Cascading out of the Prokletije mountains, the Tara River has cut a 4,200-foot-deep gorge in northern Montenegro. | Photo by montenegro.com
"It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and . . . discuss about whether they was made or only just happened."
—Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The water is low as we toss our rafts into a current running thin and as clear as glass over the speckled river bottom. But each spring, I'm told, snowmelt rushes through, tripling the size of Montenegro's Tara River.
The Tara's flow has carved a gorge second in depth only to the Grand Canyon, and nearly its equal in beauty. Smoky clouds linger near the canyon rim. Lower, black pines thrust up through thick foliage, and underground springs gush from rock walls, feeding swaths of moss before spilling into the river. Trout flit away from our paddle strokes.
Just downstream from our put-in, we find pieces of a log raft strewn about the bank, remnants of a once-proud platform, with massive oars front and back—something Huck Finn might have used if the Mississippi had whitewater.
The broken raft triggers thoughts of the fight that nearly killed this place. For decades, loggers ran lumber downstream on the big water, riding rafts lashed together from felled trees. Back then, when the Tara served as a liquid highway for timber interests, no one talked of obstructing its flow. But as loggers turned to trucks, government officials made plans to flood the gorge with a hydroelectric dam. Five years ago, a massive public outcry stopped the project; protesters rallied around the phrase "Necu baru, hocu Taru" ("We don't want a puddle, we want the Tara"). Now the Tara fuels Montenegro's burgeoning tourism industry.
But another dam proposal is in the works, and I wonder how long seasonal revenue from foreign river runners can hold off the economic promise of cheap megawatts. Part of me thinks only magic or a miracle could permanently preserve this flow. But as we steer through 20-foot-tall boulders that have been flicked into place like pebbles and kiss the canyon wall to drink from a waterfall gushing straight from the rock, neither seems in short supply. —Peter Frick-Wright