Playground, Training Ground, Battleground

The boat slices through the last standing wave and carves smoothly into the placid eddy on my right. The thrill of the upstream rapids courses through my veins while I slowly spin in the calm water.

The banter between the other paddlers swirls around my head, but no words register. My pulse quickens, muscles tense, and breath comes in short, shallow bursts. I avert my eyes from what lays downstream and try to focus on the water slowly passing in front of the kayak. Breathe. Just breathe…

For a moment, I lose myself between the ancient, rounded stones on the bottom and the brilliant depth of the surface reflection. It is but a fleeting glimpse of the river’s true power. A small taste of a place where there is no place. Where introspection can radically alter the physical realm without disturbing the inevitable flow. I can do this. I will do this. It is time. My focus slowly returns to my kayak and the word “PERCEPTION” stamped above the logo of an eye.

“You comin’?” calls out the second-to-last paddler.

I look up just in time to see the lead boater disappear into the churning rapid while the rest of the group drifts, nearly motionless, in a single-file line, accelerating as the river necks down and gains momentum.I peel out well behind the group. The river pulls me forward, rushing headlong down the increasing gradient before slamming into the enormous boulder in the center of the river. I am transfixed by the massive stone and the chaotic water pulsating near the base.

The legendary House Rock is guarding the entrance to my first consequential rapid. All the scouting from shore has not fully prepared me for this approach… My loss of focus is followed in short order by my first sub-aquatic “moment of reckoning” which, in turn, is rectified by my first combat roll. As many other local boaters can attest, there is no air sweeter between Bozeman and Big Sky than can be found just below “House.” I gulp in the glorious O2 and compose myself in time to execute the remaining moves needed to negotiate the boulder field. Life will never be quite the same.

In many respects, House Rock is the true center of the local paddling community. For paddlers, it is a battleground, a proving ground, a training ground or a playground, dependent upon season and skillset. Generations of local legends and world-class paddlers have cut their teeth here, running laps in the evenings to keep in shape for forays into the world of extreme whitewater exploits.

It remains a place where these generations can unite, boat together, and swap stories.Tales of big-water years, when the river spilled over the top of House, abound, replete with the names of those that managed to boof over the top and clear the nauseating hydraulic behind. There is the classic story of the commercial raft completely wrapped around Papoose (the smaller rock directly in front of House Rock) with passengers stranded atop the rock and left to wonder if things would ever be all good again. Of course, there are wild tales of burly loggers and the dynamite that helped get the rock where she sits today.But perhaps my favorite House Rock tale is of the kayaker who, at extremely high water, was not to be denied a complete run by the large log firmly wedged between House and the shore. Eddying out just above the log, he pulled a small chainsaw from his creek boat and slowly worked his way to the center of the log. Bobbing just above the raging torrent, he deftly cut the 20-foot log in half, tossed the chainsaw to shore as the current snapped the log, and rode the up-stream half through the boulder field, catching an eddy at the bottom of the rapid. From there, he walked back up to House Rock, hopped in his boat and finished the run without incident.

House has also been the site of some intense downriver racing. Large groups of boaters, starting Lemond-style a mere 200 feet upstream, would reach the narrowing channel in clusters, paddles clacking and boats banging, in a high-stakes game of chicken and sabotage. All of this to secure the sweet, low-key glory granted to the Boatercross Champ.

It has been home to the first, and sometimes last, swims of many an aspiring kayaker and has helped to soak the ground at the take-out with many celebratory brews and redemptive bootie beers. I cannot count the times I have come upon a disheveled paddler doing the walk of shame on the highway, sans paddle, his or her boat bobbing along downstream with friends in hot pursuit, licking their chops at the prospect of some good-natured ribbing at the take-out ceremony. All in good fun, when things turn out well–yet we should certainly not forget or downplay House Rock and its inherent dangers. Several people have lost their lives here, and though it’s not considered an extremely difficult stretch of river, the combination of cold water and inexperience has too often led to untold heartache. May those who passed here rest in peace.

Regardless of one’s attachment to the world of whitewater, House Rock conjures up powerful images to all that hear the name. It is a place where natural beauty and unrelenting ferocity can seamlessly coexist, reminding us to be at once humble and appreciative of the majesty that both surrounds us and inspires us to play in the midst. For the uninitiated, it is also a grand stage for observation and a handy reference point for the kind souls striking up brief conversations with those grinning, soggy hitchhikers befouling their automobile.

After paddling the Gallatin for some 15 seasons, House Rock has become an old friend. I often catch the micro-eddy between Papoose and House so I can watch the other paddlers in the group come through. On days when I am solo, I tend to linger there. Looking back upstream, I think of all the faces that have floated past me here and the great times we have shared together on the river. I think about the mighty Gallatin and how fortunate I am that my favorite place on the river feels like home.

Photos by Bill Bilverstone, Pat Clayton, Mike Haring