Gallatin River Thrills

The rugged backcountry around Bozeman compels folks to partake of the fresh air and challenging terrain. Whether it’s hiking to Lava Lake or a more casual stroll along Hyalite Reservoir, each trip presents both a physical and spiritual journey, with enough earthy scent and breathtaking landscapes to satisfy the soul. But nothing provides more of it than a whitewater rafting trip through spring runoff—especially smack dab inside the churning waters of the Gallatin River.

Whitewater rafting trips can, by nature, be dangerous, and are most certainly exhilarating. My family and I prepared for our maiden voyage aboard a raft on the Gallatin, which we correctly predicted would become one of our most cherished, shared adventures of a lifetime.

After suiting up and riding the bus to the put-in, our guide warned us of the dangers inherent in riding an open raft atop a pulsating waterway above a rocky riverbed. I felt prayed-up and prepared—this was to be my first and possibly last whitewater trip ever.

Into the river we plunged, a trampoline-sized rubber raft with six helmeted people and one skilled guide who sat atop the stern end of the raft like a lifeguard. As we approached the powerful rapids of the Gallatin River, our capable guide gave us instructions from atop his throne. No more friendly banter; everything he said now was a directive and I took it as gospel. It also had a familiar ring to it—our bus driver had foreshadowed identical situations.

“Keep your legs in the proper position,” our captain commanded. “Keep your feet placed where I tell you. Use your paddles in precisely the manner that I tell you to. If you do fall overboard, don’t panic…”

The first rapid was approximately a level three (out of six), he informed us as we approached the roiling wave. In a loud voice, he coached us through it. “Paddle forward! Forward everybody, and with the same motion!”

What a rush! Bouncing up and over, water splashing everywhere, we moved through the frothing water. It was like coming down a giant waterslide on the back of a bucking bronco. We’d conquered it! And just a minute later—no time to relax—our guide urged everyone to stop paddling but stay alert.

As the next level-four whirlpool appeared in front of us, our guide urged the three of us on the right side to paddle forward and the three on the left to row backward. We spun the raft into position, working like a well-oiled machine. We stopped only when our guide said to.

“Woo-hoo!” we cried in unison as we met each subsequent challenge. Nobody got thrown from the raft and our guide praised our teamwork. And just as quickly as we’d been thrust into the Gallatin’s watery maelstrom, things became calm. We sat back, our guide acting as tour director while we floated along the now-lazy river.

“That steep rock face up ahead is approximately a thousand feet high,” our guide explained. “It’s entirely granite, and the striations you see coming down the sides are from avalanches last winter. Up ahead, when we round this bend, notice the crowberry bushes up the mountainside. That’s where the bears like to fill their bellies.”

I was hooked. We had survived the rapids and were now learning fascinating facts about the natural world around us. I took in little of the guide’s words from then on, but found myself reassured by his relaxed tone. I gave credence to the family’s first whitewater rafting exercise, but I gave gratitude to God for protecting us, and for the ruggedly organic surroundings that inspire and energize us all.