excerpt from novel

Arts & Culture

As any moving body of water has a headwater a starting point, so too does this novel. It started out as a humorous magazine article for Fly Rod & Reel (“Diary of a Mad Floater”) following a six-day float trip down Montana’s wilderness Smith River. From there, it flowed into an original screenplay which attracted Meryl Streep, director Curtis Hanson and the interest of Universal Studio, which released the motion picture incarnation in September of 1994. That flowed uninterrupted for nearly 20 years, until I decided the story should have a final life on the printed page. By then, there was more I wanted to say about the power and beauty of wild rivers and Mother Nature.

The thriller ingredients, propelled by a vigorous downstream journey, provided the foundation I needed to add a new layer of suspense—a pursuing Montana state trooper not present in the film. I also wanted to add thoughts about the importance of preserving our natural resources. The result is this novel—which has been shaped by its tributaries—yet like all rivers, has an identity of its own.


(Editor’s note: Tom is the father and husband, novice to river sports; Maggie is the family dog.)


Having taken the short leg between the prongs of the river’s giant horseshoe, Tom and Maggie found themselves standing at first light on a forty-foot cliff above a deep pool downstream of the Gauntlet. A tributary carved a steep, obstructing gorge below where they stood, preventing any further progress. A sheer cliff faced them on the far side. Below the pool on the main river, there was a section of mild rapids, and below that the river evened out into slow, froggy water with rolling meadows on either side. This was the final stretch, where the river—exhausted by its wild ride through the Gauntlet—took a lazy breath before dumping into the Missouri River.

Tom took in the jump once more; higher than was comfortable, but survivable. Man and dog backed up for a running start. They launched themselves at almost the same time, sailed through the air for a few harrowing seconds, and plunged into the pool several yards apart. Tom bobbed to the surface to find Maggie already dog paddling in circles looking for him. Tom back-paddled to slow their speed as the tail-out of the pool began to sweep them ever faster into the start of the rapids. Man and dog angled close together. Tom draped an arm over the retriever’s back. “Okay, Mags,... show me your stuff!”

Whoosh.... they were swept into the first white water. Tom remembered to swing his feet downstream to protect himself from the rocks. Maggie flailed with her forepaws to keep her head above water as they glided down a first spill and into a chute. A knifelike rock parted the current dead ahead. Tom pulled with his right arm to steer them to the right of the rock. He sailed by and was plunged into a tumble of white froth. When he made it back to the surface, the current rushed him toward a fallen log, angling out of the riverbank. He gulped a fresh breath and ducked below the surface to avoid being knocked out. He lost his grip on Maggie in the maneuver, and when he popped up downstream of the log he was separated from her. He could see her flailing away in the churn of rapids that stretched from bank to bank, but he couldn’t reach her. He was too busy eyeing the deeper, calmer water now only forty feet away. Safe harbor.

Maggie was first to be propelled over the mossy ledge and into the deeper water. She popped up safely ten feet downstream and immediately began paddling in circles, barking. Looking for Tom.

Tom sailed over the ledge and plunged into the pool below. He hit the uneven river bottom with considerable forcejamming one foot between the rocks. The strength of the current pushed him forward, wedging the foot even tighter between the rocks. Tom looked down in panic. His foot was lodged in a way that made it almost impossible to free up without moving upstream against the powerful current. He stroked with all his might, but he couldn’t pull free. Maggie circled just downriver, looking for him; Tom could see her paws pushing against the water. He looked down once more; he was running out of air. Desperate, he planted his free foot on the rock beside the lodged foot for better leverage. He pushed as hard as he could, simultaneously wrenching his body. His trapped foot popped free, minus ear-sized flaps of skin on either side of his ankle. The clear water turned crimson. The pain was searing. Tom let out a scream that was muffled by the din of the rapids and turned into a rush of bubbles. The bubbles flew upward, toward Maggie and the blue beyond.