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Back 40: Spring flows and river safety

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By Eric Becker

Big Sky and the surrounding area experienced several substantial storms this winter and as a result the snowpack heading into summer is the deepest it’s been in over a decade. The enthusiasm on the ski hill this season was ever-present, and now that warmer weather has arrived, anticipation of the river scene radiates the same energy. Whether you are a paddler trying to run whitewater and test your skills, or someone who just wants to take in the spring sunshine on the banks, there are precautions everyone should take during high water season.

Whitewater rafting and paddling

There are always risks associated with whitewater, even when rivers are running well within their expected limit. It is important that everyone on the water be properly equipped to self-rescue and prepared to rescue others. A personal floatation device (PFD), helmet and throw bag are the bare minimum necessities for most whitewater scenarios. Most days on the rivers in this region you will also need a wetsuit or dry gear because of the water and air temperatures. River trips are going to be wetter and colder than in recent years so extra layers and proper outerwear are going to be critical in preventing hypothermia and having a good time out there. Fleece, wool, neoprene and dry gear. That’s the name of the game.

Decisions you make prior to put-in are going to be most important during spring flows. Flooding will undoubtedly move trees, brush and other debris down the river. These hazards are especially dangerous when they are in motion, but also result in changes in the river as they settle in, such as strainers. Be aware and make smart choices about getting on the river if there are logs coming down the size of your kayak or raft. Keep in contact with the whitewater community so that you are informed of major river changes that others may have discovered.

Once on the river, the most important addition to your whitewater trips will be additional boats for safety. Injuries are possible regardless of water level. You should run all of your river trips so that there are multiple boats and experienced paddlers in your group. The more boats and trained people on the water, the more resources available in the event of a river accident.

Keep your family and pets safe

Anyone who slips into a river flowing quickly without a PFD is at serious risk. Take extra precautions by the riverside and recognize “no fall zones.” For pets and children, constant monitoring near the riverside may be necessary. This is not just true of larger rivers during spring flows. The West Fork and its tributaries that run through Big Sky and along hiking trails can still pose serious threats to pedestrians and their furry friends, especially during spring flows. It is easy for someone without river experience to look at a river and not understand its power or how dangerous it can become downstream. Don’t underestimate and tread carefully while hiking.

It’s no news to area fisherman that river-wading can be dangerous. For those comfortable fishing and wading knee- to waist-deep in the Gallatin every year, it is important to recognize that the river will be different this year during spring flows. It is surprising what knee-deep water can do when it’s flowing at 8,000 cfs and, as those in the trade will tell you, taking a swim in waders can be life threatening.

A fun and safe season

The warmer weather as spring unfolds is exciting. This year’s ski season was one for the books and we look forward to another fun, whitewater-filled summer. We’re really fortunate to have the Gallatin River in Big Sky to enjoy and share as a community. Let’s make the most of it this season and stay safe.

Eric Becker founded Geyser Whitewater Expeditions in 1992. Since then, Becker has followed his passion for whitewater around the world, having guided professionally on 22 rivers and paddled over 100 more in 13 different countries. Visit for more information.

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