Dropping Falls

Corey Hockett's picture
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An unorthodox excursion at Ousel.

On Friday night, I sat at a friend's house sipping drinks when a longtime buddy walked in. I hadn’t seen Dylan since winter, and even then it was only for a day. After a few beers and a night’s worth of bullshitting, he outlined a plan to hit Lower Ousel Falls the next morning. My only commitment fell in the afternoon—he needn’t say more. At 8am the following day, we were joined by friends Ethan, Austin, and Izaak and headed down the canyon.

Throwing on wetsuits in the parking lot, we loaded up for the approach, Dylan’s frameless raft deflated and stuffed in a wheelbarrow, and Austin’s makeshift whitewater canoe on our shoulders. Dylan and Izaak were on a waterfall-sending quest, so for them, it was just another hopeful notch in their belts. Ethan and Austin weren't versed in dropping falls, but they both have whitewater experience, so an outing like this was within their skillset, albeit at the high end. As for me, I hadn’t been on whitewater in two years—this felt like running the Grand Canyon.

Ousel Falls, Rafting Ousel Falls, Big Sky
A dubious outing commences.

Nearing the trail's second bridge, clouds of mist thickened with every step. We rounded the final corner, fully absorbed in the roaring crescendo, and there it was—the raging curtain of whitewater, Upper Ousel. And below it, Lower Ousel, the fall we’d be dropping: smaller, but technical still, and nothing to scoff at.

 “It doesn’t look too bad,” Dylan said, through a cocky smile. I was happy to let him have it. For the first round I’d watch from the bank, snap photos, and throw safety if needed. As if putting together a puzzle, Izaak and Dylan worked through a game plan, shuffling the bank’s edge, piecing together every move.

Ousel Falls, Rafting Ousel Falls, Big Sky
Picking a line.

After discussing the what-ifs, they hiked to the top where they'd put in. Downstream and out of view, I nervously steadied the camera. Austin’s holler alerted us that they were coming. Seconds later, Dylan’s blue-and-grey boat floated into view. They heaved across the current, battling for the line that would thread them proper. Hitting their mark, they swung 90 degrees straight down—a few seconds and off they’d go. But as they flushed into the pocket before the drop, Izaak disappeared from the boat. Without flinching, Dylan continued his strokes, sticking to the plan. Just a few feet from the take-off, Izaak shot out of the rapids and grasped the back of the raft. Flailing behind his partner, Izaak threw himself back aboard as they sailed over the falls.

Ousel Falls, Rafting Ousel Falls, Big Sky

Ousel Falls, Rafting Ousel Falls, Big Sky
That's one way to go.

They landed and Izaak folded on top of Dylan, throwing both of them from the boat. Amidst the swirling pool, they quickly climbed in and navigated the lower section without incident.

Ousel Falls, Rafting Ousel Falls, Big Sky
"Good thing we brought the selfie stick."

After some celebratory howls and high-fives, Dylan decided to give it another go, this time with Austin. The two charged fluidly over the drop and through the rapids, making it look easy. Ethan and Izaak were next, the result the same. Now it was my turn.

Nerves firing, I hauled the raft up to the put-in with Dylan setting it down at the water's edge. We discussed our game plan; he talked, I listened—water this heavy was new to me.

“Sound good?” Dylan asked.

“Let’s do it!” I cried.

We pushed off, paddling like hell for the narrow line seaming to the top of the falls. “Give it everything you've got!” he hollered. We skirted through the current, picking up speed as we went. “Two more strokes now!” and his voiced calmed.

“Here we go!”

And airborne we went.

The raft's nose hit first and we followed, landing softly in our respective positions. It was clean. Meandering through the lower obstacles without trouble, we spun around the bottom eddy into slower water. Cries of excitement rang throughout the canyon and relief washed over me.

Though it’s been done before, dropping Lower Ousel was a first for us and a check-mark off the adventure bucket-list. While driving home, I noted the expressions of floaters on the Gallatin as they dipped and bobbed around House Rock, possibly through some of the same water we'd been in. I arrived home elated, my high carrying through the weekend into Monday.

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