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Bear Trap Canyon
Rapids offer whitewater seekers thrills, maybe a chill

By Brett French of Montana Lee Newspapers, 09/12/2001

McALLISTER -- The sign at the boat launch is enough to chill a floater's thrill for whitewater. At least eight people have died while floating the Madison River's Bear Trap Canyon in southwest Montana.

The canyon's Kitchen Sink rapid is arguably the deadliest piece of whitewater in the state, according to Stan Bradshaw, author of "River Safety: A Floaters' Guide.''

"It's a knee-knocking experience for a lot of our clientele,'' said Louis Bishop, part owner of Yellowstone Raft Company.

Yet the 9-mile stretch, about 35 miles southwest of Bozeman, is also one of the most coveted runs in Montana because of its remoteness, coarse beauty and rapids that make river runners' innards shrivel.

The Bear Trap is the Madison's little-known wild side, its alter ego. The Madison is better known for its trout fishery. Fly anglers from around the world tangle with trout from the river's headwaters in Yellowstone National Park to its convergence with the Gallatin and Jefferson rivers below Three Forks. Here the three waters merge to create the mighty Missouri River.

Over most of its course, the Madison is a relatively gentle stream. It broadens out in the Madison Valley, south of Ennis, where fly anglers flock. Below the Bear Trap, the river slows and widens again, attracting crowds of recreational floaters trying to cool off on hot summer days.

So the Bear Trap, with its lively whitewater, is a bit of an aberration on the Madison. People don't expect such violence from an otherwise mild-mannered stream.

Canyon walls that stretch skyward 1,500 feet constrict the Madison to create the Bear Trap's faster flows and rapids. Along the walls, blocks of rock climb to a thin blue strip of skyline. Wildlife from mule deer to bears and eagles frequent the canyon. On the downside, there are also rattlesnakes and wood ticks.

Such solitude comes at a price. Help is a long way from this road less area, part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, the Bureau of Land Management's first designated wilderness in Montana. If a floater goofs up here, it's a lot of rock hopping to the nearest road.

For river runners, the float starts not far below the dam that creates shallow Ennis Lake. Two steel I-beams with a metal grate welded between act as a boat launch within the narrow confines of the canyon. Once launched, floaters won't access a paved road for another nine miles.

The sign at the boat launch, besides citing floating fatalities, also warns of the dangers ahead and advises floaters to avoid using uncovered canoes or rafts shorter than 14 feet. Private boaters don't need a permit to float the river, but are required to sign in at a registration box near the launch.

Only two outfitters are permitted by the BLM to float the wilderness section of the Madison. Yellowstone Raft Company, based in the Gallatin Canyon, guides whitewater trips down the Bear Trap. Bear Trap Express guides anglers on rafts down the river, with trips booked by Glen Gallentine at The Tackle Shop in Ennis.

Each company is allowed only 40 days a year down the river, so for guides and guests it's a coveted trip, Bishop said.

"It's the jewel of the raft company,'' he said. "It's a lot of fun for us to go over there.''

According to Gallentine, angling trips down the Bear Trap are usually booked a year in advance. "Our 40 days go pretty fast; they're very popular,'' he said.

Angling in the Bear Trap is a different experience from the rest of the river, Gallentine said. "It's pocket-water fishing behind large boulders. We catch some nice fish down there, rainbows and browns primarily.''

Anglers tackle the Bear Trap as early as May to catch the Mother's Day caddis hatch, Gallentine said. Then it's usually after July 4 before the water recedes and it's comfort able to float again.

"It's primarily a wet fly fishery,'' he said, "usually nymphs and streamers with a little grasshopper action in late August and September.''

The attraction for anglers, Gallentine said, is less fishing pressure and the beauty of the canyon. "It's a very scenic, wilderness-type experience,'' he said. "It's kind of unique to the area.''

Only the two commercial outfitters are permitted on the river, in keeping with the river's wilderness management plan, said Rick Waldrup, an outdoor recreation planner for BLM in Dillon.

According to Susan James, Waldrup's counterpart in Ennis, about 4,500 people on average run the river in a year. James said that figure has been steadily rising, but fluctuates with streamflows. "It has a lot to do with water levels else where,'' she said. If the water is down elsewhere, paddlers are attracted to the Bear Trap because flows are d About 75 percent of Bear Trap floaters are whitewater enthusiasts, compared to about 25 percent anglers, James estimated. River runners are divided by seasons. Kayakers generally prefer the early season when the water is high, James said. Rafters are more likely to visit beginning in June.

For whitewater paddlers, the attraction to this short section of the 133-mile-long river is its three rapids -- White Horse, Kitchen Sink and Green Wave.

According to "Western Whitewater, A Guide for Raft, Kayak and Canoe,'' floaters hit the Class III White Horse rapid about two miles downstream from the put in. The book describes the rapid as long and technical with big drops, big waves, tight turns and plenty of rocks.

"White Horse is a left-hand move the whole way down,'' Bishop said.

The Kitchen Sink, the most feared of the Bear Trap's rapids, comes only 1.2 miles later. The rapid is rated a Class IV, but can be more difficult in high water. Bishop said his company no longer runs the river in flows over 3,200 cubic feet per second. It typically drops to that level in mid-July, but varies depending on runoff and stream flows.

"When you first look at it you say, `Huh, I don't see a route through it,'' James said. She calls the Kitchen Sink a solid Class IV. "It's very technical and changes drastically with water levels.''

According to "Western Whitewater,'' Class III rapids have considerably bigger waves, holes and currents than Class II. "Advanced and expert boaters can usually `read and run' them, but less experienced river runners should scout,'' the book advises. Class IV rapids are "generally steeper, longer and more heavily obstructed than Class III rapids. They are often `technical' runs requiring a number of turns and lateral moves. Preliminary scouting of all Class IV rapids is definitely recommended unless the boater is highly skilled and knows the river intimately.''

Bishop estimated that about one out of every three or four clients his company guides down the river gets out to walk around the Kitchen Sink. "It is the most difficult rapid we do as a raft company,'' he said.

"Year in, year out, I hear more horror stories about Kitchen Sink rapid than anywhere else in Montana,'' Bradshaw said.

At the top of the rapid, water gushes around Herb's Rock. "You've got to go river left of it,'' Bishop said. "The difficulty is pulling against the current.''

Right after Herb's Rock comes Camelback, where river runners have to make another left or risk losing their boat. "We've seen rafts get wrapped on that,'' Bishop said.

Green Wave, another Class III -- also called The Dumplings and Youthful Folly -- comes only another mile downstream. That's three big rapids in about four miles.

"Green Wave gets more people because a lot of floaters let their guard down after Kitchen Sink,'' Bishop said. "It's probably where I see the most carnage.''

Bishop advises taking Green Wave down the river right side. "You can't really tell which way to go from upstream,'' he said. "I've seen lots of private rafts flip there.''

Other Montana rivers may have bigger waves and some have longer rapids. What the Bear Trap offers is technical water in a secluded setting without having to fly into a wilderness area.

"The wilderness character is what sets it apart,'' James said. "It's the only wilderness whitewater trip you can do in a single day in the state.''

Given such amenities, Bishop said he's amazed at how little floater traffic the Bear Trap sees. "That's so cool to me that you can be that close to Bozeman and its strong boating community, and still not see a soul,'' he said. "It is, in my mind, a wild experience.''

Used with permission of the Montana Standard.

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