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River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 7.1 (2005) 13-18

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Big waterfalls leave no doubt about where the shore ends and the river begins, but a dam upriver can confuse things. Kootenai Falls used to be a solid sheet of water at the top, cascading some thirty feet down two sides of a rock island. The channels met up again a hundred yards downstream, tossing a wall of spray at the junction, adrenalized, then roiling over a series of smaller falls in one strong current. The Kootenai people, who knew Montana before I did, called it holy ground.

I first saw Kootenai Falls ten years after the dam had been built. My parents must have taken me during spring runoff because high water still crashes through my memory: the swollen channel surging up against the ledge where I stood, a whole log flung high in the air where the forks met, the gray-brown churn of the water, spray on my cheeks, fish scale smell.

The dam, forty miles upriver, often held back enough water for fishermen to reach the rock island in the middle of the two channels. Sometimes the water level dropped so low it allowed the stony lip of the first drop-off to dry in places. When that happened folks could hop most of the way across the top of the waterfall, maybe even lie down on a dry patch to soak up the sun. Legend had it that a fisherman got washed over the falls every couple of years when the dam released water without warning. Rumor also held that no one had ever survived a freestyle swim through the falls.

I never knew if those stories were true, but I learned what it was like to fish from the island when the water was low. Anyone could do it, swishing through the shallow channel to a sandbar then clambering over a hill through knee-high brush to the far side, where deep pools sat in the shadows of the rocks and bull trout sometimes showed themselves. Low water made for good fishing, or so the story went, because less debris fell into the water when the river dropped away from its banks. [End Page 13]

When the fish were hungry and Kootenai Falls was passable, an afternoon on the far side of the island offered golden hours alone. Stretched out for a nap on sun-warmed rocks, cradled between two mellow channels in the lap of mystery, a boy might even forget to fish. The reel of history might spin out of his mind beyond the glow of closed eyelids, winding past the shouting match at home that morning before school, past other days of escape, erasing all memory of a dam upriver, of deaths by drowning, of centuries before that when worship and ceremonial burial graced the banks of the Kootenai.

Sundays were bad fishing days at Kootenai Falls when I was in high school because the place was packed with out-of-towners. Even when the water was low and people fanned out over the rocks, I felt claustrophobic. A place of escape needs to be remote, after all, or the clatter never dies out between one's ears.

This Sunday was worse because it was late spring, and the river was swollen with melted snow. I knew the banks would be crammed with people. But I had an idea, brewed up on the drive home from church while I seethed with teenage resentment in the back seat of my father's old Volvo sedan, counting days until I would fly three thousand miles east to a college in Tennessee.

The plan was simple. I had stood on the shore at Kootenai Falls often enough during high water to know that the current swept in tight beneath a rock ledge, in its course around the island toward the junction of the two channels downriver. I also knew that the sandbar sat in quiet water twenty feet across the current, just opposite the ledge. With a swift dive over the current and...


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