GARDINER — Standing on the edge of the Yellowstone River, I watched the clear sparkling water flow by with a steady roar. Taking it all in and gazing up the canyon, my stomach churned along with the rapids, and my heart raced in anticipation of the whitewater float ahead.
The town above was bustling as summer river season kicked into high gear. It was a hot Sunday in late July, and Gardiner's rafting companies were running full-tilt, shuttling guests and gear along its banks.
At the river's edge, I asked a group of boaters if they had floated this section recently. A woman in the group replied, "No, but it sure looks fun." We traded well wishes and smiles as they pushed off and entered the Gardiner Town Stretch - a whitewater wave-train about two river miles long. Within minutes, the group of three kayakers floated under a bridge a quarter mile away and disappeared around the bend.
"The Town Stretch is mostly class I and II rapids," said Steve Bierle, owner of Flying Pig Adventure Co. "It's running prime time right now and you'll get good roller coaster waves and big splashes. It's especially fun for families."
From high-water in late-May to easier conditions in July through September, floating the Town Stretch is a thrill, no matter the season. This year's ample snowpack and peak runoff in late May-early June gave the Flying Pig guides the chance to train in high-water conditions and, "were 100 percent dialed in before the main client season," said Bierle.
Generally, boaters take a half-day float from Gardiner to Brogan's Landing access site. In high water, this eight-mile float can be done in about an hour. Later in the season, it can take more than 2 hours, depending on scenic stops. By July and August, kids can hop in the river and swim with the raft and play in the calm water stretches. Those looking for more adventure can take an 18-mile trip and paddle through Yankee Jim Canyon - an area that holds the biggest waves on the river and is rated up to class lV during peak flows.
As I started my journey, my heart pounded with excitement. I grabbed my paddle and pushed my inflatable kayak into the clear, emerald water.
Within seconds, I was drenched by the spray of the first rapid; I expected to get wet and didn't mind at all because the cool water was refreshing in the hot afternoon sun. Guided by the current, my boat drifted under the town's main bridge where two large waves boosted me up, in what felt like 4-foot swells. My kayak bobbed easily up and down the first wave and as I glided over the second, I let out an adrenaline-filled holler. The fun was just beginning.
Up ahead I skirted around Man-eater rapid, formed by a large rock in the middle of the river, and then made my way past Rock Garden, a sprawling section of rocks that were mostly still covered by surging water. Within 10 minutes, I left town behind and entered the Gardiner Basin area. In this wider area, the river transitioned to smoother water punctuated by lively whitewater sections. From there, the trip took a scenic twist with views of Electric Peak and Devils Slide farther down the river.
From the boat, I could hear the hum of the highway and see a steady stream of refurbished school buses that the raft companies use to ferry guests and rafts back and forth from Gardiner. Tourists and boaters weren't the only ones using the river this time of year, though. As I quietly floated by, an osprey spread its wings and flew from its nest overlooking the river. Bierly said animals such as elk, deer and the occasional bison are common sightings along this stretch. Moose and river otters have been spotted as well.
The roar of whitewater once again caught my attention as I made it through Toad's Head and Sleeping Giant rapids before exiting at Brogan's Landing. Packing my boat on the car, I felt refreshed and content and was already looking forward to floating the Town Stretch again.
Bierle expects this memorable season on the Yellowstone to keep getting better even as water levels recede. For instance, some rapids like Sleeping Giant and Toad's Head will get deeper and offer even bigger splashes and better photo opportunities as the season winds down.
"If we could script a season, this would be the one," he said.