Wild and Scenic Women

Brenda Johnson Kame’enui

At the hub of five valleys, Missoula glistens in late June. After a wet spring, none of the hills and hummocks surrounding the valley have turned brown. I love Montana. I left here at 17 and return each year, at least once. I’m here with my daughter Ani for a float trip on the Selway River of Idaho.

Ani and I climb to the M on Mt. Sentinel this afternoon. As a child, I climbed with friends and cousins. Tanned by the sun, we perched in dry grass to eat lunch near the big M cobbled in stones. Today the big M is concrete, painted in white, the west flank of the mountain carved in thirteen switchbacks to protect the landscape. A few benches dot the mountain for winded hikers.

One hill rolls into another in a mosaic of spring green and shadows. I aim my camera at the fleecy clouds in the Big Sky. This sky is different. I can never get enough of it.

Montana has been my home since I was nine years old, when our family left the little bungalow warmed by a wood-stoked furnace on the Selway River. There, my father was district ranger at Fenn, in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. We moved over the Bitterroot Mountains, beyond Lolo Pass, where Nez Perce feasted on camas and Chief Joseph led his people in their own 1100-mile trail of tears toward Canada. My brother and I left a one-room schoolhouse on the Lochsa, a narrow, winding river of classic whitewater.

In the morning, Ani and I join the float trip on a yellow school bus, bound for Highway 93 and the three-hour drive to our launch site.

I’ve traveled Highway 93 hundreds of times. My parents were both Hamilton natives, or “Bitterrooters.” My mother always said, “We’re going up the Bitterroot.” While Hamilton is south of Missoula on the map, you follow the Bitterroot upriver to get there. The drive sports Lolo Peak, Bass Creek, and Bear Creek Falls to the west, and a pastoral valley to the east. My grandfather’s strawberry and apple “ranch” has been swallowed by houses plunked here and there. I look beyond to the canyons and mountains, still dusted in snow.

When I was young, we enjoyed Sunday dinner at Aunt Bette’s, complete with creamed peas and potatoes, and bunked in the basement with cousins. A stop at Aunt Net’s, with a view up Blodgett Canyon, always meant short bread. My parents ran into old friends at the cemetery on “Decoration Day.” Grandma Bess’s French lilac bush, drenched in deep purple clusters, yielded amethyst bouquets in Mason jars to place on gravestones. I don’t remember ever not wanting to go “up to Hamilton.”

Later, my own young family traveled up the West Fork of the Bitterroot River to my parents’ cabin, downstream from Painted Rocks Reservoir. Ani and her sister ate Gramps’ huckleberry “hotcakes” like lumberjacks and slept in a canvas wall tent. A peek out the tent flaps at the moon rising over the cliffs was magic. Sun and soughing of the wind in ponderosa pine woke us each morning, and red cliffs shifted shape and color in the day’s changing light.     

Today our bus leaves the West Fork Road to veer right toward Paradise, Idaho, where we’ll enter the Selway River. We cross the Montana/Idaho border at Nez Perce Pass, 6850 feet, and the driver stops to allow his passengers to admire the alpine landscape. We leave one paradise for another, the Selway River tumbling far below, giving me pause about what I’m launching into.

Paradise, Idaho, is a humble campground high above the river’s edge. Our guide team waves in welcome, and we climb off the bus to trade introductions.

“Hi, I’m Billie. I’ll be your lead guide.” We meet Izzy, Kelly, and Hanna. I imagine taking a liking to these amiable women. Guide teams usually come together in advance but sometimes take shape right before a trip. This team realized they were an all-women crew as they pulled out of Salmon, Idaho, where they prepare rafts and everything that goes in them, create delicious menus, and shop for five days of meals.

Billie directs us to wetsuits in three sizes. Snugger than a rubber glove, I’m certain my suit is too small. I tug and jump up and down to inch the thick suit above my knees. I feel like a sausage.

