The 3 Rivers Tradition in these Viral Times

It’s tempting to just give in. These times are so strange and fraught that it’s easy to just put things off, cancel, wait for the next shoe to drop. I wasn’t sure how to handle this year’s Memorial Day, 3 Rivers challenge, the sixth. I had a slate of rivers I’d picked out months ago, a loose plan, because loose plans are always best, for how to pull it off. But then . . . this all happened and I was teetering on hitting the pause button, putting it off for a year, picking up again when whatever passes for normal down the road becomes clear. About then Scott Gill weighed in with a suggestion.

“What about just doing three day trips from town and not camping?” he asked.

What about it? And why didn’t I think of that?

It isn’t as if we don’t have a handful of river sections close to home that make good candidates. I started thinking that through, put out an email to gauge interest. Another person in the group suggested that we pick rivers with bicycle shuttles so we wouldn’t have to share the confinement of shuttle vehicles together. That seemed reasonable. That limited the choices.

Eventually I came up with some likely suspects, including my old favorite, the East Gallatin, because most of the group had never done it and the sweetness of sharing that river with friends was irresistible. Still, the usual balancing act ensued, juggling water levels, weather conditions, difficulty, the right blend to make it challenging enough, different enough, engaging enough.

What shuffled together in the end was a trio of floats within a two hour drive from town – the Boulder River of the Jefferson drainage, my favorite section of the East Gallatin, and the seasonal stretch of the main Gallatin from the Yellowstone Park boundary to Red Cliff campground. The first morning it snowed in Bozeman, but the Boulder looked like it would be better weather. The conditions made everyone question the bike shuttle wrinkle, and folks figured out how to combine with family or friends they had already been in contact with. Based on that ingenuity, for the remainder of the weekend, bikes shuttles were scuttled.

The Boulder had that hidden gem, off-the-radar quality. Hardly anyone floats it. The paddling window is a few weeks long. The section we paddled leaves the road and descends through a pretty valley with tight corners, occasional snags, a low bridge to portage, a dramatic diversion dam to line. The weather cooperated – cool and gray but dry. Everyone stayed upright and entertained. Because we’ve all been distanced and cooped up lately, the best part of the time was a shore lunch full of catch-up conversations. We ended up with a few miles on the Jefferson, running at a good clip, to the take out.

The East Gallatin was next, and I’ve written more than enough about the qualities of that watershed, so I won’t go there. Suffice it to say that I ushered a group of locals into the select company of the East Gallatin Fan Club. The day turned beautiful. We lounged through another lengthy lunch full of good conversation, and there was plenty of dodgy challenge on the tight corners, narrow passages, snaggy deadfall to keep us on our toes. Part way along someone said, “I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve lived here as long as I have and had no idea this was here!” And again, everyone stayed dry and happy.

On Monday we tackled the upper Gallatin River, from the shallows coasting past the Yellowstone Park boundary sign, to the miles of constant rock-garden rapids below, again past familiar landmarks and country, but with people who hadn’t ever probed this far up. And you guessed it, good company, boisterous fun, constant maneuvering, and a distanced gathering in the campground at the end to savor the interlude of community.

So, some things continue, slightly tweaked to adapt, but continue nonetheless. The tradition lives – six years and eighteen stretches of water in the books, and no intention of stopping there.

In fact, since the water is up, the energy keeps fueling more outings. Just yesterday a group of us took on lower 16-Mile Creek, another watershed hardly anyone goes down. A watershed that is such an unbelievable gem of limestone canyon, brilliant green spring color, a black bear watching us coast past, a few interesting moments in the water, all shared with good friends, family, and the blessing of this spring landscape rising up in defiance of the insanity we’re living through.

The take home lesson? Don’t give in, adapt, and persevere. Keep those paddles in the water and eyes on the next bend.

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