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Come Dawn on The Bighorn

Mornings, mallards, and mischief on a wintry Montana River
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By Chuck Petrie

"I think my eyeballs are freezing."

I glance sideways at the complainant, Bill Buckley, scrunched far inside his parka and huddled on the boat seat beside me. For a moment, I contemplate shouting "Whiner!" over the din of the motor, but I'm afraid that if I open my mouth, I'll frost my tonsils. Mid-December in Montana can be frigid, for sure, but when you're speeding down the Bighorn River in an open boat powered by a jet-drive outboard, approaching Mach II, concerns regarding frostbite loom in whole new dimensions.

I peek over the side of the racing boat and into the river. Clearly visible through the translucent water, the rock-strewn bottom streaks by, seemingly only inches beneath the craft's aluminum hull. That's because, I soon determine, the bottom is only inches below the hull. Looking back over my shoulder, I study Dave Egdorf standing at the tiller, reading the water ahead of us. He deftly weaves the shallow-draft boat between sand and gravel bars, around boulders and sweepers, never once letting off on the power of the huge, screaming outboard.

It's like a white-knuckle carnival ride with a spectacular view. To starboard, a 300-foot-tall cliff of gray-black sedimentary rock flanks the river. To port lies the floodplain, hidden behind river channels that disappear between islands studded with cottonwoods and enveloped in labyrinths of Russian olive brush; beyond the lush riverbank, an intermittent glimpse of pastureland. In the waxing predawn light, flock after flock of mallards takes wing, black silhouettes against a leaden morning sky. The place is alive with greenheads. Occasionally, we also flush a dozen or more Canadas that have roosted on a backwater channel for the night.

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