Aquaphile: Crossing The Threshold

By Alan Kesselheim

Photography by Kyle George



Crouching by the three-strand barbed wire, fencing pliers in hand, my neck hairs prickle in anticipation, waiting for the hard violence of a shotgun barrel at the base of my skull. Cutting fence in Montana is up there with stealing water on the roster of mortal sins. I snip the bottom strand and the wire falls away. Then the middle one drops. The weight of fence hangs on a single wire. It drapes into the river where the current tugs against it. The wire sings with tension.


I look around. A ring-necked pheasant calls from a field. I am alone.


This fence has plagued me for years. It hangs fully across the river on an undercut bend. The only place to slide under in a canoe is up against the steep dirt bank. I have to lay flat against the thwart, duck through, then scramble to pull away from the shrubby, downstream corner. I’ve done this dozens of times. Last time through, though, in a freak moment, a barb of wire caught my stern line and pulled me to a stop.


I turned, held in the flow, and had to crawl back to unhook the snag. The boat came free, but by the time I was back in position, the canoe was broadside in vegetation, the river pushing hard. I vowed, next time, to come prepared.


I cut the final wire. The fence and several posts splash into the fast current, get pulled downstream, and come to rest neatly on a gravel bar. Just like I planned it. I pocket the pliers, untie my boat, make my escape. Ever since, on that cleared bend of river, a smug glow of accomplishment, a bit of Boy Scout good-deedism, wells up inside. And ever since, along with the spare paddle, the water bottle, the drybag with extra clothes, I pack a set of fencing pliers and a saw into the load.


Cutting that fence took me across a threshold. Before that, my ethic had been to take what the river served-logjams, fences, diversion structures, boat-slicing rocks, overhanging branches – it was against the rules to manicure a river channel.


I’d heard about people dynamiting boat-wrapping boulders, or going out at low water to chisel away a pesky sharp flake of rock, or pulling logjams apart. To me, it smacked of river vandalism, grist for the river-runners’ police reports. You played the hand you got. If it meant making a difficult move to miss a sleeper, or portaging around a river-spanning dam of logs, so be it. Just because it made life difficult for paddlers was no excuse to go messing with river features and setting off a string of unintended consequences.


Then I cut that fence. And I have to admit that it felt really good. So much so that I’ve cut a few more in the years since. I’m judicious about it. I only snip where the river has eroded under a fence line in a way to render the fence ineffective and create a hazard to boaters.


Little by little I’ve expanded my scope. I cleave to a code of honor, but I know full well that it smacks of Old West vigilante justice. I bow to no greater authority. The authority is mine.


These days, I think nothing of some targeted cutting to free a channel through a dam of debris. Or I’ll open a path wide enough to portage a canoe around an obstacle. For the most part, I still acquiesce to the fickle and changeable obstacles of nature, but if I can make a slot past a downed tree that still requires some paddling skill to get through, all the better. If a lopped branch on a deadfall allows a paddler with a decent ferry move to pass unscathed, I’m all over it.


The other week I was sawing away on a downed cottonwood when I noticed a couple on the far bank. We looked at each other. I paused, busted. I felt like I was 15 again, caught raiding cigarettes. But I saw that they were simply watching me do my work. They understood my intent. They were curious. Perhaps they even admired the fact that I had come prepared for just such a problem.


I went back to cutting, the river piling within an inch of the top of my rubber boots. The branch fell away, bobbed downstream. I looked up. The couple was gone. Now a smooth braid of river funneled through a yard-wide channel on the inside of the bend. A minute later I rode that braid in my canoe, a fire of satisfaction warming my chest, and an inch to spare on either side.

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  • Dave Christie

    On my last trip, Bonaventure river in Quebec, we hacked a few protruding limbs from a recent spruce riverside casualty that allowed us to sneak our boat through, rather than carry around. I have silently thanked the folks who preceded me in cutting a narrow channel through similar near-strainers in the past. I call it pruning in the most respectful sense of the word…. Fences across rivers do scare me as well…. and are especially annoying when the herd is just upstream, adding prodigious quantities of biomass to the flow…. I say Alan’s fence snipping criteria are spot-on.

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