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For a quarter century, Ron Lodders' friends and acquaintances have known where to find him on New Year's Day - kayaking the Yellowstone River, just downstream from Gardiner.

"Up around Gardiner is about the only place where there's open water," said the Billings attorney. "We tape party hats to our helmets and make it a festive occasion. It's a good way to ring in the new year."

For 24 years, the brave souls willing to paddle the four-mile stretch of ice-clad water have ranged from as few as three on below-zero days to as many as 25 on warmer occasions. The coldest trip was in 1991, when the temperature topped out at minus 6 degrees and ice encased most of the river channel.

"We needed to shower to work the zippers on our dry suits," said Lodders, 60.

Lodders chose that stretch of the Yellowstone River because it's warmed by the geothermally heated waters of the Gardner River, keeping a section of the Yellowstone River's surface ice at bay. The Gardner and Yellowstone rivers join at Gardiner.

This year, the temperature was in the 20s with a brisk, downriver wind.

"The wind is one thing that makes it really uncomfortable," he said.

Kris Gagnon, of Billings, has joined Lodders on the icy trip for about eight years, including the recent float.

"Ron's kind of the reason why the rest of us go out there," Gagnon said.

Lodders is considered one of the "old guard" of Billings-area kayakers, along with paddlers such as Jack Nichols and Alan Bressler. The men pioneered many river and creek routes in the region, back when the boats were longer, heavier and less maneuverable. Lodders also has worked to maintain access to waters in the region and has mentored younger boaters.

"Ron introduced me to a lot of the waters I wouldn't have wanted to brave on my own," said Dale Broveak, 40, of Billings.

Broveak has participated in the New Year's Day float nine out of the last 12 years, including this winter.

"It gives you something to brag about to your friends," he said.

He also likes to mention it when he's working with his engineering clients in warmer climates such as Hawaii and Nevada.

"It's more show than it is danger, though," he added.

Unfortunately for Broveak, he has tested the winter river's danger level by being dunked along the route four times. Three of those times he successfully rolled his kayak back upright. But one time he ended up swimming.

"It gives you a serious ice-cream headache," he said.

For the most part, Lodders said, modern kayaking equipment is good enough that the cold weather isn't much of a problem. Most of the kayakers wear layers of polypropylene or other insulating long underwear underneath a wet suit and topped with a dry jacket. Neoprene hats are cinched underneath helmets and neoprene mittens keep the paddlers' hands warm.

"It's not worse than skiing, if you don't swim," he said.

Lodders made his first New Year's trip in the winter of 1984-85. He had just started kayaking a couple of years before that.

"It was such an overwhelming passion, I wanted to go whenever I could," he said.

His wife, Carla, has shared his passion, going along on the New Year's Day trips for the past 23 years.

They also make occasional winter forays to Cody, Wyo., to paddle the Shoshone River - also heated by hot springs.

As he's aged, though, Lodders said he feels a little less passionate, a little less duty-bound to brave the colder trips. But Carla keeps him on task.

"As Carla reminded me, when we started doing this, we did it because it is hard," Lodders said. "I still get a kick out of it."

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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