By David Tucker EBS Contributor
On May 2, the United States Geological Survey gauge on the Gallatin River at Deer Creek reached 1,200 cubic feet per second, rising almost 1,000 cfs in just several days. Runoff is here, the time every spring when the winter snowpack starts melting in earnest.
It is at this time of year that the Gallatin becomes a raging whitewater river, powered by a long winter of alpine storms being released all at once to pulse through the upper Gallatin River watershed.
While this release can be exhilarating for whitewater kayakers and rafters, intent on navigating the river’s rapids in their respective vessels, it can also be highly dangerous and catch the unsuspecting river recreationalist a bit off guard. A little planning, however, can go a long way to keeping you safe while you enjoy everything runoff has to offer. Follow these steps to continue enjoying the river as it rises.
Dress for the Water Temperature
Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Many an unsuspecting angler has been lulled into thinking that the forecasted temperature calls for wet-wading and short sleeves. Think again. The water temperature is still ice-cold and the weather can change in the blink of an eye. To avoid hypothermia, continue to dress in layers, keep waterproof apparel close at hand and be prepared to quit if things take a turn for the worse.
Know Your Limits
Are you comfortable in fast-moving currents? Do you have the skills necessary to successfully navigate Class-V whitewater? Are you familiar with the Gallatin at these levels? If you’ve paddled the river at lower flows, you might think you know all of its nooks and crannies. But runoff has a way of humbling even the most seasoned river rats. Never run a new river blind, and runoff will make the Gallatin new again for folks who have never paddled it at these higher volumes.
Use the road to your advantage to scout rapids, watch other, more experienced paddlers and practice laps on smaller water before committing to the big stuff.
Ask the Pros
There are dozens of local businesses that know a whole lot about the Gallatin and all its moods. Use that resource. If you’re an angler, get some beta on where the fish might be holding even when the river is raging and it looks like chocolate milk. The trout have to go somewhere, and they can’t stop eating for a month.
If you do get some free advice, make sure you cover your good karma quotient by buying some flies, picking up some new waders or even booking a half-day guided trip with one of the outfitters. It’s the least you can do after learning all the secrets that take guides a lifetime to figure out.
Take a Hike
While spring is definitely river season, the Gallatin can be unforgiving if you’re unprepared. Sometimes, your best option is to skip it entirely and keep to the shoreline.
Luckily you can still experience the full power of runoff from water-side trails like the Gallatin River trail, Taylor Fork Road, Storm Castle Road, Hellroaring Creek and several others. The roads make for fun dirt-road bike rides with little or no car traffic, and Gallatin River trail will give you a front-row seat to the high-water action for 3 miles between Lava Lake and Storm Castle.
This spring, as runoff grows toward its peak in late May or early June, you can continue enjoying the Gallatin safely with a little restraint and a lot of planning. Come August, it’ll be wet-wading season and you can let your guard down a bit. Now is the time to respect the awesome power of this free-flowing Montana river.
David Tucker is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.