GARDINER — For Montana’s recreational whitewater boaters, this spring’s high river flows have been a hoot — a long, primal hoot.
“I like the adrenaline of the big whitewater,” said Nikki Diedrich, 22, a guide for Montana Whitewater Raft Co. at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
The appeal was so strong that two days earlier she had rafted the Yellowstone River through the locally famous Yankee Jim Canyon with other guides when the flow was a crushing 18,000 cubic feet per second. With that much water, waves with names like Boxcar, Revenge and Big Rock were monstrous.
“It was a really fun trip,” she said, and grinned widely. “There were some really big hits. It was exciting.”
The water was so huge at 22,000 cfs that Wild West Rafting guide Kasara Batzler’s boat flipped when it hit Boxcar Rapid.
“The canyon is big right now. I took quite the swim,” she said while standing on the banks of the river last Wednesday in a wetsuit during a swiftwater rescue refresher course. “I was under water for about 10 seconds.
“But training in general helps you stay calm in those types of situations,” she said.
On a roil
Montana is experiencing an epic whitewater season. With mountain snowpack still over 100 percent in many drainages, river flows seem to have peaked and are trending down but still remain above average. In a week the upper Yellowstone River had dropped about 4,000 cfs but was still about 4,000 cfs above the long-term median flow. The upper Yellowstone drainage’s snowpack was still averaging 144 percent of median.
Spring snowmelt feeds the loud, crashing waves on rivers like the Yellowstone that are mesmerizing in their power. Approaching their hulking forms inspires awe in boaters who blast over the swells in an explosion of ice-cold whitewater. Around the state places like the Alberton Gorge, the Gallatin River’s House Rock and the Stillwater River’s Mad Max are prime right now for whitewater boaters. Over the border in Idaho along Highway 12, the Lochsa River’s huge boat-eating hydraulics annually draw gawking crowds along the riverbank. The people are hoping to see, video or photograph the spectacular carnage of flipped boats, or celebrations of stunned paddlers’ successful navigation.
“Right now they’re a raging good time,” said John Cramp, rafting manager for Montana Whitewater Raft Co. in Gardiner and Bozeman.
Rafting and floating ranked No. 4 in a 2007 University of Montana survey of money-generating outfitting businesses in the state, bringing in about $6 million in 2005 just behind horseback riding. If combined with kayak and canoe outfitted trips, which pulled in $1.7 million, it would easily outdistance horseback riding but still be a long way behind the top two outfitting businesses: hunting, at No. 1, and fishing.
Some of the interesting details the study found out about recreational boating clients were that more people take the trips, including more Montanans, but they “spend the least amount of time and money in the state and are the least likely to have come to Montana specifically for the guided trip,” partly because so many are already from Montana.
Also of note were the top five experiences of the boating clients: 1. Enjoyed the smells and sounds of nature; 2. Experienced excitement; 3. Was close to nature; 4. Had thrills; and 5. Felt exhilaration. So, three out of the five experiences related to thrills, excitement and exhilaration. That’s whitewater boating, which is fueled by big spring runoff like this year’s.
But high water is also a mixed blessing. A swirling, muddy river may intimidate out-of-state rafting clients. It keeps companies like Cramp’s off bigger water, like House Rock on the Gallatin River, until it subsides to a safer level — 3,500 cfs.
Last week the Yellowstone River
finally dropped to the threshold for commercial trips down Yankee Jim Canyon — below 18,000 cfs. Matthew Smiley and his family of four were some of the first guests to run that stretch.
“We’re up here for a week so this is one of our planned activities,” said the Tyler, Texas, resident. “We heard about it through (the travel website) TripAdvisor.”
Although Smiley said he likes river trips for the different views they offer of the mountains and valleys compared to scenes from the road, his 13-year-old son was more interested in the big rapids.
“It’s fun because you’re going down the river fast,” said Jackson Smiley. “The waves make it more interesting.”
As Rob Trotter, owner of Yellowstone Raft Co., stepped aside from a whitewater rescue course on the banks of the river, he pointed a thumb back to the milk chocolate-colored water and said, “There isn’t a rock on this river right now. It’s deep and swift.”
The river was flowing at 17,900 cfs, which he equated to 17,900 basketballs floating by every second. Taking turns, the class of about 20 practiced pulling a victim out of the river using different techniques. Everyone was wearing lifejackets, wetsuits or drysuits and helmets as protection. Still, the water was chilly.
“Today’s river is yesterday’s snowpack, so it’s cold,” Mike Johnston, an instructor and co-founder of Whitewater Rescue Institute, told the group as they gathered on the beach at Brogan’s Landing fishing access site.
Johnston noted that for rafters and other river enthusiasts, recreation at this time of the year means preparation.
“Shorts, T-shirts and flip flops don’t cut it in springtime Montana,” he said.
He advised the group that it is OK not to try to rescue someone, noting that more firefighters die of drowning than from fires.
“The old saying is don’t just do something, stand there,” he said. “So it’s OK not to go.”
Those who do dive in to attempt a rescue should always have a backup plan for self-rescue, Johnston advised.
Park County search and rescue member Doug MacCartney was taking part in the training. He said the number of water rescues in his riverside community varies widely from year to year and even day to day.
“I went a year without any kind of call and then had two in one day,” he said, shaking his head at the oddity.
When asked if there was any common denominator to the river rescue calls the county gets, MacCartney said, “The biggest thing is people just not really being prepared, whether it’s drinking or not the right gear or not the right craft. Folks who are well prepared usually do fine.”
The allure of whitewater draws people from far away. Diedrich, who grew up in Spearfish, S.D., said she has wanted to be a rafting guide her whole life and got hooked on her first trip down the Snake River, outside of Jackson Hole, Wyo., when she was 15.
Last summer, she moved to Gardiner for her first season of guiding.
“I fell in love with it,” she said. “It’s a fun job.”
Diedrich said she’s always been a “water nut,” competing as a swimmer in high school. And since signing on as a guide, she’s been taking a lot of “play trips” down the river without clients in the evening.
“The smaller the boats the bigger the waves look,” she said. “I like these waves.”
Cramp arrived at the free-flowing Yellowstone and Gallatin rivers after guiding on dam-controlled rivers in Oregon, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
“The Yellowstone is a different style river,” he said. “It’s a bigger water run.”
Batzler said she moved to Montana right after graduating high school in Iowa to become a whitewater guide. She’s now in her fourth season and can’t get enough of the big waves that come with spring runoff. It’s a boating challenge she relishes.
“You definitely have to be on your game,” she said.