Our second morning in Fort Smith Montana greeted us with a beautiful sunrise and the promise of a wonderful day ahead.
Bighorn Lake was a mere 20 minutes away which seemed like a stone’s throw after all the traveling we’ve done thus far. A relaxing day at the lake was exactly what these travelers needed. Our campground host told us of a place near the marina where we could rent a boat by the hour and get the most fabulous view of the canyons. Sold! With fishing gear, picnic lunch and sunscreen in hand, we headed up through a local Indian reservation to the marina.
At the risk of repeating myself and sounding trite, the landscape was incredible at every turn. Mountains, fields, cliffs, colorful and vibrant met us around every corner. Just when we thought we almost touched the heavens, the next turn presented the peaceful and tranquil lake that sat at the base of glorious red cliffs as far as the eye could see.
Being the Monday after the long weekend, there weren’t a lot of people around us. We glowed with anticipation of cruising this magnificent canyon, the third largest in North America with the Grand Canyon being the largest of course.
Dennis, now affectionately known as “The Skipper”, came back from the rental office to let us know he booked a pontoon boat for a three hour tour. We loaded our gear on the boat. We were like giddy school girls unable to hold back our excitement. After short instructions, Dennis got behind the wheel and away we went. The boys and I took in the fresh air and hung our heads over the sides like dogs sticking their heads out the window of a car. I’m not sure but our tongues may have been wagging just a bit! The sun, the water, the views…perfection, sheer perfection!! Each cliff was like a work of art hand painted by God, one more exquisite than the next. The boys each took a turn driving the boat. Their smiles were brighter than the sun.
It was about this time that the black cloud that followed us from NY to South Dakota managed to find us yet again. We noticed it way off in the distance and the folks at the marina ensured us the storm would arrive well after we returned from our three hour tour. We decided to pick up the pace a bit, just in case. As we continued to cruise, we hit a nice breeze and then it hit – Luke’s favorite hat he bought when we were in Toronto went flying off his head and into the waters. The current was pretty strong and it floated away quickly. “Save Canada! Save Canada!” we joked as Dennis turned the boat around to grab it. I picked up the fishing net our neighbor had loaned us and leaned over the boat in an effort to save the day but I couldn’t catch it! I had it trapped but couldn’t get underneath to scoop it. Dennis came over to help and we crossed signals and both let go of the net which quickly floated away next to the sinking hat.
In true Cardwell fashion, we refused to let it go and went to plan B. Cameron quickly dumped his shirt and shoes and dove over the side of the boat to rescue the missing goods. It was 35% heroic, 35% stupid and 30% excuse to go in the water. He quickly reached the net and hats but had to grab his glasses, forgetting to take them off before hitting the water. His hands were full and the current was strong, rendering him unable to swim.
I could see panic starting to set in, he was helpless as he started to drift further and further from the boat. I think in a panic I started hitting Dennis, telling him to go in after Cameron. He was already preparing to dive over the side and in a second flat, Dennis dove over the edge to calm Cam and save the day. Luke kept an eye on the action and guided me as I brought the boat to them. Safe on the boat, Cam said he was never so excited and scared at the same time. My hero, the Skipper!
We drove just a little further when we noticed the clouds coming toward us. We had enough adventure for the day and decided to turn around and head back to shore just in case. We were told by the guides and our host not to miss Black Canyon on our tour. Since the clouds were still in the distance, we decided to stop there for a few moments to eat our lunch once our stomachs had settled a bit. The boys wanted to cast their fishing lines but sadly time was not on our side. I think we were in Black Canyon less than 5 minutes when the storm was coming up quickly.
Dennis started the boat while the boys and I packed up everything and put it under the covering. Full steam ahead, Skipper! I sat in the front of the boat to help identify driftwood that was being tossed by the storm. The waters became very rough and the boat ride wasn’t so glorious anymore. It was impossible not to sing the Gilligan’s theme song in your head … “the weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed, if not for the courage of the fearless crew the Minow would be lost, the Minow would be lost…” Then it got worse. Here comes the rain! Thunder and lightning were over head. We could see the bolts of lightning in the near distance. The rain was slapping me in the face, I could barely see but it didn’t matter. We just needed to get in as quickly as possible. This is where I wish my kids weren’t so smart. They began to recite the laws of science and remind us that metal and water are conductors of electricity and we were sitting ducks! We tried to calm the kids, telling them there was nothing to worry about but when I turned around and Dennis made that “HOLY CRAP” face to me, I got really nervous.
We pulled out our old standby “it’s just around the corner”,
trying to keep our minds off of the life threatening situation we were experiencing. Then, right around the corner, we saw the marina. I wanted to cry I was so happy! Three crew members were calling us in, frantically waving their hands “over here! Over here!” As soon as we touched the dock, they rushed us off the boat and told us to run to the safety of the office. There was another woman who seemed as panicked as us, yelling “Up here! Get up here!” We grabbed everything we could and ran up the stairs to the office like we were teenagers with a case of beer being chased by the cops! Once we were safely inside, we exchanged a few hugs and a whole bunch of high fives, happy to be alive. We were all so jazzed with excitement and relief that we just experienced one of the greatest adventures of our middle class lives. Thankfully our three hour tour didn’t end the same as Gilligan’s but it was certainly exciting!
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