Carefree Highway

Packrafting perspectives on the Madison.

Someone wiser than me once said that everything is in a constant state of decay. Initially, I dismissed this claim entirely. But after thinking about it, I decided that he had an argument. Further discussion transpired, and we agreed that “decay” was too pointed of a word. Not everything—like a dead tree, or the chainsaw used to cut it down, or aspects of the American political system—had deteriorating elements to it. We liked “change” better, and nothing we could think of was devoid of it. From the towns we grow up in, to the rivers we run, to the relationships along the way.  

Spring is a great time to notice it, too. Songbirds return, flowers bloom, and a certain some of us trade skiing for life on the water. We swap poles for paddles, backpacks for dry tops, and sometimes even the people we hang out with. There’s no metric more dramatic than swollen streams, and on a warm sunny morning in April, I’m reminded just how wonderful change can be.

Mike picks us up at eight in the morning. The sun is rising fast. For the first time, it feels like summer is on its way. We drive west on Hwy. 84 into warm light reflecting off winter’s dead grasses while a blue sky beams overhead. When we hit the Madison at Black’s Ford, rolling water greets us happily. It’s a great day in southwest Montana.

packrafting, madison river, beartrap canyon

There are only two other rigs in the south Beartrap parking lot when we pull up. With packs pre-loaded, it takes only a couple minutes to gear up for the hike in. We do a quick double-check—“Paddles? PFDs? Repair kit?”—then set off into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. 

For the first few miles, I walk quietly in the back while Ashley and Mike spin yarns and get to know each other. Ashley is my girlfriend and Mike is my editor. All three of us have spent time in Beartrap Canyon, but never together, and none of us have packrafted it. As we pass distinct landmarks on the trail, we share personal memories of the river. I remember a college backpacking trip; Mike tells us about a burly brown trout that got away; Ashley recollects a family boating trip with her grandpa in which she paddled Beartrap in an inflatable duckie.

When we reach the Kitchen Sink, we sit down for a snack. The waves are menacing for this time of year—not at all how I remember them—and the pounding water makes it hard to hear each other. After a careful scout, we opt not to run it, but instead put in at the eddy below. Weenies? Perhaps. Wise? Probably.

Before rigging up, Mike takes out his fishing pole and tries his luck below the rapid while Ashley and I soak up the springtime sun. Time passes slow and I sink into the carefree feeling of the day. It feels good to not have anything else to do but paddle home. We blow up our boats, load gear, and shove off into the lower class II/III rapids—giggle water, as Ashley calls it. After whooping our way up and over Green Wave, we gush excitedly at how cool packrafting is. It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s convenient. And it’s changed the way we look at river systems.

The first time my dad took me into the Beartrap Canyon I could barely walk. The first time I rode in a boat from Ennis Lake to Warm Springs I was a freshman in high school. I’d done both many times since, but never in the same day, or without a shuttle. This combination allows me to appreciate a familiar place from a new perspective—a vantage gained through packrafting.

We surf standing waves and fish promising holes all the way to the takeout, where both parked cars are now gone. Mike breaks out riverbank après, which we enjoy while de-rigging boats in fading light. The day’s almost over, and so is our springtime paddling season in southwest Montana. Next week I’ll be up in Alaska to start training for fire season. Ashley will take a teaching gig in Idaho, and Mike will bury himself in the office to prepare for the next issue of O/B. We sip beers and eat food into the night, reminiscing on the day and excited for the changes ahead.


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