River Ramblings North


November 11, 2020

I want to give all the readers of my articles a thank you for the encouraging words for me to continue writing for the Mountaineer. I struggle with ideas. I usually get ideas when I visit with patrons using the ferry. This year I had many ferry crossings from people from the larger towns and cities. For most of them, it was their first time crossing the river on the ferry. The norm this year with the riders was, “I didn’t know this was here. We were looking for places to go and things to do in Montana with this pandemic. Man, I am so happy we found the ferry. We will be back. Or I am going to bring my wife and family next time.”

For me staying home is the place I want to be the most. Before I retired, I was on the road daily for a couple of hundred days a year. When summer break came, I stopped traveling every day. I tried not to go to town more than once or twice all summer. Then school started, and I was back on the road about 80 miles every day. I enjoyed the travels as much as staying home at the Virgelle Ferry because I always saw exciting things on the way to Rocky Boy. Usually, it was deer and antelope, coyotes hunting in twos and threes, but I saw a lone wolf traveling North on the railroad tracks a couple of times also. I asked a wildlife biologist about seeing a lone wolf traveling between Big Sandy and Box Elder a couple of times a year, and he said, They travel from Canada because they are looking for a mate.”

But my favorite place is by the Missouri River at the Virgelle Ferry. As a child growing up here, I always had outdoor activities with my brothers and sisters. With ten people growing up in a three-room house for half my childhood, we were outside most of the time, rain or snow. We played baseball and kickball in the field beside the house. We participated in red rover games and tag under the outside yard light on the road by the ferry. In the winter, when the ferry was sitting under the yard light, our favorite game was to play hide and seek in the haul. The haul is about three feet deep, and it has about 20 compartments with a circle hole to enter each one. It was black as hades in the belly of the ferry, so it was scary for a little child. Still, it was one of our favorite things to do. Whoever was the seeker would search for us, usually using touch and sound for locators. When someone touched you, screaming occurred, and the littlest children would start crying and find their way out, a little shaken. The funny thing is we always went back to conquer the fear in the dark and to see if you could outlast all the sisters and brothers.

We had to go into the belly of the ferry with a bucket and shovel to scoop out the dirt and mud that fell through the cracks in the planks; that is another story. That was work! It was not fun to go down into the haul to fill and pack out the buckets of dirt! Removing the soil had to be done, so the weight limit for the loads going across remains the same each year.

I remember complaining every year; it’s not fair that we never get to go anywhere! The only place we went to was someone’s hayfield, fencing, or rock picking with the crew. That really wasn’t going anywhere, but the people we worked for were always kind and would bring us cold beverages, sometimes treats. My favorite kindergarten teacher and neighbor across the river was Martha Stevens. When we worked at their place, she always had lemonade or rootbeer in a can for us; rootbeer was so special. We never got that as a kid. Pop would be an unnecessary item, and for ten people very expensive.

I never thought about my mom always being at home twenty-four seven working at raising the younger family members, her enormous garden, chickens for eggs and butchering (about 200 a year), canning to keep us all fed. And wash day was another colossal adventure every couple of weeks. We did not have running water in the old three-room house. My mom used the old agitating washer with a crank wringer for years. Then she upgraded to one with an electric motor; watch out fingers! She would run a hose in the door or window to fill the washtubs and heat water on the stove for the white clothes. We all worked and played hard together to stay healthy, clean, and be a strong family unit. To this day, family is essential for all of us.

2020 was not a hardship for me to stay by the Missouri River. If I was not gardening, building something, or having family visiting, I was fishing on the river. I ran set lines this spring and took out over a hundred pounds of catfish. I caught my largest northern pike 12 pounds (to be beaten by Brandy with 13 ½ pounds a few weeks later). My grandson Owen caught his first Walleye this summer also. We have a lot of river fun, kayaking, swimming, and adventure walks during the summer.

Yesterday I had a family on the ferry for the first time, and as they were getting ready to leave, one more question was addressed, and the wife said, “Your grandsons are escaping.” I looked over my shoulder, and sure enough, they were running downriver on the bank. I chuckled and told her that I have them race down to the fallen cottonwood tree to get some of the wiggles out. Especially when we have been doing art projects in the house, they laughed and went on their way. Their daughter had just competed in running events at MSUN in Havre. If nothing else, it will be good training for something in their future.


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