This was starting to look more like how I imagined Montana. The land of the Big Sky, in my mind, was full of – well – big sky. In contrast to the forested slopes of the Yellowstone caldera and plateaus to the south, the Gardner River descends through Gardner Canyon north of Mammoth Hot Springs into open, scrubby terrain that suited the apocalyptically smokey skies. From the peak elevation on the bluff that Mammoth sits on, Elizabeth’s Subaru descended rapidly into the canyon. Back to back signs near the mouth of the canyon warmed my geographer’s heart: first, a sign proclaiming the 45th parallel, followed closely by another that laconically declared we had entered Montana. Welcome to my 38th state indeed. We passed by the Boiling River, an area where hot springs enter straight into the river and create a natural heated swimming hole. Unfortunately, Boiling River was closed, so I’d have to find my river thrills elsewhere.
The canyon opened into a broad, steppe-like valley in which the north entrance to the park resides. The little town of Gardiner huddled close to the big stone arch at the entrance while straddling the Yellowstone River. In just a short time the three of us would be joining Terri and Garrett to whitewater raft the rapids in and below town. Excitement and nerves prevailed in our car. Elizabeth had loudly insisted to Terri and Garrett (and by extension, myself and Pam) that we needed to be to Wild West Rafting in town by noon sharp. That meant we had about an hour for lunch. The good news: diligent and thorough planning by Elizabeth and myself meant that we had planned a lunch spot known as The Iron Horse in town. The bad news: it was 2021 in a world gone wild. While covid numbers had dropped by August so that we could have a 90% normal trip, staffing shortages were still rampant in the parks, and in the little towns that the parks fed. Nowhere in Gardiner was open for lunch, and when I say nowhere, I mean nowhere. In desperation, the three of us headed to a convenience store down by the river that had a Subway that claimed to be open. To my dismay, even the Subway was literally barred closed. I was flummoxed. The restaurant was open and staffed. But nobody could get in.
Fortunately, just before Elizabeth could have a hangry aneurysm, an employee opened the Subway from the inside. It seems that the store had a standing deal with construction workers at Yellowstone’s North Entrance to provide lunches for the whole lot of them, at the expense of getting to basically any other orders. Elizabeth, Pam and myself were allowed in with the construction worker lunch runner – a fortuitous break. Other people pounded on the Subway door while I ordered my footlong on Italian. As Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake”. I didn’t care as long as I was getting fed.
Wild West Rafting is located at the edge of the brief downtown of Gardiner, facing directly across from the Roosevelt Arch. The porch out front offered a sweeping vista of the Gallatin Range through which the Gardner River winds. It wasn’t a bad view to soak in while sitting in one’s swimsuit waiting for the whitewater rafting guides to take you down to the riverfront. We’d crossed the mighty Yellowstone to get Subway – and found the river to be not-very-mighty. It was wide enough that nobody would scoff at it being called a river, but not very deep or wide. There was whitewater, but not much. I was actually a little nervous for the rafting itself, but I don’t think anywhere near as nervous as Elizabeth, whose leg kept bobbing up and down while we sat outside Wild West and waited for the guides. The guides helped get everyone into their life jackets properly (yes, this was an issue), then loaded us into a bus for the three-block drive from the storefront down to the banks of the Yellowstone.
When the five of us offloaded and Wild West operators started splitting people into rafting groups, I realized that we had committed a collective act of oversight. Elizabeth and I had reserved extra spots for Winston as well as any other cousins who wanted to go rafting with us. Those cousins never materialized and Winston was forced to stay home and take his LSAT, which meant we were below a “worst-case scenario” family vacation quota. Fortunately, the tour guides from Wild West were flexible and shifted the five of us to a smaller boat. They took our pictures overlooking the river (thank you Elizabeth for making me buy the picture package):
And then we carried the raft down a path to the riverside. The put-in was essentially right at the upstream side of downtown, not far from where the Gardner River joins the Yellowstone. All of the guides were laid-back adventure bros – exactly what you’d imagine. Ours was even more laid-back adventure bro than most, but without force-feeding us jokes every few minutes. He fished for a volunteer to sit in the front of the raft and set the pace, so to speak. In 2014, in my previous whitewater rafting expedition down Clear Creek in Denver, 16-year-old Nolan had eagerly volunteered for this role, which makes you the likeliest to pitch off the front of the raft and into the drink. In 2021, 23-year-old Nolan volunteered for the role when he realized that nobody else was going to. Elizabeth volunteered to ride point alongside me on the other end with Terri behind her, and Garrett and Pam filed in behind me. Our guide showed how to hold the paddle, how to sit in the raft, and let us know how he’d get our attention to paddle, and then he pushed out into the river.
