Take Me to the River
The water is fine.
If you haven’t noticed, Montana is home to a unique and dynamic web of water. It’s likely one of the reasons you’re here, to some degree or another. Be it a meandering stream or furious, technical whitewater; a committing excursion deep in the backcountry or a casual float after work; in Bozeman, there are paddling opportunities galore.
Come summertime, nothing beats shedding the shirt and floating down a river, relaxed as can be. Maybe you want to cast a fly or lure, or maybe you just want to sit back, have a few laughs, and enjoy a cold one or three. Regardless, the carefree floater enjoys plenty of options.
The Madison is most notably known for its trout fishing or rowdy whitewater in Bear Trap Canyon, but further downstream the river mellows into a meandering channel before meeting up with the Gallatin and Jefferson to form the Missouri. If you’re looking for calm water on the Madison, check out the stretch between I-90 and the Headwaters. Mind you, most of the surrounding land is private, so stay within the high-water mark.
Another peaceful waterway is the Jefferson—you won’t find anything but flat water. There are a number of stretches popular with paddleboards, inner tubes, and rafts. Our favorite is Sappington Bridge to Williams Bridge.
At the top of the list is one of Bozeman’s most famous chill floats: the renowned Bikini Hatch on the Madison. This lies between Warm Springs and Black’s Ford, near the town of Norris. Over July and August, thousands of folks tie together inflatables and caravan to the takeout. Enjoy the water and company, but find yourself a designated driver ahead of time, as with the rest of these floats.
Whitewater comes at many levels and consistencies, and if you’re learning a new craft, or don’t want to soil your wetsuit, it’s nice to have some boogie water to play in. Lucky for you, there’s no shortage ‘round here. Check out these spots when you’re feeling a little spicy, but want to keep it within reason.
Over in Paradise Valley, the Yellowstone is a lively river with sections ranging from Class I-IV, depending on levels. The Gardiner Town Stretch between downtown and Corwin Springs is an excellent intermediate run. While nothing too serious, the waves are consistent and playful. Further downstream, east of Livingston, you’ll find more of the same, albeit bigger water and less regular. Between Springdale and Greycliff, there are a number of places to put in and take out, and each comes with its own set of intermittent rapids. For surfers and advanced kayakers, the Springdale wave offers supreme surfing at higher flows.
For some smaller water, but just as bumpy of a ride, the Gallatin between Deer Creek and the Lava Lake trailhead is a zone to relish. In this 10-mile section, there are over six Class II/III wave trains. This is a popular stretch among rafters, advanced canoeists, and intermediate kayakers.
If you boat long enough and enjoy provoking your adrenal gland every now and again, big whitewater is sure to scratch your itch. Around Bozeman, there are three fabled runs that are proper Class IV during high water. While each is different in its own way, enter any one of them underprepared and you will come out humbled—or not at all.
The first is Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone. This four-mile section contains three burly rapids that have flipped rafts, swallowed kayaks, and sent many folks on long, cold swims. At flows over 15,000 cfs, expect big laterals, haystack waves, and swirly eddy lines.
The second is close to home and Bozeman’s most popular after-work run: the Mad Mile. While most folks will link this up with a longer section of river up or downstream, the actual mile starts at the 35mph bridge (Lava Lake trailhead) and ends at the Upper Storm Castle turnout. Smaller and more technical than Yankee Jim, the Mad Mile will have kayakers bracing, rafters high-siding, and the unfit swimming.
Last but not least is perhaps Bozeman’s most treasured. Bear Trap Canyon below Ennis Dam on the Madison offers boaters a one-day Wilderness experience with excellent fishing and some stout whitewater to boot—none of which is more famous than the legendary Kitchen Sink. Put in just below the dam for Double Drop, the other Class IV, and take out at Warm Springs on Hwy. 84. While not the most direct shuttle, the remoteness of the river and quality of the paddling is well worth the longer drive.
With every activity comes a spread of accessories, some of them necessary, some of them not. Before even asking yourself which type of craft you’ll be using, acquire a life jacket. Even if you don’t plan on using one, Montana law mandates that you have one in possession. A PFD should be number-one on your checklist.
Then figure out how much time you’ll be spending on the water and in what form. If the answer is on a raft, infrequently, you might not need a lot. But if you’re looking to paddle whitewater multiple months of the year, your gear list is going to grow. Along with paddles or oars, helmets and throw bags should be next on the list. For smaller crafts such as kayaks and packrafts, consider getting a drysuit or dry top. It won’t feel good to spend the money, but staying warm in frigid waters is a beautiful thing. If you decide you’re really into it, look into getting some river booties for your feet and pogies (paddle gloves) for your hands.
As with all outdoor activities, there’s an etiquette to river life. One of the biggest things to remain conscious of is clogging up the boat ramp. On popular stretches, we can have dozens of boaters looking to put in at the same place on any given Saturday. If you have a larger craft (raft or driftboat), be efficient with your time on the ramp. Unload your vessel and get out of the way. Putting on sunscreen can wait.
On the water, be mindful of everyone else you may encounter. If you see someone wade-fishing downstream, do your best to stay out of his way. Unless there’s something to be avoided, like a strainer or a big hole, paddle or row to the other side of the river when you pass. As well, be cognizant of other watercraft not in your party, especially in or above rapids. If your group is traveling faster than another group downstream and passing them seems natural, that’s fine. But give a judicious berth or at least communicate, and definitely don’t surprise them in the middle of a rapid.
If something happens between you and another group that rubs you the wrong way, let it be known, but don’t get worked up about it. At the end of the day, we all share at least a little common ground—we all want to be on the water and we’re lucky enough to enjoy that water in Montana. With basic respect and communication, we can all get along just fine.
One of the best ways to get immersed in the world of paddling is to surround yourself with people who know best. Check out some or all of these events to meet, greet, and get out on the water with like-minded folk.
Gallatin Whitewater Festival – Bozeman. Head down Hwy. 191 for some of springtime’s finest action. Suit up and race for time over waves and through holes down the renowned Mad Mile. facebook.com.
Community Paddling Day – Bozeman. Meet like-minded folks of similar skillsets and paddle a section of choice down the Gallatin. wavetrainkayakteam.com.
Mondays & Wednesdays
Intermediate Classes – Bozeman. Join Wave Train Kayak to work on your bracing, edging, and dialing in your roll before amping it up on the big stuff. wavetrainkayakteam.com.
Tuesdays & Thursdays
Advanced Classes – Bozeman. Test your pucker factor with Wave Train Kayak through some of Bozeman’s testiest water. wavetrainkayakteam.com.