Safely dDown the Stream
A beginner’s guide to rowing Montana’s scenic rivers.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
The downstream pull of relentless currents through majestic, ever-changing scenery makes any river journey a moving adventure. Cliffs, meadows, and forests drift by. Clear water pours around boulders and over colored gravel, then ripples past darting trout. As you come around a bend, boulders appear. Mild doses of adrenaline pump into your system as you make quick directional decisions. Steady backrowing causes a quickening of your heart—an engine fueled by a big river breakfast, sweet mountain air, and the desire to see what’s around the next bend.
I’ve spent the last 30-plus years watching riverbanks glide by as the backs of my hands have grown wrinkled on the oars. The combination of great exercise, adventure, and some of Montana’s best scenery makes life in the rower’s seat a good place to be. Rowers are drawn by the fishing, the excitement of whitewater runs, and the mayflies, swallows, nibbling beavers, grazing deer, and all the other wildlife seen from a boat.
River floaters can be anybody from weekenders soaking up the sun to serious whitewater runners employing highly technical skills. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, every rower should know the basic rules and techniques to running a river:
Rivers aren’t theme park rides. They are dangerous, powerful, and unpredictable, and people drown in them every year. “Many people don’t understand that nature can take you quickly,” says Bryan Golie, an FWP game warden who often works along the Missouri River between Great Falls and Cascade. Golie notes that any boat on moving water should carry a throw rope and cell phone (in a plastic bag) and that everyone should wear a life jacket (though it’s legally required only for those 12 and under). “You need to learn to read water and to respect its deceiving power,” he says. This is particularly true for complex whitewater, which often occurs in spring when snowmelt creates dangerously cold water and numerous downed trees, called sweepers.
To safely navigate Montana rivers, you need a sturdy craft as well as skills honed by knowledge and experience. Acquiring these skills takes time. Beginning rowers should start on easier stretches of river and work their way up to water of increasing degrees of difficulty. One way to speed up the learning curve is to hire an experienced river guide for a day.
A few other tips: Always remember you need to be constantly making steering adjustments and scanning downstream to spot the best route to take. If you plant to float rivers with braided channels, ask other rowers at the boat ramp if they know of channels with new sweepers or other hazards to avoid.
Paying attention to river safety prevents injuries. Paying attention to river ethics and etiquette helps you and other river recreationists have a more enjoyable time on the water. As increasing numbers of anglers, rafters, kayakers, inner-tubers, and others mingle on Montana’s rivers and streams, conflicts increase. The basic rules of river etiquette:
• Use ramps quickly. Ramps are for loading and unloading boats only. Don’t prevent others from using the ramp while you inflate your raft or load or unload your gear from the boat. Take care of that elsewhere and then get the boat and towing vehicle off the ramp quickly.
• Keep quiet. Most people float rivers for peace and quiet and to view natural settings. Loud radios and rowdy behavior at accesses, on the water, and at river camps ruin the river experience for others.
• Don’t trespass. In Montana, river users may wade in the water anywhere, but on land they may set foot only on public property, on riverbanks below the ordinary high-water mark, or on private land with landowner permission.
• Don’t litter: Bring a bag for your own trash (and human waste), and consider picking up litter you see during your trip.
One of the biggest challenges facing river users is the growing conflict between waders and rowers. Wading anglers complain that boats scare the fish they are casting to. Rowers point out that it can be difficult to safely navigate around waders, especially on smaller rivers, and that often they can’t avoid spooking fish. “As rivers see more use, it’s likely that conflicts will become more common,” says Charlie Sperry, FWP’s river recreation coordinator. “But conflicts are not only caused by overcrowding; sometimes it’s simply the attitude and practices of people on the rivers.” Sperry says all river users need to communicate with each other to reduce conflicts.
If you see anglers in the river ahead of you, pay special attention to where they are casting so you don’t ruin their fishing. If the river or channel is so small that you have to float near anglers, ask which way you should go to least affect their fishing.
As if rowers didn’t have enough to worry about with rock gardens and wading anglers, they have to contend with Montana’s strong winds. Cross winds blow boats to the lee side of the river (and woe to the angler who wades the lee shoreline on a windy weekend day). Tail winds can blow a boat downstream into obstructions. Head winds can significantly slow your progress, delaying your arrival to the takeout into the night. Only skilled, powerful rowers can keep a boat on course in steady 30-plus mph winds on rivers like the Yellowstone and Missouri. On these big waters, casual floaters may want to reschedule their outing if the forecast calls for high winds.
Another rowing headache is very shallow water, something common on smaller Montana rivers once water levels drop in early summer. The boat ends up stuck on gravel bars, requiring the occupants to get out and either walk alongside the craft or drag it until the channel deepens.
Yet another hazard, one beginners rarely consider, is a rising or setting sun. The Blackfoot River, for instance, flows directly west, and at sunset the reflections are so bright on the broken water that it’s nearly impossible to see where you’re going.
All this talk of challenges, safety, and ethics is important, but don’t let it dissuade you from grabbing a pair of oars and learning how to row. Rowing Montana’s rivers can be one of summer’s greatest pleasures. A boat not only allows you to reach great fishing water that you often can’t access by wading, but it also takes you through some of the most scenic valleys in the United States. By being properly equipped and prepared, and learning how to control the boat in all situations, you’ll be able to fully enjoy your Montana river experience this summer and for years to come.
Rivers are rated by an international 1 to 6 system, with 1 being easiest and 6 unrunnable. Class 4 or 5 rivers or rapids are for experts only. For ratings of Montana rivers, information on river rescue, and more, visit the American Whitewater Association website at www.awa.org. For additional information on river ethics and etiquette, visit the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov and search for “etiquette.”
Neale Streeks is a writer and river guide in Great Falls.
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