Dream vs. Reality: Whitewater Kayaking

Imagination and actuality rarely align.

Who hasn’t dreamed of whitewater kayaking? The speed, the grace, the adrenaline—what more elemental way to experience Montana’s famous rivers? Plus, kayakers are just so cool. The coolest! These are people who harness and control the power of rivers, and make deadly whitewater their playground. They laugh in the face of winter’s furious uncontrolled runoff, and make it look easy. Plus, they’re always tan. But things are not always what they seem, and sometimes the dream doesn’t live up to reality. Let’s see how whitewater kayaking fares.

With a gentle flick of your paddle blade, the kayak slices against the current and smoothly carves into a wave. Another quick dig puts you into your line, and you watch the waves line up downstream like a perfect aquatic roller coaster. It’s a sunny, warm day in Montana, and the river is cresting—this is as good as it gets. In perfect balance, you bob through the rough water unchallenged and smiling, whooping as your bow catches air between troughs. You deftly maneuver through the churning crux while tourists cheer from the bank, and then you spin onto the final wave for a brief surf session. It’s important to be a well-rounded boater—big water and playboating are equally rad. You stick a big, dynamic move, upturning your boat at the back of the wave, then easily roll upright and shake the water off your head with a toothy, triumphant grin. Finally, you eddy out next to your buddy, who throws you a huge high five and splashes victoriously. The best part? This is your third lap down the Mad Mile today. Kayaking is so sick.

With an awkward and ineffective slap of your paddle, the kayak lurches into the current. You’re immediately drawn off course, toward the only exposed boulder within 100 yards. You bounce off the rock, nearly roll, and totter to regain balance before being flung downstream. It’s another cold, rainy day in Montana—typical for spring. Your dry top has a hole in it and icy water slides down your torso. Shivering, you paddle furiously, trying to make it through the rapid as quickly as possible. You grit your teeth and pray as your bow catches air between troughs, feeling entirely out of control. A wave hits you in the face unexpectedly—a slap, really—and washes a contact from your eye. Half blind, you enter the churning crux sideways, and almost immediately roll upside down. Your helmet smashes into a rock and you panic, popping your skirt and swimming for shore. Tourists on the bank yell for an ambulance while your buddy rolls his eyes and mimes drinking from a booty. The worst part? You’re only halfway down the Mad Mile. Kayaking is the worst.