Finding pals who both own a packraft and know how to packraft is not easy business. Finding instructors who know how to teach packrafting to others is even harder. When I received RSVPs from seven outdoor educators (including a handful of accomplished packrafters) to join me on a packrafting trip down the Madison River so we could all learn to packraft from each other, I knew I was onto something pretty special. The deal was simple: there were no costs, no fees, and no pay; we’d teach each other, we’d probably swim, and we’d have a heckuva good time.
So when we all convened at Ennis Lake on the morning of May 28, the least I could do was make everyone pancakes and bacon on a decidedly heavy Camp Chef. Our goal was simple: paddle our way to Three Forks, Montana, forty-five miles downriver. We’d start with a few hours of practice at Ennis Lake, then some river skills practice in the whitewater below Ennis Dam, and finally, a run down the Madison River starting with some of the most hallowed wilderness whitewater in the state of Montana: Bear Trap Canyon. We figured perhaps we’d end at the famous location along the trail of Lewis and Clark: the headwaters of the Missouri River.
4,000 cfs Baby!
The Madison River was running full tilt in response to a heavy snowpack and warm temperatures: nearly 4,000 cfs (base flows average 1,200 cfs). These are flows that elevate the normally Class III canyon into a Class IV-V froth of deadly rapids: Whitehorse, the Kitchen Sink, and the Green Wave, while turning normally tame Class IIs into solid IIIs. We knew we wouldn’t be able to float the big rapids, but we were surprised at the difficulty involved in negotiating the rest of the upper canyon. Fast, technical whitewater with serious consequences: big holes, unending hydraulics, and lots, and lots, and lots of massive rocks. So, we spent most of the evening on the first day negotiating Class II-III whitewater in the upper canyon cautiously and carefully. Three of us took swims in strong eddy lines and rock holes, getting ‘bandersnatched’ (sucked backwards) into the hydraulics. As the light faded and reading the complex current became more difficult, we called it an evening, bushwhacked up the canyon wall to a trail, and found a four-star campsite on a grassy beach. We went to bed tired, but rewarded.
Not Stupid OR Suicidal
The next day, we walked three and a half miles of trail to bypass massive rapids, including a twelve-foot reverse curling roller at Whitehorse, the bus-sized recirculating hole of the Kitchen Sink, and massive complexity at the Green Wave. There had been no registered attempts, commercial, or private, to float the river since May 12, when the river started to rise. We later learned from hardcore kayakers that running the Bear Trap this time of year should be considered something between stupid and suicidal.
So, at 11:00 a.m. on May 29, we finally dropped in at Bear Trap Creek for a continuous run to Three Forks. We’d float a mile of technical Class II that allowed us to practice our pirouettes and snicker-snacks through a series of rock gardens, followed by miles and miles of more tame Class I-II water that included strong eddies and big wave trains to provide plenty of interesting boating. By the end of the day, we had covered thirty miles, finding a remote island camp after exploring a side channel barely wider than our little boats. As our campfire faded into the darkness of the evening, those of us remaining awake witnessed a treasured and rare event: Montana fireflies. We spotted four of them, blinking intermittently across the stream, twenty feet from our fire. The Montana firefly is an elusive and extraordinarily rare creature, having only been witnessed by select few.
Nothing Like Having Your Blood Drawn
The warm feeling of sharing our camp with fireflies faded soon as we went to bed and removed several less elusive creatures (ticks) from our clothing and skin, along with anything resembling a tick with paranoiac fury – burrs, pine needles, extra clumps of hair, moles, etc.
On May 30, we continued our voyage to Three Forks, exploring tiny, meandering side channels probably unknown to other boaters, napping lazily when the river flow slowed to a crawl, and sharing a tin of smoked oysters towards the end of the trip. Upon our arrival at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers, shortly after we entered the headwaters of the mighty Missouri, a Gallatin County Search and Rescue boat captain (on a training exercise) shouted enthusiastically, "Look at those! Alpackas! They only weigh four pounds and can run whitewater!"
What It’s All About
We beached our boats with renewed confidence, discussed the design and execution of Backpacking Light’s new Introduction to Packrafting course and a newfound enthusiasm to teach others about safely planning and executing their own packrafting expeditions.
That evening, surrounding a table at Bozeman’s MacKenzie River Pizza Company, we talked about our varying states of job security, homelessness, investments, parenting, marriage, and religion. It was clear that our eclectic little group was about as diverse as a Brooklyn Book Club, but our common thread was strong, and we cemented our commitments to each other through an ultralight ethic, a big and wondrous river, and a new mode of travel that left us feeling more than just a little bit giddy.
Participants: Darin Banner, Scott Christy, Carol Crooker, Brett French, Sam Haraldson, Ryan Jordan, Mike Martin, and Andrew Skurka.
Photos: Ryan Jordan, Olympus 790SW