Today, with a little blue sky peeking through the April clouds from time to time, I am plotting about my next day on a Montana river. Right now, it is a bit of a game of chance, with flows seeming to be hovering the last few days, just on the verge of slipping into spring run-off mode, but not quite. Any fishing plans are dependent on checking the current stream flow at the USGS gauging stations on the various rivers. That’s because the fishing is dependent upon stream conditions like flow and water temperature. And we all know the old fishing guide mantra, “You can’t catch fish on a rising river.” So, all of my pals have that USGS site bookmarked on their computers for easy access.

Once the river has been decided upon, the next issue is figuring out who’s driving and who is going to be responsible for the shuttle. Whenever you float downstream without a motor to push you back up, it is important to put just a bit of thought into how you will get your vehicle from the beginning of the float to the end of it. Over the years I have found that no particular scheme is foolproof.

This is not always an obvious concern to people unfamiliar with river travel. Once, many years ago during my guiding days,one of my customers caught me off guard with the simplest of questions. As I helped a gentle lady into the raft for a day of floating downstream on the Big Blackfoot, she turned to me and asked, “Will we be getting out here at the end of the day?”

I suppose I could have replied in the affirmative, as in, “Yes, after lunch I’ll be rowing you back up here.” But, instead, I told her as gently as I could that, no, we would be stopping a few miles down river and the vehicles we had come to the river in would be waiting there for us.

When I think about shuttles this time of year, I am often transported to another time, an April day long ago when I pedaled my bike twelve miles up a muddy road in a driving rainstorm and swore to myself that I would never do that again.             By taking that muddy bike ride I was simply handling the one pesky detail of river floating that, even now, I have never completely ironed out. It has something to do with the old adage about paying the piper.

The problem of the shuttle becomes especially complicated when there are large groups of people and several boats involved. Figuring out how to get the correct vehicles to the bottom of the float, then getting the drivers back to the start, then retrieving the vehicles that brought them back up, usually once the float is over, can become a logistical nightmare. It sounds like it should be simple, but it just isn’t always that way.

One might think, for example that taking two cars is a sure-fire solution for a simple one-boat float. It can be if you remember to put one vehicle at the bottom of the float for starters, and if you remember to send the other one along to bring the driver of the first one back before you start. There are other things to remember too.

For example, Homer and I are unloading at our take-out point and I ask him for the car keys so I can load up some stuff.

 “Just a minute, I’ll get ’em. They’re in my pants pocket…in the other rig!”

 The other rig is ten miles upstream.

  Another possibility is hiring it done, if there is somebody trustworthy around to do it.

 That brings me to the time Erwin and I were floating the Bow River up near Calgary. It was a three-day float. We made arrangements through a local fly shop to have somebody move our vehicle to the end of the float. Somewhere in the middle of the second day we passed an area that looked as if it was a developed campground. There were several vehicles parked in different locations among the cottonwoods along the north bank of the river. One vehicle looked vaguely familiar.

 “Hey Erwin, that looks just like your rig over there in the trees?”

“Kind of looks like mine doesn’t it? Well, I’m pretty sure they made more than one of those that year.”

The next day at the take-out, there was no truck in evidence. There were no cell phones in those days. So the first task was to hitch a ride to the nearest phone. That happened to be a farm house five miles down up the gravel road in the general direction of Calgary.

 “About the only people who stop by to use the phone are the ones who seem to be marooned down there where people take their boats out of the river above the dam,” the lady of the house said as she ushered me inside and showed me the telephone. It took several calls back and forth with the people at the fly shop to ascertain who, exactly, had finally moved the vehicle. That’s when it became apparent that the truck we had seen far upriver the day before, was the one we wanted.

 Erwin did the honors and stood by the road with his thumb out until another Good Samaritan came along to pick him up and take him to his truck. Meanwhile, I hitched back to the take-out to stand guard over our gear, as if someone might come along and rip us off. We had seen no other anglers during the float. There were no vehicles at the take-out. And I did not see another human being after being dropped off until I saw Erwin at the wheel of his truck several hours later.

Sometimes the shuttle can be just plain lonely business for all involved.

On another day, years ago, I was guiding on Rock Creek. Going on the recommendation of someone I had no reason to doubt, I handed my car keys to a young entrepreneur who was hanging around the Rock Creek Mercantile during the salmon fly hatch, trying snag jobs shuttling vehicles from put-in to take-out along various stretches up and down the creek. The young fellow seemed fine, and he assured me he would have the truck in the right place at the right time.

