A Rookie Runs Through It

kayaking, boating, whitewater

One newcomer’s account of Bozeman-area whitewater. 

My kayak was bone dry. It traveled 2,000 miles from Georgia to Bozeman, my new home, only to collect dust in the garage. Outside, the rivers swelled with snowmelt. Inside, a newcomer contemplated where to begin.

New rapids and new paddling partners awaited, both of which would surpass my expectations and push me to the brink of my abilities. But where would I start?

I wanted a local’s advice before braving the rivers, so I drove out to Northern Lights and asked an employee for suggestions. She spread a topo map across the counter and pointed to three popular paddling destinations: Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone; the Mad Mile on the Gallatin; and Bear Trap Canyon on the Madison.

Yankee Jim was the easiest of the three, she said. She advised me to start there, and to join the Facebook page “Bozeman Whitewater” for partners. Indeed, Yankee Jim was exactly what I needed—exciting yet manageable class III whitewater. Next, I wanted a bigger challenge. My partners suggested the Mad Mile.

The Gallatin Whitewater Festival, an annual kayaking race, took place the following month, so I registered. It was baptism by fire: I finished last out of 22 competitors. Nonetheless, a poor showing was better than none at all. The Gallatin became my go-to river due to its proximity to Bozeman. More importantly, other kayakers from the festival gave me their phone numbers and, soon thereafter, introduced me to my favorite whitewater run in southwest Montana: Bear Trap Canyon.

Like Yankee Jim, Bear Trap is a haul from Bozeman, but it’s worth the effort. It winds through the Lee Metcalf Wilderness without a road in sight, cliffs towering over thrilling rapids. I explored every wave and eddy, monitored flows, arranged shuttles, and slogged up the highway with an outstretched thumb. Then, one day, a flawed paddlestroke shattered my rhythm.

My buddies had shepherded me down Bear Trap many times that season, but the Kitchen Sink still scared me. Crowds formed beside it; paddlers often scouted or bypassed it entirely, watching as others went down. 

At the top of the Kitchen Sink, I miscalculated. My boat drifted left, out of the main flow, and toppled sideways over the first drop. The hydraulic jerked me upside down, and I pulled my skirt. Keenly aware of the dozen pairs of eyes on me, I tumbled through broken water and sharp rocks. A member of the crowd yelled over the current, tossed a throw bag, and pulled me to safety.

Trembling with adrenaline on the shore, I assessed the scrapes on my legs, tracked down my boat and paddle, and found my rescuer. After thanking him, I introduced myself, and we watched more paddlers descend the Kitchen Sink. As each kayak sliced through the raging current, I was overcome with admiration—for the boaters, and for the river.

Newcomers from beginner to expert have a place in the Bozeman paddling community, but finding that place can be challenging. Don’t be discouraged: although many rapids are intimidating, Bozeman paddlers are not. Ask questions and travel just outside your comfort zone. Soon enough, you’ll be a local river rat like the rest.