Words and photos by Emma Nord
Staring at the towers above, I imagine a gneiss crack hugging my fingers as I sandwich my rubber toes in a one-inch splitter.
A cool breeze flows through the canyon, lifting my awareness higher up the mountainside and further from the water I’m in. With the weighty nudge of a paddle against the back of my PFD and a yell, “Stop looking at the rocks!” I snap out of my fantasy. A sudden burst of water in my face, and I’m back in the front seat of a whitewater raft—and an integral part of keeping it afloat.
Whitewater explodes all around us, and all eyes widen as we approach a huge rapid. Our Montana Whitewater guide, Michael, laughs and commands, “Alright, all forward!” Each member of the boat paddles at a slightly different pace, like a heart with palpitations, occasionally skipping a beat. Our strokes finally sync as we hit Hilarity Hole, an enormous hydraulic known for its hungry belly that flips its food over quickly and digests it without a pause. The only way out: ditching your PFD, swimming downward, and praying that it will spit you out with a breath still in your chest.
We make it through the rapid and water drips from our sunburned faces, revealing the smiles that were hidden behind our unease. After some small-talk, Michael guesses that rafting may not be any of our first choices and asks, “So, what’s your thing?” As the others begin describing some of their outdoor preferences—kayak-fishing, mountain biking, skiing—the serene wind blows through our conversation and silences our discourse. In a moment of stillness, we absorb the perfect warmth of the sun and take in the calm waves and breathtaking scenery. Despite our variety of interests, we’re all here now, synergistically enjoying this experience in Gallatin Canyon.
People from all backgrounds come through this canyon and its surrounding mountains—strapping on their Oboz, Chacos, or La Sportivas and flowing into their activity of choice, often forgetting about the wide variety of activities available. On this day, when the air was too scorching to climb Scorched Earth, I didn’t even think to jump in the water. And just as I began to make plans to climb indoors at Spire, the O/B crew invited me out to the river—where we could step out of our routines and into a whitewater raft.
In the rugged waters below looming citadels of gneiss and limestone, we prepare for another rapid—this time we’re all a bit more comfortable and collegial. Our strokes sync even quicker this time as we glide over the whitewater like butter on warm bread, becoming one with the rapids. With water up my nose and a smile on my face, I understand that all our “things” are just small ingredients to this same fantastic hole—a hole that would be incomplete if we only saw it from one angle.
At another calm section, Michael tells us he came all the way from Indiana to become a Gallatin River guide. He hasn’t invested in a drysuit yet; instead, he wears only a polyester t-shirt—which he wore throughout his springtime guide training while swimming down the numbing rapids. No matter how cold he gets, he’s out here doing what he loves most—and trying to understand the other “things” that keep the canyon bustling year-round. To our left, he points out some lesser-known public lands to hike and mountain bike. Gesturing to the right, he describes the “granite” climbing. I smile under my PFD and keep quiet. He’ll figure out the geology in time—maybe by strapping on a harness and seeing the canyon in a different light. And who knows, maybe he’ll enjoy the rocks as much as I’m enjoying this river.
And this is what it’s all about, appreciating the abundance and enjoying the occasional divergence from the familiar. Rather than getting cooked on the rocks on a sweltering summer day—or, in my case, wasting it inside—I gave the river a chance, respecting another ingredient of the good life this canyon brings us. And while everyone may have a preferred way to spend time here, if we only engage in what we know, we’ll miss out on the variety and splendor of the outdoor world. Instead, we should savor the entirety of this place, where there’s always an adventure—around every corner, on every type of craft, with every type of person.