To my relief, whitewater rafting was nowhere near as scary as I remembered. Part of that was no doubt becoming wiser with age. Also, unlike the obsessive insistence that the Clear Creek rafting guides had shown in making sure we sat on the outside of the raft with our legs inside, which makes you feel like you’re going to pitch out at any moment, our guide didn’t care if I shifted my weight to the interior side slightly as long as I could reach and paddle. We hit a couple of the higher-end rapids before we’d even left the town of Gardiner, which helped calm everyone else’s nerves who were still feeling them. The early rapids succeeded in getting me wet and exposed two truths about the Yellowstone River in mid-August 2021. It was running really low, and it was running really warm.
With streamflow at about 20% of the river’s typical peak during snowmelt season and maybe 70% of what it should be, rocks were exposed along the steep riverbanks on each side. Rocks were exposed and poking out of the churning rapids. During June, those rocks produce the famed Class II to III rapids of this stretch of the river. Right now, at low water, we’d be topping out in the Class II with maybe just a couple of Class IIIs.
We floated northwestward through Gardiner and into beautiful scenery. At first, the town passed by on either side. Properties became more dispersed at the edge of town, and then it was just a wide open valley through the Gallatin Range. Peaks reached up in both directions around us. The most prominent of them was Electric Peak, which our guide informed us is so-called because of the iron ore near the top of the mountain that locals say attracts lightning. The widespread drought and smoke couldn’t even ruin the view.
I also want to make sure to specify that our guide was awesome. He was a burly blonde that had previously done a stint in the Army abroad before returning to Gardiner and working with Wild West, and I wish I could tell you that I remember his name. During lulls in whitewater, he regaled us with tales of his tour abroad or local geography and wildlife lessons. The raft was well-handled, too: we had a pretty strong strength bias in the raft on my side that was exacerbated by the fact that Terri was missing the water with her paddle most of the time in her excitement. Yet despite that imbalance, we never ran into any trouble, never entered a rapid in a funky way, no doubt thanks to our guide. The primary suspense at any point of whitewater was whether it would be Elizabeth or myself getting soaked.
We did have two significantly wetter adventures, both intentional. Wild West was far from the only rafting company active on this stretch of the Yellowstone on a hot Tuesday afternoon. Other tours operated out of Gardiner – some like ours, and some entire guide-propelled (why would anyone want to do that?). I quickly learned that the various rafting companies in Yellowstone have a spirited element of friendly competition. That spirit is epitomized by the annual rafting race between companies that evidently Wild West wins every year. Our group guides’ hackles were raised in particular by a lone raft from another company called Flying Pig that was drifting along a little downstream. Our guides declared that we would be ensnaring them in a “pig pen”, which is exactly what it sounds like. The various rafts in our group paddled hard to catch them and surround the poor Flying Pig group, forming the pig pen and splashing the tour guests with our paddles. The guests gave as good as they got and I’m pretty sure I got as wet as anyone else when we pulled away laughing.
The other event of note was somewhat less dramatic. Terri wanted to jump into the river. Once we found a flat stretch of river to use, she stood up and pitched into the Yellowstone with a hand on the lead line. It must have been refreshing even with river temps pushing 70, but I didn’t join. She was in no hurry to return to the boat, in any case. When the time came, there was a minor hubbub as Garrett struggled to get Terri out of the river and back into the raft, but they finally managed before I needed to intervene.
But those moments (and even the rapids) were the exception, not the rule. It was otherwise mostly a placid float down the river. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun. Clear Creek had certainly been a bigger adventure, and with bigger mountains, but I enjoyed this trip as much if not more. This was the perfect adventure level for me. I was smiling broadly when the raft slammed into the riverbank 8 miles downstream of town and I stepped out into ankle-deep water. Wild West had brought the bus downstream at some point in the last 2 hours to bring us back up to town. And best of all, they’d gotten pictures at a rapid. I’ll end the post with those.