EAST MISSOULA — As cruise director for the Love Boat Club, Andrew “Gonzo” Gonzales looked more like a herder of aquatic cats.
In the Clark Fork River eddy off Sha-Ron Fishing Access, more than 30 color-splattered kayaks and stand-up paddleboards bobbed about. A slightly anxious mother made sure her son’s helmet was secure as a burly man in a playboat that looked a size too small lunged through a series of Eskimo rolls. With a shout and a wave of a paddle, Gonzales called the float together.
“Watch out for everybody,” he yelled to the ring of paddlers. “If somebody flips, help them out. Let’s kick butt!”
And with the cohesion of a spilled tropical fish tank, the Tuesday evening Love Boat Cruise surged into the current.
Now in its third summer, the Last Best Ski and Paddle Shop’s weekly gathering has grown from a few friends to dozens of participants. Some come to try out a kayak model. Some bring their own boats. All come for the fun.
“People don’t realize how easy and convenient it is to come out here for a few hours,” said Ryan Witkowski, a long-time friend of Gonzales’ who brought his sister and brother-in-law to the float. Each trip covers the same popular tuber’s reach from Sha-Ron to Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula. But the water looks different when corseted in a spray skirt on a craft designed to capsize on command.
Gonzales spent several years as a guide with Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures raft trips before taking his love of kayaks to a more entrepreneurial level. He now runs the boating side of Last Best Ski and Paddle, one of the few kayak dealers in western Montana. The Tuesday floats are free to anyone willing to get wet.
As a fellow sports-gear businessman, Zach Ford said he liked finding ways to help another entrepreneur build a market. And personally, he said he’d always been intrigued by kayaking but was put off by the learning curve.
“For me, the whole reason I got into kayaking was they offered this community event,” the owner of the Sports Exchange said. “Everything involved in any sort of water sports is a little overwhelming. If you roll your kayak, do you know how to get back over? Would you know what to do if somebody has an accident or incident? This gave me the confidence to be willing to try and do it. I knew I’d have experienced kayakers with me to guide me through this little adventure.”
Impromptu clinics broke out around every bend of the river. Most of the Clark Fork below East Missoula flows comfortably slow, but Austin Cantrell scrambled to every rock big enough to raise a pillow of water to demonstrate how to ride a wave. Gonzales and Witkowski stayed close to a group of pre-teen boys apprehensive about just how easy it was to return to air after a dunking. A couple of demonstrations later, Bobby Gutman decided he could handle the “T-rescue” move where one paddler grabs another amidships and pulls the boat upright.
“It’s an awesome way to get free instruction,” said novice kayaker Clara Moisey. “I grew up rafting, and I’m only now learning how to kayak. I had no idea they did this on Tuesdays. It’s really cool.”
Other than the diversion dam by the University of Montana campus and Brennan’s Wave by Caras Park, the float offered plenty of time to socialize. Rachel Schmidt attached a waterproof speaker to her paddleboard, providing tunes for whomever cruised nearby. Several people brought coolers of soda and beer to share.
The last Love Boat float of 2017 takes place on Saturday, Aug. 26, with a slight route change. Instead of the Spruce Street kayak shop parking lot, the event will shuttle to Sha-Ron from Western Cider by the California Street pedestrian bridge, with live music to cap the night.
“It started as a way to raise river awareness,” Cantrell said. “This turned from dream to reality pretty quickly.”