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Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River

Stretches of the Madison River can be described as a "booze cruise," where innertube flotillas of relaxing college students and drift boats of fly-fishers fill the river. The Bear Trap canyon isn't one of those stretches, especially during spring snowmelt.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2009-06-09 00:10:00-06


Finding pals who both own a packraft and know how to packraft is not easy business. Finding instructors who know how to teach packrafting to others is even harder. When I received RSVPs from seven outdoor educators (including a handful of accomplished packrafters) to join me on a packrafting trip down the Madison River so we could all learn to packraft from each other, I knew I was onto something pretty special. The deal was simple: there were no costs, no fees, and no pay; we'd teach each other, we'd probably swim, and we'd have a heckuva good time.

So when we all convened at Ennis Lake on the morning of May 28, the least I could do was make everyone pancakes and bacon on a decidedly heavy Camp Chef. Our goal was simple: paddle our way to Three Forks, Montana, forty-five miles downriver. We'd start with a few hours of practice at Ennis Lake, then some river skills practice in the whitewater below Ennis Dam, and finally, a run down the Madison River starting with some of the most hallowed wilderness whitewater in the state of Montana: Bear Trap Canyon. We figured perhaps we'd end at the famous location along the trail of Lewis and Clark: the headwaters of the Missouri River.

4,000 cfs Baby!

The Madison River was running full tilt in response to a heavy snowpack and warm temperatures: nearly 4,000 cfs (base flows average 1,200 cfs). These are flows that elevate the normally Class III canyon into a Class IV-V froth of deadly rapids: Whitehorse, the Kitchen Sink, and the Green Wave, while turning normally tame Class IIs into solid IIIs. We knew we wouldn't be able to float the big rapids, but we were surprised at the difficulty involved in negotiating the rest of the upper canyon. Fast, technical whitewater with serious consequences: big holes, unending hydraulics, and lots, and lots, and lots of massive rocks. So, we spent most of the evening on the first day negotiating Class II-III whitewater in the upper canyon cautiously and carefully. Three of us took swims in strong eddy lines and rock holes, getting 'bandersnatched' (sucked backwards) into the hydraulics. As the light faded and reading the complex current became more difficult, we called it an evening, bushwhacked up the canyon wall to a trail, and found a four-star campsite on a grassy beach. We went to bed tired, but rewarded.

Not Stupid OR Suicidal

The next day, we walked three and a half miles of trail to bypass massive rapids, including a twelve-foot reverse curling roller at Whitehorse, the bus-sized recirculating hole of the Kitchen Sink, and massive complexity at the Green Wave. There had been no registered attempts, commercial, or private, to float the river since May 12, when the river started to rise. We later learned from hardcore kayakers that running the Bear Trap this time of year should be considered something between stupid and suicidal.

So, at 11:00 a.m. on May 29, we finally dropped in at Bear Trap Creek for a continuous run to Three Forks. We'd float a mile of technical Class II that allowed us to practice our pirouettes and snicker-snacks through a series of rock gardens, followed by miles and miles of more tame Class I-II water that included strong eddies and big wave trains to provide plenty of interesting boating. By the end of the day, we had covered thirty miles, finding a remote island camp after exploring a side channel barely wider than our little boats. As our campfire faded into the darkness of the evening, those of us remaining awake witnessed a treasured and rare event: Montana fireflies. We spotted four of them, blinking intermittently across the stream, twenty feet from our fire. The Montana firefly is an elusive and extraordinarily rare creature, having only been witnessed by select few.

Nothing Like Having Your Blood Drawn

The warm feeling of sharing our camp with fireflies faded soon as we went to bed and removed several less elusive creatures (ticks) from our clothing and skin, along with anything resembling a tick with paranoiac fury - burrs, pine needles, extra clumps of hair, moles, etc.

