An epic crash on Montana's steepest creek.
Shouldering heavy kayaks, we opened the gate and started up the rocky trail. One mile of steep hiking separated us from our put-in rapid. The crew consisted of Joe, Connor, Nick, Zach, and me: five dirtbags whose only real concern was chasing flowing water. A day earlier, I’d seen internet spray from some high-profile kayakers who had just run the infamous Big Timber Creek. They were the first group of the year, and we wanted to be the second.
A few hundred yards up the trail, we dropped our boats and wandered down to look at the final drop—Big Timber Falls. This intimidating cascade plummets almost 80 feet in a series of falls and is awe-inspiring to say the least. I wanted to run it, but that decision would come later. We had some hiking and kayaking to do before returning to this frothing beast.
We crested the final hill and caught a glimpse of our first rapid—No Worries Falls—a double-stage drop falling over 20 feet. Connor wrestled a fallen tree out of the river and it was on. We lined up above and started firing off the falls, giggling and hooting down the section of mellow rapids and steep slides below. My boat made the “BOOF” sound as I landed, roosting out of the ledge drops; it’s a feeling like no other, except maybe a powder day in May.
Soon came the Pinch—by far the most aesthetic rapid on the run, and one that evokes significant fear. It’s a 100-foot slide with three rolling kickers. The cliff walls constrict at the bottom to barely a boat’s width, just as your kayak reaches its maximum velocity.
I pushed off shore after Connor, entered in control, but quickly lost it as I sailed over each kicker. My kayak bounced and I dragged my paddle, wildly trying to control the trajectory of my boat. Finally, I blasted through the tight slot and was howling in adrenaline-fueled elation.
As we exited the gorge, there was a moment of relief muffled by the lingering stoke. We ran the final slide, punched through the last hydraulic, and got out of our kayaks. Then Joe said, “There’s still one more rapid. Who wants it?”
There stood the frothing beast again. The entry pool has a 30-footer spewing into it from above. The water exits far right through a slot, where it gains speed and slides another 12 feet onto a kicker flake that explodes water into the air. The goal is to go right of the flake, banking around a sliding corner and into another 25-foot falls. It is, without a doubt, the crown jewel of the run—I was terrified.
I let out a hoot as he fell into what looked like the perfect line. Suddenly, he smashed into the flake and soared through the air.
Unable to help in any way, I watched as he flipped and tumbled down the rock.
Joe and I decided we were going to go for it. Connor took my camera to document the run, while the others set up for safety on the ledges below—unpacking throw-ropes and discussing the worst-case scenario of an unconscious paddler.
I watched from above as Joe got in his boat, swirled around the recirculating pool, and waited for his moment to drop. Finally, he ferried into the current and dropped through the slot.
I quickly ran to the edge of the cliff as I looked for him in the pool below. The safety team looked flustered, but then I saw him paddle into the safe zone. Shocked, I received the “all-good” signal.
“Holy shit,” I said out loud as I wandered back to my boat. Now it was my turn. I visualized the line over again in my head, fighting away the flashes of Joe tumbling down the creek. I breathed in deeply trying to control the fear. I got in my boat, ferried, and dropped in.
The flake shot water upward like a giant rooster-tail as I accelerated past it. I banked around the final corner and immediately felt relief as I saw the lip of the final fall. I felt momentarily weightless before getting rocked backward by water hitting my chest as I landed in the pool. My veins pulsed with adrenaline as I shook the water from my eyes and paddled up to Joe.
He had a pained expression on his face. The skin was shaved off his knuckles and he had smashed his ribs tumbling through the rock. All in all, he was in better shape than I expected. “Nice line dude, but now you have to help me climb out of here,” he said.
We all got out of the river and helped him carry his boat the short distance back to the pickup. Ending the day with nothing more than some jacked ribs, bloody knuckles, and bruised egos, we headed back down the bumpy road toward town.
Later, we found ourselves sitting at the Thirsty Turtle, one of Big Timber’s finest watering holes, counting our blessings over some pale ales. The waitress came to take our order and Joe spoke first. “I guess I’m gonna get the Jacked Up burger, ’cus I got jacked up today!” She looked at us strangely as we all laughed.