For True Adventure, Paddle the Creek Less Traveled

Let’s face it, most people are sheep. The majority of us go to sanctioned destinations. Places touted in "10 Best" articles in publications like this one. Places akin to the boardwalks in Yellowstone. Safe, vetted, controlled, predictable . . . unless your dog suddenly jumps into the hot pot. When it comes to rivers, the vast majority head for known stretches of water with shuttles in place, published maps and route descriptions, lottery systems, recommended campsites, established access, up-to-the-minute water gauges and plenty of company for backup if things go south. It's the path of least resistance.

But then there are the 5-10% of us who relish being off the radar, even if it means some unexpected adventure, the occasional epic, and once in a while, a complete bust. For us, the quest is for those stretches of water that never appear in a guidebook, those without a streamflow gauge, sketchy access, no shuttle service. In short, the blank spots on the map where adventure, mishap, hilarity and intense reward all await. They are dives into the unknown. Think of them as ghost streams, wafting unnoticed through the landscape. There are more of them than you might think, once you pay attention.

They are also places that, once found, should never be identified in a story like this, so stop anticipating.

It's one thing to discover a slightly less-traveled section along a major corridor – that piece of the Missouri River that arcs away from the highway and winds through islands full of birds and braided channel. A bit of the lower Madison that has a reputation for snags that keeps most floaters away, but for anyone with water sense, is a lovely day full of side channels, bald eagles, sandhill cranes and the occasional moose.

It's quite another to stumble on a stream that truly drops down a rabbit hole into another dimension. This spring has been a good one on that count. I've found three stretches of water where no one goes, where I might as well have slipped back 100 years in time, where sweet water and empty country take over, or where I enter a zany obstacle course of fraught conditions – combat boating through barbed wire, low bridges, diversion dams, bushwhack portages, lethal shrubbery and deadfall.

In this quest, being able to take a joke is mandatory.

You never know how these things come to you. It might be a conversation with another long-time boater who mentions a place they paddled once, 30-years ago. One time, it was by virtue of taking a wrong turn on my way back from a trip and following a beautiful side stream up a valley until I forgot I was lost . . . a stream I came back to paddle a year later. More often, it's the reward of map-gazing.

Remember maps? I still spend a lot of time with quads spread out of the floor, following blue squiggles running through quiet country. Or it could be the product of driving around looking at stuff, following ranch roads, finding bridges, checking out fishing access.

By definition, it is a crapshoot, which is both the pro and the con.

At some point, you go. Put in at a ranch bridge, careful to avoid trespass, neck prickling with the sense of being watched by hair-trigger landowners. Slip away downstream, around the first bend, into the unknown. At least at the start, my standard strategy is to creep around the insides of bends, wary of barbed wire, diversions, deadfall, low bridges and unexpected drops.  In some cases, that caution is absolutely necessary – in and out of boats, leaping for shore, portaging around obstacles or unrunnable water. Other times, a few bends down, the anxiety relaxes in the spell of sliding current and lovely, empty country, mile after mile of it unfurling beneath the bow.

Either way, it's an immersion into the unsanctioned, the unvetted, the frontier. Maybe not a first descent, but what might as well be, for all you know of what's around the bend. That quality of discovery, of adventure, of exploration – that feeling of being alive and tingling with anticipation of what's next.

At the take out, the congratulations of either having survived, or the awe of having discovered an unbelievable hidden gem . . . followed by the unspoken pact to keep the secret.


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