On May 30, we continued our voyage to Three Forks, exploring tiny, meandering side channels probably unknown to other boaters, napping lazily when the river flow slowed to a crawl, and sharing a tin of smoked oysters towards the end of the trip. Upon our arrival at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers, shortly after we entered the headwaters of the mighty Missouri, a Gallatin County Search and Rescue boat captain (on a training exercise) shouted enthusiastically, "Look at those! Alpackas! They only weigh four pounds and can run whitewater!"

What It's All About

We beached our boats with renewed confidence, discussed the design and execution of Backpacking Light's new Introduction to Packrafting course and a newfound enthusiasm to teach others about safely planning and executing their own packrafting expeditions.

That evening, surrounding a table at Bozeman's MacKenzie River Pizza Company, we talked about our varying states of job security, homelessness, investments, parenting, marriage, and religion. It was clear that our eclectic little group was about as diverse as a Brooklyn Book Club, but our common thread was strong, and we cemented our commitments to each other through an ultralight ethic, a big and wondrous river, and a new mode of travel that left us feeling more than just a little bit giddy.

Participants: Darin Banner, Scott Christy, Carol Crooker, Brett French, Sam Haraldson, Ryan Jordan, Mike Martin, and Andrew Skurka.

Photos: Ryan Jordan, Olympus 790SW


- Learn to Packraft with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking School

- Read about packrafting in the book Packrafting! by Roman Dial

- Watch a video about a packrafting trek through Beartrap Canyon by Ryan Jordan and Bill Stadwiser

- Read an article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, by Amanda Ricker

- Read an article in the Billings Gazette, by Brett French

- More articles about packrafting at Backpacking Light

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 1
We spent the morning of our first day getting used to packrafts at Ennis Lake. Sam Haraldson paddles calm waters while the Tobacco Root Mountains set the scene.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 2
We spent a lot of time flipping and getting back into boats. Mike Martin braces with his paddle, reaches across, and hurls himself back in - a valuable skill that might become necessary as we attempted Bear Trap Canyon.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 3
Mike Martin watches sunrise on the canyon cliffs with the river far below.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 4
Sam Haraldson meanders through brush high on the canyon walls towards the Bear Trap Creek put-in.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 5
Mike Martin paddles below a massive rockslide, caused by an earthquake in the 1990s, that trapped many campers in Bear Trap Canyon by obliterating the road.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 6
The Madison River is home to roosting pelicans in the spring. During the peak season of April and May, one can drift quietly beside flotillas numbering into the hundreds.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 7
We experimented with many types of pack lashing systems, including this one utilizing Nite-Ize Figure 9 fasteners and nylon accessory cord.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 8
Sam Haraldson floats by a packraft-eater.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 9
Sam Haraldson explores the Madison Cliffs, home to riverside micro-ecosystems rich in plant and animal life, including swallows and rattlesnakes.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 10
Scott Christy follows the gang along the Madison Cliffs.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 11
Carol Crooker has second thoughts about not bringing a shelter, with hostility building in the background. When it's 80 degrees and sunny at the put-in, you tend to make these kinds of decisions.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 12
A bald eagle wonders if Darin Banner is vulnerable in the little Alpacka below.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 13
Darin Banner enjoys a quiet moment in an eddy at sunset as we evaluate our camping opportunities.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 14
It's getting late, and Carol's hungry. An expedition packrafter learns to do everything while in the boat, including eat, drink, treat water, brew coffee, brush teeth, and even pee.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 15
Finally, we found a side channel that led to an island camp with cottonwoods and evergreens that would provide us wood for fire and cooking, plus shelter from the storm.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 16
We all left shelters back at the car, so we had to be creative about storm protection. Carol propped her boat in the branches of a tree and slept under it...

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 17 did Sam...

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 18
...while Ryan tied his between two trees, hammock-style...

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 19
...Andy went for an engineered, freestanding-structure...

