Meandering Along Montana's Wild River

A MAN sees a dirty hypodermic needle lying in a San Francisco street gutter, laments the lessons he must teach his toddling children about modern urban survival, and embarks on a soul-searching return to his native Montana.

This is the boat ramp for Steve Chapple's "Kayaking the Full Moon: A Journey Down the Yellowstone River to the Soul of Montana," a work that forks and meanders and sometimes loses its way. It is Chapple's attempt to go back home.

The Yellowstone River begins as snowmelt from Yount's Peak, 70 miles southeast of Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming. It winds its way northwest until it spills into the Missouri River in eastern Montana. Starting in August 1991, Chapple, his wife, and a few friends they met along the way eventually paddled 671 miles of "the longest free-flowing river in the Lower Forty-eight.... The Yellowstone still sings through canyon and prairie pretty much as heard by Lewis and Clark, the Cheyenne and the Crow."

The author acknowledges up front that he had never before paddled a white-water kayak. A third-generation Montanan, Chapple left Billings for Yale University in New Haven, Conn., then moved to Boston, and finally San Francisco. Along the way he married and had two sons. He'd always thought about returning to Montana, and by riding the Yellowstone, he decided, he'd rediscover his past.

He finds two Montanas, old and new. Taverns all along the river are peopled with Montanans as he remembers them: jovial people for whom words mean more than image.

Chapple travels to Lame Deer Reservation to find an old Cheyenne friend he hadn't seen since 1967. "The old ways are giving the young people back their roots, making them understand who they are, how valuable the Cheyenne were in the history of the Indian people," his friend says.

But there is another Montana, a state of Californians and celebrities ranching new ideas about preservation and privacy, building fences, altering the power structure, and redefining the value of resources.

Once, Chapple recounts, the legislature in Helena erupted in furious debate over the state bird, the western meadowlark. How could a bird too weak for winter be a Montanan? The magpie braves the snow; let it reign. A metaphor of two Montanas: the celebrities with their summer homes, the natives who desire no other.

Chapple begins under "the moon when all things ripen," the Cheyenne expression for an August moon. The full moon he paddles is this moon, a ripening of his awareness of identity, place, family. His journey is intensely personal at times. His tale is filled with vignettes and expressed in no particular finery of prose. If on occasion he is poetic, he seldom conveys the exhilaration and sublimity of paddling a wild river.

And he strays from the central metaphor. In his words: "The Yellowstone, like no other river, is a many-layered journey: dinosaurs to buffalo, Neanderthals to gold miners,... cattlemen to kayakers...." But the relationship between story and stream is not always clear. The river, at times, is lost in the layers.

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