The road passes within sight of the stream many times on the part of of Rock Creek that we were fishing that day and it is common to see traffic on that road during that time of year, especially. Generally, that traffic is made up of vehicles, mostly trucks, towing rafts on trailers upstream, and towing empty trailers downstream. If it is particularly dry and warm, dust kicked up by those vehicles can sometimes hover over the road like a toxic yellow cloud.

 My customers that day were quite amused, I suppose, as they watched me watch my truck going up and down the road quite regularly throughout the day. We saw it again and again, usually at a high rate of speed, leaving a plume of dust in its wake. Only when a fierce, but brief, rainstorm dropped into Rock Creek in mid-afternoon did the dust from the road begin to abate.

 At day’s end, my truck was parked where it was supposed to be, but the short shuttle had somehow added about 120 miles to the odometer. The dry clothes my customers had left in the cab so they could get out of their waders at the end of the float had been thrown into the open pick-up box, apparently to accommodate extra passengers. The clothes were a sodden tangle. There were also a dozen empty beer cans rattling around on the floor of the truck, indicating that the shuttler and his friends had apparently made the days work into something of a festive event. And, of course, since those additional miles were on the Rock Creek Road which is know to be tough on vehicles, that day probably took years off the life of the truck.

Sometimes, of course, you can count on one-person hitchhiking back to get the vehicle at the end of the day, especially on bright, warm, sunny days when you wouldn’t mind the walk anyway. Those are the days when the rides come easily and people are always interested to know about the fishing and the floating if the hitcher is wearing part of the uniform, like a fishing vest or chest waders.

But I know from experience that you cannot count on hitching on rainy or snowy days, rarely in the dark, and never in the dark on the Swan highway near the Swan River Youth Camp in those days where that was operated as an extension of the Montana prison system. When the Swan River camp was in full operation, it was illegal to hitchhike in the immediate vicinity, anyway. Several very obvious signs warned motorists not to pick up hitchhikers. But there were a few times I can remember when my crowd just kind of let that little fact slip our minds. The Swan Highway can be a long, dark, cold and very lonely place to take a seven or eight mile stroll on a fall evening. We know that from bitter experience.

 The arrival on the scene of mountain bikes added a new wrinkle to the shuttle business. When there is any doubt about the shuttle, no drivers available for example, or just one vehicle, we would always just throw in the mountain bike and one of us would pedal one way or the other. The big drawback was that it was easier to put the ride off till after the float, at which time we were likely to be dog-tired and in no mood to pump a dozen or so miles in any direction. And of course, that’s when the rain always starts.

 For every shuttle story I repeat, two or three more occur to me, and each one seems to reflect more dunderheadedness than the last. I guess I’ll have to just saved the rest for another rainy day.

 Meanwhile, times have changed. Almost any river one chooses to float has a shuttle service or two available, offering to handle the whole process so anglers and other floaters can just concentrate on having fun. It has become a serious business for some, and the good ones take pride in having everything work out perfectly for the customer. Some I know even wash the windows and vacuum the vehicle for customers. And sometimes, the person who answers the phone at a shuttle service might just also be able to provide a tip or two about what to expect from a day on the water.

Joe Cantrell down in St. Regis is one such operator. He is always happy to arrange a shuttle and at the same time provide a rundown on what’s happening with the bugs on the river, what the water conditions are, and he might even share a story or two about the big ones that have gotten away lately. Of course he wouldn’t mind if you bought some flies or equipment in his fly shop, either.

 In the end, however you decide to handle your shuttle, if you are going to do it with your own sweat, or pay for it with actual money, it’s still a small price to pay for any day on the water. And it ain’t rocket science.


  1. Would never have suspected that a dissertation on shuttling for river floats could be so interesting. Love the image of watching your truck going back and forth all day. Great post!

  2. Ah, shuttle stories. A fellow I kayaked with down in Flagstaff told a story on himself of doing a shuttle down to Diamond Creek at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. About five miles from the end of the road, he was driving a rig down to do a shuttle and here is a fellow walking up the road. He stops, the fellow walks up to the drivers window, starts to ask about a ride, then, enraged asks where in blankety blank their vehicles are. Short story, always make sure you write down what shuttles are to be run on what day!

  3. Great read. I am a native Montanan recently relocated to Kalispell. I am starting a Shuttle Service on the Lower Flathead River any thoughts or comments would be greatly appreciated.

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