Rafting the Yellowstone

Mike England's picture
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The O/B crew spends a workday on the water.

There are many ways to get rich in this fine capitalist country of ours: investment banking, designing software, practicing law, repairing hail damage. Alas, working for an outdoor magazine does not make the list. As Outside Bozeman’s illustrious senior editor, Dave Reuss, recently explained, “Journalism is a road rife with poverty, and I’m okay with that.”

The rest of the O/B crew seems okay with it too, as we all continue to work for wages that qualify us for high-school gymnasium seating at Christmas dinner. We’re not complaining, mind you; just pointing out a fact that becomes relevant when people ask us, incredulous and almost accusingly, “You went rafting today?”

Yep, it’s a bright Tuesday morning in late June, and instead of sitting down in front of our mind-numbing computer screens, we’re piling into cars and heading to the river. Eat your hearts out, people with disposable incomes.

Rafting the Yellowstone

Steaming mugs of coffee coax us out of our morning stupor as we head over the Bozeman Pass. By the time we hit Livingston and Hwy. 89, we’re wide awake. As always, the mighty Absaroka Mountains jutting out of Paradise Valley inspire a silent and visceral awe. Expansive fields of green, undulating foothills, the inimitable Yellowstone River carving its way through—could that drive ever get old?

A small herd of deer in the borrow pit answers that question; I release the accelerator and stiffen, waiting for that all-too-familiar, heart-stopping cervine lunge into the roadbed. It doesn’t come. A collective sigh of relief echoes through the truck as we pass safely by the grazing ungulates.

A sunny deck beckons us at Yellowstone Rafting Company in Gardiner, where we linger awhile before donning wetsuits, splash tops, and booties. Wetsuits are like waders—it’s almost impossible to look good in them, and even harder to take oneself seriously while thus bedecked. Especially if you’re sweaty and sluggish from a long night of drinking beforehand. We’re a motley crew indeed.

Yellowstone Rafting Company

After a quick drive and short walk down to the river, our guides deliver a safety briefing, which covers river hazards, paddling commands, rafting do’s and don’ts, etc. It’s clear and direct, yet jocular at the same time—these guys obviously know we’re not tourists from Philadelphia, terrified of the aquatic doom that awaits us. The whitecapped water roaring by only stirs our blood and increases our eagerness to be afloat. Our guides’ last-minute preparations go quickly as we all pile into the boat.

We’re off! The river grabs the raft and whisks us downstream. On command, we paddle hard to position ourselves in the center, where the rapids rage nonstop. Immediately we hit a huge wave and water douses the entire boat. We squeal in unison, caught off guard by the frigid snowmelt. Despite the warm air temps, it's only June and so the river is still ice-cold.

Rafting the Yellowstone

Bouncing and bumping, hooting and hollering, we rocket through the famous Gardiner Town Stretch. Huge wave trains splatter us; swirly holes spin the boat around before shooting us back into the current. This is big water. At a whopping 18,000 cfs, the river is fast and furious, the action nonstop. Permagrins plaster our faces.

Eventually we exit the gauntlet and enter a calmer stretch, broken only by occasional pockets of whitewater. Between holes, we take the opportunity to practice rescue procedures—which basically involves distracting a fellow paddler (“Hey, is that a bald eagle?”) and then shoving him into the river. There’s nothing more comical than a shocked, frantic face emerging from the water after a surprise dunking. Especially when said face is attached to a body that seems to be impersonating a drowning cat.

Rafting the Yellowstone

The guides follow suit, talking smack and then shoving each other into the river. In the mayhem, one of them loses his prized ballcap. “Easy come, easy go,” he declares, shrugging and laughing it off as if he’d merely dropped a penny. Like us, these guys seem to embrace both the spirit of summer and the nonmaterialistic attitude that comes from lacking sufficient cash to actually own material things. We bond.

At the takeout, everyone loads the truck amid giddy exclamations of enjoyment and glee. Most of us are covered in goose bumps, still soaked and shivering from our involuntary ejections from the raft. But we’re happy nonetheless—in Montana, PTSD is usually a positive condition. Especially when you know big, fat Helen Burgers await. Our only concern now is whether we have enough money to pay for them.

To book a trip with Yellowstone Rafting Company, call 800-862-0557 or visit yellowstoneraft.com.

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