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 20
: ...while Scott borrowed poor Darin's boat for a two-raft lean-to.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 21
A small fire warmed our hearts, boiled water for our meals, and always seems to be a welcome addition for any river trip.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 22
Andy Skurka distributes boiled water rations for meals and hot drinks in the evening.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 23
Alpenglow on the cottonwoods.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 24
Sunset on the hidden side channel leading into and out of our island campsite.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 25
Andy Skurka gets ready to start our last day of paddling.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 26
A lazy flotilla of packrafters approaching Three Forks, Montana (L to R): Scott Christy, Brett French, Darin Banner, Andrew Skurka, Mike Martin, Carol Crooker, and Sam Haraldson.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 27
Scott Christy negotiating wood in a side channel connecting the Madison and Jefferson Rivers.

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River - 28
Final strokes: Scott paddles past the final eddy to our takeout on the Missouri River near Trident, Montana.


"Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2009-06-09 00:10:00-06.


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Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River on 06/09/2009 22:02:09 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River

Jason Brinkman
(jbrinkmanboi) - MLife

Locale: Idaho
Re: Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River on 06/10/2009 01:13:56 MDT Print View

Awesome pics - looks like a great trip. There's nothing like having a river all to yourselves!

HOWEVER... as a traditional whitewater enthusiast, I feel the need to issue a word of caution to the unannointed. Bear Trap at those flows is a handful. I would not want to experience any Class IV+ river at high spring flows without either the benefit of being accompanied by an experienced high water veteran of that river, or prior personal experience at a range of flows. Make that Class III+ in a packraft!

You wrote, "We later learned from hardcore kayakers that running the Bear Trap this time of year should be considered something between stupid and suicidal." You probably put this in for emphasis, but it doesn't really speak to the level of knowledge that I would want before embarking on such a trip. I suspect you and others in your group have considerable Madison experience, but that isn't stated in the article.

Perhaps I am more risk adverse that some... But I sense a general theme on BPL of trying to convince the world that UL backpacking is not really that extreme - and I agree it's not. Yet arguably packrafting Bear Trap at 4000 CFS is exactly that - extreme.

As for me, I have catarafted some moderately difficult stuff. Like May highwater runs on the MF Salmon, EFSF Salmon, Lochsa, etc. But I do it in the company of a very experienced group of catarafters with hundreds of Class V runs between them on the likes of the NF Payette, SF Salmon, Selway, etc.

Glad to see you in real PFD's at least! Keep safe and have fun. SYOTR.

Brian Barnes
(brianjbarnes) - M

Locale: Midwest
RE: "Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River" on 06/10/2009 06:22:52 MDT Print View

Well done! Enjoyed the read/pictures very much.

Speaking of PFDs... can any of the participants ID the brand/model of the PFD they used? I'm in the market for one and having trouble finding accurate weights to compare the options.

Edited by brianjbarnes on 06/10/2009 07:57:44 MDT.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Beartrap Canyon on 06/10/2009 07:27:40 MDT Print View

Beartrap Canyon at low water (e.g., 1200 cfs) really isn't a place for packrafters at all. There's a lot of water in there.

I've run the rapids at low water but not in the absence of people ready for rescue. And I will not take my packraft through the actual Kitchen Sink or Green Wave holes.

We all had Class III PFD's, most of us had whitewater PFD's. I think some of our favorites include the NRS Clearwater, which has a high foam back that doesn't interfere with the higher packraft seats.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River on 06/10/2009 09:41:05 MDT Print View

These photos turned out wonderfully, Ryan! I'll chime in with a response to Jason regarding the safety and ease of running whitewater. All the decisions to run sections of river were based on one (or more) of the skilled rafters first checking it out either from a "read and run" or from the shore. Then, the group decided whether to run it as a whole or not. If part of the group wanted to walk they had that option, and if part wanted to run it they then formed teams to watch each other thereby running it safely.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Photo Essay: Packrafting the Madison River on 06/10/2009 16:07:05 MDT Print View

Really nice pics! Looks like a lot of fun.

If I were a younger man, then I'd roll on down the river with you.

jim bailey
(florigen) - F - M

Locale: South East
Packrafting the Madison River on 06/14/2009 21:56:51 MDT Print View

That trip must have been a total blast, way too many great people for it not too be.

Keep doing what you do BPL!