Creekboating in southwest Montana.
The ephemeral blue ice floes yawn and stretch in the brilliant reflection of snow-covered peaks. A steady drip soon becomes a trickle; the water glistens between the precipice and the awakening creek bed below. Released from the tortured motions of winter’s depth, the waters once again caress the polished stone and gather the bones of fallen pine. Gurgling now, then babbling, flowing, and pulsing through low-walled canyons, the water plunges over steep cataracts and cascades down the ancient bedrock as if in a mad rush to finally deliver, this very day, the mountains to the sea.
Yet the true power of a river lies far beneath its physical might. All cultures have been drawn to the mystique and deep, soulful energy of running water since the beginning of humankind. But what it is, exactly, that attracts us to this strange and exquisite flow is a daunting question indeed; for as soon as we glimpse our reflections on the surface, we lose the bottom to the depth.
For me, the greatest connection to the river is achieved from the seat of a whitewater kayak. A creekboat, to be precise. Eight-and-a-half feet of heavy-duty plastic painstakingly designed for negotiating rocky, turbulent, inhospitable rivers and creeks fraught with hazard and jeopardy. When handled well, these kayaks are capable of threading fine lines through impossible-looking rapids and plummeting over enormous waterfalls with nary an Eskimo roll between.
Many are quick to dismiss steep creeking as an “adrenaline sport” whose participants are simply desperate for a fix, willing to charge headlong into whatever ludicrous endeavor tickles their fancy the moment they need another high. This absurd oversimplification cheapens the hard work, athleticism, and mental focus required of those who pursue so-called Extreme Sports. Successful runs of difficult rivers and creeks more closely resemble art than a junkie in a spiral of reckless abandon. A solid creekboater must know and understand the medium he or she is working in, including the velocity and temperature of the water, the water’s reaction to obstructions in the stream bed, objective and subjective hazards, how to get oneself and others out of danger, and foremost, knowledge of one’s own limitations.
I am reminded of yoga, in that a kayaker must strive to remain in a state of becoming, always trying, experiencing, learning, and mimicking the river’s flow. Each run is a practice for the next run, until one day you are carving through the crux of a class V+ drop with a smile on your face: focused, relaxed, and immersed in the moment. The adrenaline? ‘Tis merely a happy side-effect of a glorious moment with the river.
For Bozeman-area paddlers, there are many great steep-creeking opportunities within a reasonable driving distance. From Idaho’s panhandle to the incomparable Crazy Mountains, world-class slides, falls, and steep boulder gardens with stunning backdrops await. And although the mighty Gallatin can knock some of your rust off before you hit the swollen Lochsa and other classic Northwest rivers, those who prefer steep and technical creeks will find excellent training grounds right here in our backyard. From early May til mid June, these short-but-sweet blasts of steepness will definitely sharpen your skills, provide great midweek entertainment after a hard day’s work, and will undoubtedly set you up for a banner creek season.
West Fork of the Gallatin
A major tributary of the Gallatin River, the West Fork offers a few really clean Class IV-V drops in the short stretch from the base of Ouzel Falls to the second bridge over the creek. There is a new, ridiculously well-groomed trail all the way to the falls from the Ouzel Falls parking lot. Putting in at the base of Ouzel is a wonderful experience. The thundering 30-foot falls are deafening, and the heavy, swirling mist is at once refreshing and exhilarating. Immediately below the falls the river necks down and launches off an eight-foot ledge, landing in the shadow of an enormous log lodged diagonally across the drop. The log is certainly intimidating but is not currently in a position that poses a great threat to paddlers. You be the judge. After this rapid, the river tears around the corner and over some small slides and ledges, all of which can easily be scouted from the trail on the approach. Be cautious on this swift, steep section of the creek, as flipping upside-down is a sure way to lose some blood, and the power of the shallow hydraulics has caught many paddlers off guard. The second bridge comes fast; but the hike back upstream is short, making multiple runs a breeze. When the West Fork is flowing strong, you can be sure that outstanding playboating opportunities exist on the standard main Gallatin run. Look for flows ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 cfs on the Gallatin USGS gauge, with the overall difficulty rising accordingly with increased flow.
The standard Hyalite Creek run is found alongside the winding road up to Hyalite Reservoir just south of Bozeman. The numerous turnouts provide plenty of options for put-ins and take-outs as well as allowing for a very thorough scout of the entire section. Just make sure you take out well above the very low bridge near the bottom. Proper flows depend on the upstream dam release, and if it looks bony and scrapey, it is. You could leave half your boat behind on a low-water run on this stretch. When flows are up, however, the action is fast- paced and exciting. The nonstop Class IV boulder rapids are spiced up with a few bigger drops while the constricted riverbed forces paddlers to make quick decisions and strong moves to avoid pitons and broaches. At just over 200 feet per mile, with no slides or substantial falls, the continuous, congested boulder gardens are an excellent preparation for the technical mountain rivers found in both the Beartooths and central Idaho. Fun roadside creeks like Hyalite are ideal for stringing together multiple runs, and once you are familiar with the lines, you can bomb this stretch in under 20 minutes.
If you come off Hyalite Creek feeling hungry for something a little stouter, head up above the reservoir for a taste of some fine Montana micro-creeking. When my friend Andy called one May to see if I was interested in checking out a stretch of Upper Hyalite Creek below Grotto Falls that he had been cleaning up, I was skeptical to say the least. I had hiked it before and found nothing that made me want to schlep my boat up that trail. Everything I saw was either unrunnable or completely choked out with wood. But after a very short hike from the Grotto Falls parking area, I was shocked to lay eyes upon a very high-quality, super-steep stretch of sparkling whitewater tumbling down the mountain. The water quality is superb and the entire experience is both intense and intimate. The put-in is a short bushwhack to the creek starting 150 yards or so below Grotto Falls. Put in just above "Twist and Shout"—a beautiful, tight gorgette with three back-to-back pourovers followed by a short, low-angled slide into a cliff wall. Past the cliff, the creek quickly drops off a fun five-foot boof before rocketing down the long crux cascade dubbed "Lil’ Miss Thing"(V). There is a one-boat eddy at the bottom of this drop where you can stop and catch your breath before peeling out into the remaining 200 yards of this fast and furious Class IV+. The take-out is a fairly obvious moving eddy on a left bend in the creek. Take my word, one run will not suffice. It is simply too much fun, and dropping this one from top to bottom without stopping is guaranteed to peel back your lips and leave you grinning from ear to ear. This section of Upper Hyalite flows earlier than the lower run, and we found both sections to be running strong near the end of May and early June. Thanks to Andy for all his hard work cleaning this one up.
Great local whitewater, easy access, beautiful surroundings… these three creeks offer up something for area creekboaters of all skill levels. At once a classroom and a playground, each stream carries a distinct personality and unique character that separates it from the others. The rides are a perfect blend of preparation and destination that is certain to please all who come. Be safe and enjoy.