This time of year, I check the USGS streamflow gauges every day. Actually, I peek at them all year long, mostly out of slightly compulsive habit and in search of the occasional surprise (like last year’s November bonus of floating the Smith River). But starting in March, even February, I look at Montana rivers almost daily. I also check Idaho, Utah, and a few other states where seasonal floats are always on the radar. I check the Rio Grande in Texas probably monthly. You never know.
How did we manage before real-time streamflow gauges? Word of mouth, notes in journals. Serendipity, faith. Much the way we used to assess avalanche danger before snowtel sites and avalanche reports. “I don’t hear anything whumping, do you? Let’s go!”
This year’s gauge-watch period began with the Dirty Devil, in Utah. Unfortunately, that gauge delivered FAKE NEWS and we were sandbagged by low water in early March, but managed a stellar trip nonetheless. Since then it’s been the Owyhee in Oregon, which has had a bumper spring this year, and which we floated with Sawyer and Bella and a group of Boise friends in early May. It was my third time down the stretch from Rome to Birch Cr., and it stands as one of my top ten floats in the west, maybe even top three. One day of slightly hypothermic conditions and steady rain, but otherwise really memorable.
Since then I’ve been concentrated on Montana rivers, which have had a really robust spring rise. We’ve gotten down all the stretches of the East Gallatin, from Bozeman to Manhattan over the course of a month, done the lower Madison, always a swooping spring charge full of cranes and eagles and heads-up braided channels. Managed to get in a blustery day on the Sun in April, a gauge-watch candidate if ever there was one! This past week we did another run (maybe our 10th time. . .) of Belt Cr., between Monarch and Sluice Boxes, which I think stands as arguably the best single day of floating in Montana – limestone canyons, constant read-and-run rapids, the odd log jam to avoid, no people, and the rollicking amusement park ride through the Sluice Boxes at the end. God what a great day, and we hit it with warm sunshine and terrific water levels.
Now we’re gearing up for the third annual 3 Rivers/3 Days trips over Memorial Day. Watching the gauges and assessing the best trio of floats has been an absolute moving target and a roller-coaster of river levels. We’ve finally settled on the West Fk. of the Bitterroot, the St. Regis, and Silver Bow Cr. – all new stretches for everyone, all seasonal floats – very much in keeping with my initial inspiration to spend a chunk of spring out in Montana doing little rivers and car camping in between.
Then there’s the Boulder, the Shields, the Yellowstone, the Dearborn, and all the rest that will bear watching, being ready, and when the gauge is right, heading out the door. All with a bow to that sweet, solar-powered, satellite-driven technology – maybe I’m not as much of a Luddite as I thought.