Twenty Years and Counting

Meet Bill Bartlett, the Montana paddler who hasn't missed a month on the water in two decades

For years I thought my friend Bill Bartlett was just lazy, or maybe that he had a weird, year-round penchant for wearing a canoe as a hood ornament. Every time I saw his van with the custom, IPADDLE Montana plates, there was a canoe on top, winter and summer. Give it a rest, I thought.

Then one January, near the end of the month in a snowstorm, I walked past when he was at a stop sign and asked him what was up with the permanent boat fixture. He was on his way to the Three Forks of the Missouri to get his boat in the water before the end of the month. Sucked that it was snowing, he said, but time was running out.

"I've been paddling every month of the year," he told me. At that point he was 15 years into his string. Every month, despite Montana's winters, he got his Wenonah Encounter onto some stretch of open water somewhere on the Madison or Missouri or East Gallatin and spent some time in his boat, more often than not paddling upstream. "It's my upper body treadmill," Bartlett says.

"I was already paddling 9 or 10 months out of the year anyway," he says. "I couldn't think of a good reason not to do it."

Bartlett has a thing about uncommon challenges. "I have a need not to be normal. I don't want to just be an average guy," he says.

He looked at a Montana map one time and noticed how the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers make an almost closed loop sprawled across the state. Over the next years he paddled all the way down the Yellowstone, and then, because he couldn't think of a reason not to, he started paddling up the Missouri, eventually arriving at the Missouri headwaters, some 50 miles away from his starting point. Another time he decided to paddle six full moons in a row.

"I just keep doing this stuff," says Bartlett, now 70 years old. "That's what matters."

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Much of the time he is joined by his partner, Kay Ruh, whose Montana plates read IPADLE2. She's missed a few months, here and there, but has a pretty credible run going herself. With her company or not, it tends to be a solitary experience.

"I read a quote from a shaman once," Bartlett muses. It was something like, "All true wisdom is gained far from man in great solitude. Only through privation are we exposed to things which others do not see."

For Bartlett, some of the gnarliest conditions, the times he really has to force himself out the door, hold the greatest rewards.

"I often dreaded those outings," he remembers, "but I always gained the most from them. The beauty of ice and moving water in mid-winter … it gets no better than to be in a canoe all alone, when the world becomes manageable."

Granted, there are times when it isn't all enlightenment and bliss. Like the windy day on the Madison River when, despite weighting his boat with river cobbles he still got blown over by the wind. Or the sketchy moments when shelf ice breaks loose over your gunwale.

Once he dumped above a strainer and got momentarily hung up on an underwater branch before freeing himself. "I wasn't paying attention," he remembers. "That was some unbelievable windchill, but I was lucky to be alive."

There was another month he came close to missing, when he had open-heart surgery, but somehow still managed to get on the water.

"I'm drawn to physical challenges," Barlett says. "These blocks of solitary time combined with repetitive physical activity are deeply rewarding. The deeper the cold in those winter months, the greater the beauty."

Bartlett's 240-month run ended in February of 2017, when he and Ruh "practiced retirement and went to Arizona for 5 weeks."

As soon as he came back, Bartlett started his next string. "Hey, why not?" he says. "I know how to do it. Come back and see me when I'm 90 and check out how it's going."

Meantime, Bartlett's van with its custom plates and permanent canoe hood ornament keeps driving the streets of Bozeman, waiting for that window of opportunity near the end of January when open water, a canoe hull, and the austere beauty of winter might just keep a person going for another month.

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