Paddling the Bear Trap mid-winter.
As winter rolls in and the snow begins to pile up, the high-flowing rivers we saw in spring and summer become skeletons of what they once were. Low flows and chilly weather are the signs for whitewater boaters to hang up their PFDs, tuck their paddles away, and roll up their rafts. But southwest Montana’s paddlers aren’t like most whitewater boaters.
Thanks to a reserved water right, Bear Trap Canyon has a constant instream flow of 1,100 cfs year-round, which can rise depending on weather, season, and water release. Part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, Bear Trap is accessible to float anytime of the year—whether you go on a warm summer day, under the light of a full moon, or in the dead of winter.
Besides the sound of rushing river water and the occasional whistling of an eagle, silence can be found within the canyon walls and ice-covered rock.
This isn’t meant to be some crazy “go rafting or kayaking in negative-degree weather” idea. It’s simply for the folks who don’t want to say goodbye to whitewater, and instead want to take advantage of the dam-release system on the Madison River, especially on the warmer bluebird winter days. If you have a dry suit, pogies, whitewater experience, and maybe a couple loose screws, you’re all set. A beanie and extra layers in a dry bag go a long way, too.
Running this stretch of river in the winter months brings a solace unbeknownst to the summer season. Summertime on the Madison is busy. Whether it’s anglers, private boaters, or commercial trips, Bear Trap gets a lot of attention. But life here slows down in the shorter days of winter. Besides the sound of rushing river water and the occasional whistling of an eagle, silence can be found within the canyon walls and ice-covered rock.
Winter whitewater is a prime example of type-II fun, but the solidarity and excitement make every ice-cold splash and goosebump worth it. Plus, there are some local hot springs waiting to warm you up just a few miles from the takeout.