Lessons from the Gallatin. 

The ability to easily and cheaply rent professional-grade whitewater rafts in Bozeman is a beautiful thing. It allows inexperienced, impulsive morons like me and my friends to get into potentially hazardous, hydraulically charged situations with a minimum of paperwork or forethought. Adventure typically ensues.

In June, the Gallatin River reaches peak flow, air temperatures start rising, and the hardcore river rats—who’ve been playing in the frigid water for weeks already—begin to see their testicles again. It’s when bad ideas start creeping into ignorant minds. A few years ago, just such an idea came to me.

I had rented rafts before, and felt pretty comfortable at the stern of a boat. Kind of like how the captain of the Titanic must have felt. (“Oh, I SO have this shit under control. Seriously. What could possibly happen?”) So, with visions of heroic whitewater exploits, I convinced two buddies to join me for a peak CFM run down the Gallatin. A long one.

The plan was to float approximately 20 miles, from the Big Sky turnoff down to Spanish Creek, in a 13-foot long, red-and-black-striped rubber dinghy, with only half the recommended crew. We had no idea how long it would take, what the rapids would look like, or how we might feel after an entire day of soaking in ice water. We’d work it out.

When I dropped my truck at the take-out, the sun was high, the sky was clear, birds were chirping, and Julie Andrews was singing somewhere nearby. It was so pleasant, in fact, that I failed to check the weather forecast.

We pumped up the raft in 70°F sunshine, next to the swiftly flowing Gallatin. We wore bike helmets from home (safety first!), surf shorts, sandals, and t-shirts under our PFDs. But we weren’t complete idiots; we had beer and beef jerky for sustenance.

The river was moving smoothly and swiftly on the upper stretch. A moose grazed in an oxbow. A bald eagle stared from a snag above a riverbend. We drank our beer and ate our jerky, and talked about how fast the river was moving. “We’ll make it in no time,” we said. “It’ll be a blast,” we said.

“You’re totally hosed,” said the river, gurgling beneath the raft.

Then the sky darkened, and the temperature dropped faster than the value of Yellowstone Club property. We paddled hard to stay warm and bounced through the first small, juicy rapids. Then it began to rain.

We were soaked and shivering in a matter of seconds. The air temperature was around 45°F and dropping, and I began to feel like the lime in a gin and tonic—saturated, freezing, and pretty damn sour about the whole thing.

From Greek Creek, the misery only intensified. The rain turned to hail, and it peppered our bike helmets like beach gravel flung from the spiteful hand of Poseidon. It collected in the raft and covered our sandaled feet, which in turn began to look like frozen cod fillets. We were in Hell, thirty feet from a highway.

And then we turned a corner and saw House Rock. Or rather, the gable of House Rock. Most of the giant boulder lay beneath the churning current, and as we approached, both Miguel and Lauren mysteriously fell out of the raft. Cowards. I was left to herd the raft downriver alone, which is akin to riding an ostrich: It can be done, just not by me.

Then we dropped into a particularly deep hole, and as the back of the raft cleared its sucking grasp, the water peeled me off the back of the boat like an oyster slurped from its shell.

I sputtered to the surface to discover the raft’s safety line in one hand and my paddle still miraculously in the other. (The only rule of rental-rafting: always get your deposit back.) I dragged myself into the raft, shivering with epileptic intensity, and took stock of our situation:
1. We were completely hypothermic and exhausted.
2. The rapids were constant and burly.
3. It was (still) hailing.
4. We were out of beer.
Yep, good times.

Finally, after 27 years on the river, we dragged the raft to shore and stumbled on numb legs to my truck. We crammed into the tiny cab, cranked the heater, and sat for close to an hour as the heater blasted and sensation returned to our bodies. I still have no feeling in my right buttock.

Miguel’s car sat next to the put-in for two days before we could muster the motivation to retrieve it. On the windshield was a parking ticket from the Highway Patrol, with a note. “Hope you’re OK, the river is running pretty high…”

Drew Pogge, former editor of Backcountry and Outside Bozeman’s former editor-at-large, is the current favorite for inheriting Livingston writer Tim Cahill’s title as the Mishap Maestro of Montana.