Ever since I first went rafting on the Gallatin River and submersed myself in its awe-inspiring rapids, I’ve been addicted. As the mountain snow melts in the spring and early summer, I both dread and crave our return to the raging whitewater. As we prepare for this annual rite of passage, memories from my first day on the Gallatin roil through my mind like Class-IV waves and my body trembles with anticipation. It’s time to run the river.
It’s sunny but cold, around 50 degrees. As we drive south on Hwy. 191, I scan the bulging gray clouds over the canyon. Soon the skies darken. A menacing yellowish sheen glints on the horizon, foreboding a thunderstorm or maybe even hail. When we arrive at the No Tell put-in, our friends Dave and Sean are already waiting. Sean’s blue cataraft is sitting on the bank. The Gallatin screams at us, its furious water seething and frothing around the cragged boulders right below the put-in.
It’s late spring and the Gallatin is in flood stage—a greenish-gray mass of churning runoff, foam, and debris. I am glad that we left our dogs at home. They’re seasoned river runners, but the violent water could easily wash them overboard. Claustrophobia sets in as my drytop clingwraps around my mouth and nose, cutting off my air. The rubber pulls my hair as I shove my head through the gasket, but then its tight embrace comforts me because I know that I’ll stay dry if I should have to swim. Water is leaking from the dark clouds but the drizzle doesn’t matter. Soon we’ll get wet anyway. Andy takes the oars and shoves off. Dave and Sean launch right behind us. The river is roaring.
“I'm nervous,” Andy says. He’s run this river countless times but is concerned about my safety. “Then take the safest routes,” I tell him. “No thrill-seeking.” A stupid answer. Of course he will try to navigate the safest route. The question is what the river will let him do today.
Soon we’re in the first wave train. The river bellows like a herd of angry bulls, drowning our voices. The water splashes my face, crashing over the tubes of the raft and dousing me before seeping out again through the floor of our self-bailing raft. My hands are damp and cold in my neoprene gloves. The icy water sprays my face. I’m wide awake.
The waves keep slapping my body. As soon as we’re through the wave train, I feel raindrops sting my face. Now the rain is turning into hail. The hail makes little popping sounds on our helmets. Dave and I look down and hold up our hands to shield our faces. Sean suggests we wait it out on the shore, but there’s no good place to pull out. We keep going. The hail soon stops, turning into rain again. Then the sun comes out a little. My hands are still freezing, but my feet are warm and my body is dry and just slightly cold.
We navigate a few more wave trains and eventually find ourselves a few rapids above House Rock, an enormous square boulder that could crush you if you smash into it. Andy has safely run House Rock and the Mad Mile dozens of times. He has never flipped on House Rock. I trust him completely. But just to be sure, I also say a quick prayer to Mother Mary. Maybe Mary will forgive me for only praying on river trips, and then only right before big, noisy rapids. Many of the Gallatin’s rapids bear colorful names—You Buy the Boat, Show Stopper, Snaggletooth, Rigor Mortis—but I’m stroking through most of the rapids, leaving no time to ponder these ominous appellations.
Suddenly Andy yells, “Paddle hard!” I brace my feet against the bottom of the tubes on the floor of the boat, lean out to the right, and push my paddle into the frothy water. I’m busy paddling and high-siding, throwing myself against the tubes while holding on to my paddle. I use my leg muscles and my feet to give me balance and hold me in the boat as we dart through the crashing waves. I’m not cold anymore. I have no time to think about flipping or swimming. The water slaps my face, crashing over me and into the boat, an explosion of glacier-green bubbles and foam. The noise is deafening, like a liquid freight train. The waves thrash the raft, lifting it up and then immediately slamming it into the next wave.
We’re rushing toward Wacker, a big diagonal wave just upstream from House Rock. If you hit Wacker wrong, it will throw the boat onto Papoose, an upstream outcropping of rock that is part of House Rock. And if Papoose doesn’t flip the boat, it may toss the boat into the V-wave between House Rock and the left riverbank. The V-wave will definitely flip the boat if you don’t run straight through its center.
Sean shouts at Andy to lead the way. Right before Wacker, Andy whips the boat into an eddy on the left river bank, turning us upstream for a second; we just barely miss Wacker on our right and the rocks on our left; in a split second, he turns the raft again, now pushing it downstream, making it shoot by Papoose and House Rock on the right and straight through the V. I turn my head quickly and out of the corner of my eye I see that Sean and Dave made it through House Rock safely as well.
But the excitement’s not over yet—now we’re in the Mad Mile, riding the raging current. The powerful river floods me with adrenaline and exhilaration. Only primal fear can release in its wake such energy and life-affirming joy.
Dodging rocks, we dart by Hamburger Stand on the right and the Thumb on the left. The Thumb can create a nasty hole, but it’s “thumbs up” for us on this ride. Right after it, we shoot by the Hand, which can grab and stop you in low water. No worries; there’s plenty of water today.
We dash through the Rodeo Hole, Davey Jones’s Locker, Gagoosh, and Prudential. Any of these rapids can flip you, but the menace of House Rock is behind us. It’s all exhilaration and fun now. I get splashed and sprayed with snowmelt water until we’re in the calm section below the Mad Mile. Soon I can see Castle Rock in the distance. After another few minutes, we’re at the take-out. We laugh, pull the boats out, and load them onto Sean’s trailer. The water was so fast; the fun was over too quickly. I want to do it again. The guys are as addicted as I am. We’re grinning and joking, and then the fear sets in again, as we head back up to No Tell for another run.
For less fear and more beer, ditch the raft and paddle for a tube and a cube (of PBR). There are many options for a leisurely float near Bozeman but these are our choices.
On any given hot summer day, there are legions of happy floaters enjoying the shallow, slow-moving stretch of Madison River from Warm Springs to Black’s Ford. The trip takes about four hours and tubers can usually thumb a ride back to their upstream car without much difficulty. Floaters here enjoy some of the warmest water temps around due to the solar-collecting properties of upstream Ennis Lake. For an adventure, try it by full moon on a stiflingly hot night.
Almost as popular as the Madison, the Jefferson is another great place to cool off and admire the scenery, bikini-clad and earthen. Most tube-toting revelers put in at the Sappington Bridge and enjoy a three- to four-hour ride to Williams Bridge. The float length is dependent on water levels, and late summer can mean walking short stretches of river.
West Gallatin River
For those seeking a more private floating experience, the stretch of river from Logan Bridge to its confluence with the Madison and Jefferson Rivers in Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks is less often floated than the Madison or Jefferson. This float should take three to four hours. Be sure to drop a car downstream for this float, as it may be impossible to find a ride back upriver.