Eleven rafters, a parade of stuffed rubber figurines, gather around a lone raft on dry land for Kelly’s safety demo. I’ve heard this serious routine before–an earnest guide prepares clients for risks, from popping out of the boat, to moving hand-over-hand under an overturned raft, to avoiding a “strainer.” After the alert to all hazards, I’m mildly terrified.

Before we lower the raft on a precipitous ramp to the water, Billie and crew line up for photos of this historic moment, the first all-women crew on the Selway River.

Ani and I climb onto Billie’s raft. We settle in the bow of the boat as Billie navigates our first rapids on the Upper Selway. I breathe easy, feeling lucky to be on this beautiful river on a bluebird summer day.

The original Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness bill passed in 1964. The Upper Selway has a limit of a single launch (commercial or private) during permit season, a maximum of sixteen people in the party. No passing other boats, no rush to campsites, no noise but rushing water and a deep hush in the pristine wilderness. Many guides acclaim this the pinnacle of river trips. The Selway, one of eight rivers in the original National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, is indeed wild.

The landscape of Douglas fir and Western red cedar, Engelmann spruce and chokecherry shrubs, is quiet. Ponderosa pine rise tall and straight, reaching for the sun. A bald eagle dips to the river for rainbow or cutthroat trout. We pass a blue heron perched on a boulder.

Billie, as skilled as she is confident, appreciates the high waterflow above the boulders. In shallow water, the Selway can be a scramble of shoving squeaking boats around boulders. The river will drop 1300 feet in the 47 miles we travel from Paradise to Race Creek.

On the second day, Ani and I ride with Izzy, a redhead as unbridled as Billie is quiet. Izzy is fun, funny, and full of stories. Dipping nose down into rip-roaring rapids, she says she’d be a fool not to be afraid. Never cocky on a wild river, she knows her place in this force of nature. These women are strong and able—they could do any job that requires personal skills, outdoor and safety skills, and culinary arts, as well as knowledge in biology and geology. I could go on.

We pull into a choice campsite above Moose Creek for a layover. We pitch tents and string wetsuits on a bridge that spans the river.

Ani and I walk to Moose Creek Ranger Station, crossing Moose Creek where it brews to dump volumes into the Selway. At the age of seven, I prayed to catch my first fish on Moose Creek. I caught two. I’ve been a believer ever since!

In the morning, we hike a narrow, exposed trail to Shissler Peak Lookout, gaining 3000 feet in roughly 2.5 miles. A young rattler slips across our path, larkspur and lupine line the trail, and paintbrush in red and orange climb the hillside.

When I was a child, we drove ten steep miles to Coolwater Lookout. We clung to a hillside to catch grasshoppers for my brother’s roadside stand, where he sold hoppers, worms, and lemonade to fishermen heading upriver. Once we had collected grasshoppers sufficient to supply the weekend’s anglers, we moved on to huckleberries and ate berries by the fistful, staining our hands and mouths purple. We picked buckets for jelly and huckleberry pies.

Tonight at camp, Izzy gives a talk on the life cycle of salmon and the perils salmon face in the 600-900-mile return to spawning grounds. These women are superior stewards of the land.

Our last day on the river, we take out upstream from Selway Falls. Sixty-five years ago, my family picnicked right here, at the end of the road. Even then, the falls astounded me, rushing around boulders the size of a bus. After a spring picnic, we snipped dogwood branches to fill May baskets we’d hang on rural neighbors’ doorknobs. In summer, we picked red chokecherries and glossy purple elderberries from dusty shrubs. The jelly from each glimmered rose and indigo in glass jars, enough to cover peanut butter for a year.

I’m wistful at the end of the trip, a lofty privilege with my daughter, deep in the wilderness, not far from my first home. We drive the Lower Selway, quiet and so clear you can see the river bottom of red and gold. We pass the ranger station, an historic beauty of stacked rock, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I’ve been inside the office many times, where I search my father’s name on a plaque and remember the 1950s smell of linoleum and oak office chairs.

Down the road a half mile, the pair of ranger houses is tiny compared to my memory. In another mile, the beach at Johnson Bar gleams in river rock and sand. It looks familiar.

Brenda Johnson Kame’enui