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.