Mike Garcia is a whitewater man and a local outdoor legend. In 1979 he opened Northern Lights (then called Headwaters) and started selling kayaks. He was a partner in Mountain Whitewater, the first rafting company that guided trips down the Gallatin River and through Bear Trap Canyon on the Madison. He’s paddled all over North and South America, including a 64-day, 1,200-mile canoe trip along the entire Athabasca River in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. From meandering streams to menacing Class V, he enjoys it all. But like all of us, he was once a beginner.
Mike, take us back to that first whitewater run.
When I moved west from Minnesota in 1997, I was a canoer of sorts. I’d run rapids before but not with finesse. Right before I left, I purchased my first kayak because I knew that was the water vehicle of my future. Though I knew how to read water, I had no idea how to maneuver a hard-shell. It was a Lettman Mark IV 13’ 2”—a slalom kayak, and a good design for its day. Play boats were years away.
I headed to the Gallatin in May.
I spent the day learning to exit eddy lines and trying like hell to stay upright, all while figuring out that downstream lean thing. It didn’t take long for me to realize that keeping a whitewater kayak going in a straight line is a big challenge. I was clumsy in balancing my strokes to say the least. I did, in the first few hours, learn that paddling backward was effective. Oops, I’m upside-down, performing my first wet exit and swimming to shore. I’ve gotta get that Eskimo-roll thing down.
I found a good shore-eddy line and a mid-river rock with a nice eddy to duck into, and continued to practice. Turns out, that’s one of the best setups you can have for early training and quick results. So down the river I went, into bigger waves, with more turbulent water hitting me from both sides. I swam twice more. Watching the water stack up on my kayak deck, feeling the resulting forces of being in a closed boat compared to an open canoe—that was eye-opening. My kayak fire was lit.
That was 45 years ago. Now I have three sons, all of whom are accomplished whitewater paddlers. I try like heck to knock off a couple new rivers every season. The river life is the best I know.