He speaks the Queen’s English, but waits to shout this out until our raft folds in half as we steer into the white-foam waves. At the front of our raft, riding bull, is my daughter. Her hair is the color of a rising sun. She is sure if she falls in, someone will yank her out. And we will, and we do. We do.
In the back of the raft our South African guide drags his paddle. He’s wearing dark pink sunglasses and his wild hair is two shades lighter than a high noon sun with all the color squeezed out. He cheers, Bully!, as the raft crests and buckles. Oy speek the Queen’s Anglish!
What would it be like to live half my years in South Africa just to raft the waterways, announcing to all who will hear me, I speak Montanian! when my raft tips over a waterfall? When I was my daughter’s age I had only begun to accumulate my own rafting stories of rafts torn apart on craggy rapids, of surviving hydraulic holes. I didn’t know then what I know now about numbered days.
And within arm’s reach of my daughter is my son, paddle in hand. He has a waterproof video camera strapped to his chest. He’s waiting for the rapids to subside so he can press record, and back-flip off the raft.
We reach a calm stretch and the six paddlers toss their paddles to the non-paddlers and jump in. We crane our necks to make out the dirt caves high above us; game trails and beaver slides lead down to the narrow, rocky bank. When it’s time to rejoin the raft, the swimmers are pulled aboard by the shoulder straps of their life vests. Dunk and heave: Wet swimmers are landed like trophy fish.
A bald eagle perches in a half-alive, half-dead cottonwood, and watches the way we play. What does he think, I wonder. Later a friend will answer: If you ask what he thinks, he’ll tell you how he feels.
The Yellowstone River is a brown, muddy roil just minutes from my front door, but this section of the river is a friendly green, fresh from the springs in Yellowstone Park. Come back next year, our guide suggests. Come for June water. The river is high and fast.
Yes, yes my kids agree.
No, no my old-lady-voice silently protests. What’s so wrong with August water?
Twice along the eastern bank we find bubbling hot springs June’s high water would cover up. And now, thanks to the end of snowmelt, there’s room on the bank for the bare-chested banjo player. Standing beside him, the bikini-clad fiddler works out a tune we cannot hear as we come abreast of them. At first we paddle backwards, trying to linger to hear the music, but the current is stronger than all of us. One by one we grow still and become a floating hush, willing the music to reach us. And it does. It does. Ten or twenty raft-lengths downstream from the banjo and the fiddle, the second verse to The Irish Washerwoman climbs aboard our raft.