Backyard Gnar: Canoeing the Runoff

C&K's editor-at-large on the art of close-to-home adventuring

Typical. Two bends down the creek, traffic noise still in the background, a thick log lies completely across the channel.

"Shit. New tree!" I say.

It looks like there might be an extra inch of headroom on river left, maybe. No eddy to stop in. It'll be a tight fit, if it's doable at all. We both lie as flat as we can. The bow plate skins under the tree by an inch. Marypat gets below the gunwales. I'm draped across the thwart in the stern. A knob of bark snags on the back of my pfd, we catch there for a moment, stalled, the river pushing, then shove through.

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"Another 50 cfs and that will be really interesting," I say, but already the new log is history. Another bend looms, the next blind corner, tingling with potential.

No, we're not talking Class V steep creeks. Nor spine-cracking free-fall drops over waterfalls. Nor helicopter support expeditions in remote India. None of the stuff featured in adventure film festivals and, often enough, in the pages of magazines like Canoe & Kayak. We're not talking expedition sponsorship, bank-breaking budgets, blogs, exotic travel.

No. We're talking close-to-home dashes through ephemeral windows of opportunity full of unknown treachery and unexpected grace, where nobody generally goes or even thinks of going. Many are unrunnable 330 days every year, and 365 days on dry years. But for that week or month they are as heady and fraught and gnarly, as full of potential for mishap and hilarity, as any first descent or huck over a lip.

We're talking bicycle shuttles, runs after dinner or over lunch hour, town runs, runs that might include ducking through culverts, runs that make people laugh and point in surprise as you rocket past.

Photo by Aaron Schmidt

Photo by Aaron Schmidt

In my world, we're talking about the far upper reaches of the Gallatin River, a bump-and-scrape boulder thicket most of the year, but a steady Class II-III rock n' roll for a spring-bright moment. Or the Boulder River, spilling through farm fields, full of curlews and fences and rock-strewn rapids and surfing waves. Or the Shields, draining the Crazy Mountains, with log jams and snags, diversion dams and headgates, low bridges and riprap. Or the Belt, with its amusement-park ride through the walls of the Sluice Boxes. Or the Judith, the East Gallatin, the upper Big Hole, the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone, the Marias, the upper Dearborn . . .

In my world, every April or May, it's time to watch the river gauges, to pay attention to the thawing nights in the mountains, when runoff bulks up, rolling down the hillsides, filling the creeks, heady and dark with sediment, chattering around bends, moving the furniture.

Maybe it's the inevitable surprises that lure me, or the feeling of entering forbidden territory through a door that opens just a crack, and only if you're ready.

A couple of years back, in May, we saw the Judith filling with runoff, bank full, then more than bank full. Of course, that weekend, we went. You'd never know that this roiling torrent was ankle deep most of the year, that cattle stroll across it and barely get wet.

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Cinch up the pfds, tighten the thigh straps, hang on for the ride. Every corner simmers with danger. We sneak around on the insides, ready to find the slot through deadfall, or to pull in and carry around a downed tree. We have to bend double to get under farm bridges. There are tight moments where we need every inch of the 16-foot hull to ferry around a corner and skinny past a snag.

Every so often we remember to breathe.

At one point we shoot down what looks like the biggest channel, but soon enough realize that we've been diverted into farm pasture, that we're paddling past cow pies and windmills, startling sandhill cranes. We have to open a damn gate to regain the main current!

It's not all logjam and barbed wire. There are the red-tails screaming in the pale sky, mule deer bounding into the thickets, warblers in the willows, the snow-covered Crazy Mountains floating on the horizon, the smug delight of sneaking up on people setting up a putt on the ninth hole, or out feeding in the corral, or reading the paper in the breakfast nook. Or the logjams that have been miraculously cleared out by the last floods, opening a path that was blocked the spring before, or the new cut through a meander. Then, at the end, the satisfaction of hauling out at some back-roads bridge, loading up boats with the traffic full of quotidian lives rushing past, all wondering what the hell we've been up to.

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