My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Picnic, Bugs and a Boat Ride

This story was written in 1995, published in the May-June 1995 issue of The Montana Journal. A trip to Flathead Lake provides a memorable day away from the homestead.

The year was 1920 or '21 and the Northern Pacific Railroad was sponsoring a picnic for its workers and their families on Wild Horse Island. My auntie declared she seriously doubted the wisdom of taking four young children so far into the unknown. Her reluctance was heightened by the fact that we would have to ride a boat to get from Polson to the island. But my uncle and we older children overrode her objections and faced the adventure head-on.

First things first. We would get our first ride on the comparatively new Polson "stub"—an engine, a baggage car, and a passenger car—clear to Polson, a town somewhere in the distance that we had never seen. We boarded the train at Evaro and it stopped all along the way to pick up the pleasure seekers. Soon the cinders and coal smoke became mixed with the aroma of picnic food. We were so enthralled with the train ride that I can't remember a thing that was packed in our basket.

We kids were breathless at the sight of so much water as we followed the crowd along the boardwalk at the wharf. I inched my way past the little unpainted sheds at the boat docks because they were literally plastered with bugs that I'd never seen before. Someone told us they were salmon flies.

Our boat, The Klondike, was supposed to take us to the island, but she was late coming back from Sommers so, after an impatient wait we were put on board The Montana instead. It was lucky thing that auntie didn't know what was to transpire. We met the Klondike somewhere out on the water and made a transfer! The gang plank was down. Auntie turned green and clutched her smallest child, throwing the rest of us a glance that looked as if she never expected to see us again.

"Don't look down," she admonished. So we looked down to see what we should not look down for. It was unbelievable—all that green depth gently undulating between the two boats. A man stood on the gang plank taking our hands to see us safely over, and everyone, including auntie, came across dry!

The State of Montana steamboat and the Polson stub at Somers, Mont., 1910. Courtesy Mansfield Library.

We kids explored the little game trails that marked the island after being cautioned not to get lost. Too soon we headed back to the boat. I was fascinated by the big paddlewheel, and we ran freely up and down the steps and along the decks, savoring every minute. Too soon again we were back at the wharf, and the crowd began to disperse.

In those days, lots of people had but one dress-up outfit, and everyone donned their best wherever they went. The flapper days introduced some new standards, and one of these was the advent of the "see-through" dress. I had noticed a girl of about sixteen in a beautiful blue organdy creation, but the neckline was quite low and had a noticeable gap. (My auntie would have remedied that!)

Suddenly everyone froze, startled faces turned toward an ear-splitting shriek. It was the girl in the blue, but the alarm soon turned to suppressed smiles while she jumped up and down, making wild grabs at her bosom where a handful of those winged critters had somehow gotten down the gaping front of her dress. The bugs had to have help, and a pretty safe bet would be a vindictive younger brother making a fast exit among the crowd.

The smaller kids got tired and cranky on the ride home. But I relived the events of the day again and again—my first trip to the outer world. As for my auntie and her fear of water, I know that she was more than happy to be back on dry land and to have her brood where she knew what we were doing—most of the time, anyway.