Darrell, who said through his blue lips “this is fun, isn’t it?”

Ah, the excitement of the float trip! The sun would beat down mercilessly, turning most of us into a healthy shade of bright red, revealing us to be well-done, if not cooked right through. I was going to grab Carol’s arm as I bobbed next to her, but I was afraid it would just come off, and that would gross me out. Floating sticks would (of course) be tossed towards uncle John, with cries of “water moccasin!” And then, there we were, floating softly down Ol’ Man River, with the walls of the canyon towering above us and a virtual spider’s web of fishing lines to maneuver through.

It was always fun to tie together two innertubes, so halfway down the river, that’s what Carol and I did. Lying back, butts dragging on the riverbed, we talked and watched the bank glide by, oblivious to everything. Especially that big rock with the little whirlpool next to it right in front of us. I was just telling Carol, “what I really like about innertubing is glub burble choke”. She probably didn’t hear that last part because I was saying it underwater, having headed in that direction when the tubes capsized and slid under the rock. After eating more than my fair share of river gravel, I managed to get to the surface, gasping for air. To my horror, I was alone! You can imagine what went through my mind – where was the beer?!

Looking down the river, a frightening apparition slowly rose out of the river and glowered at me. Then it shook its fist in a threatening way. Oh, good! Carol was all right. And she had the brewskies! Like a man possessed, I dived frantically for the just-out-of-reach canned salvation. As I scrambled over the rocks, my foot slipped on something wet and slimy and with a painful, electrical shock, twisted sideways. I was trying to yell out “Carol” but after spraining my ankle it sounded much more like “Car-AARRRGGHH!” My pitiful cries and wild gyrations didn’t send her running to my side. In fact, she was getting away! And she still had the precious beer that I now I needed for medication.

Luckily, I found someone else’s beer in the water and commandeered it. With my ankle throbbing, it took most of a six-pack to medicate myself down to where we left our vehicles for the return trip. By the time I reached the bank, I didn’t even notice my sprained ankle, which now looked as if I had a bad case of elephantitis. As everyone got out of the river and into their trucks I even managed to point out a large “snake” to uncle John.  

Finally, I rose unsteadily to my feet (well, foot), and hobbled toward my truck where Carol was sitting. I hopped up the riverbank, relishing the pure relief I would have once I was sitting on the seat, when I managed to hopscotch right on top of something squishy. Great, a cowpie, I thought. However, cowpies don’t move, and they certainly don’t make an angry buzzing sound. Carol looked at me in horror, as if I was standing on a rattlesnake. I looked down. I was!! By an incredible (and highly unusual for me) stroke of luck, I had landed right next to its head. Of course, now I had the having-a-lion-by-the-tail predicament. How was I going to jump off the critter before it could strike me? Uncle John looked amused for once.

“Jump into the back of the truck!” my friends were yelling. As if to make their suggestion “more right” they yelled it louder and louder. Well, I couldn’t stay there all day, so I summoned up my courage and took one mighty leap, hitting the metal with my stomach. Gasping and wheezing, I threw my legs over and crumpled in a heap in the bed, just as I heard a loud Pang! as the big rattler struck the side of the truck.

As I lay in the back of the truck on the way home - sunburnt, with the air knocked out of me, almost bit by a rattlesnake and with a badly sprained ankle, I thought, “Innertubing sure is fun!”    

Goodman’s family have lived in Gallatin County for a number of generations. After getting a degree in communications from MSU, Goodman moved
westward to the rainy-er climate of Oregon, although he visits Bozeman
often in late June, where he enjoys a magical two weeks in between snows
and forest fires.

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