Conrad Evarts upsidedown in his kayak on the Big Blackfoot River.
My friend Conrad Evarts, the guy showing off in all these pictures, was the one with the guidebook, so I believed him when he said kayaking this stretch of the Big Blackfoot River should take about three hours. It took six. Also, he’s been kayaking a lot longer than me—I just started last summer—so I took his word when he said I was getting good. Turns out he didn’t know what he was talking about on that front either.
The problem with guidebooks is that, unless you pay attention to the scale, it’s easy to think any river is about six inches long. Conrad didn’t bother to figure out the inch-to-mile conversion and our fun little midday float turned into a 29-mile endurance run from Russell Gates to Johnsrud.
Evarts rolls his boat to the preferable upright position.
Of course I didn’t know that was going to happen when we set out, so I began with all kinds of energy. When we arrived at the first significant rapid, just below a bridge on Highway 200, I was still in his spirits. The Blackfoot was running high with spring melt and the rapid was definitely the biggest I’d yet seen from a kayak, but I was confident in my paddling ability, my brace, my combat roll. So I paddled hard right at the wave’s tongue, dropped into the trough, and immediately rolled upside down.
It’s a strange sensation, being upsidedown in churning whitewater. You open your eyes and see all these bubbles going in every direction and think, “Shouldn’t they all be going up?” But you can’t argue with a river. Because it’s a river.
I shook off my philosophizing and tried to roll back over using my paddle, but the churning water kept tugging it out of position. After trying a couple times, I yanked the strap on my skirt and squirted out of the boat into the waves.
When I bobbed to the surface, my paddle floated just ahead. I grabbed it. But the boat was out of my reach. So I called out to Conrad. I sank into the trough of the next wave and swallowed a little gulp of water. I called Conrad again. Some people were over on the shore, pointing. By the time I got to the bank, Conrad and those other people had caught my boat on the far side.
I started walking downriver, looking for a place to cross.
Conrad pointed upriver.
“Use the bridge!”
Strange, I remember thinking that walking downriver had to be easier. But that logic might have had something to do with the fact that I’d just swum about eighty yards in 45-degree whitewater.
We got back on the river and floated some more. My confidence was a little shaken. Conrad was very helpful. “At least you caught your paddle,” he said.
We floated a long stretch of basically calm water. I got so bored that my confidence eventually came back. I probably would have paddled just about any rapid just to be off the river.
Then we rounded a bend and found ourselves in the middle of another rapid.
I went over the top of a rock into a hole. The water was churning back and back and back. I paddled and paddled and paddled trying to break free. I was just about to escape when my boat rolled.
There were those bubbles again, going in every direction.
My roll failed again, so I found myself once more swimming downriver. Conrad caught my boat. I got out on the bank and looked downriver at a respectable stretch of whitewater. I decided to rest and warm up before trying.That’s when a group of nice people from Missoula pulled up in a raft, saw I was shivering, and asked if I wanted to ride the last stretch in their raft.
“No thanks,” I said.
They said the next section was probably the hardest on the river.
Their raft was spacious and quite comfortable.
In the end, I’m pretty sure the failures were all Conrad’s fault, because I kayaked that last section of rapids a few weeks later with a guy named Ryan Schmalz and didn’t even get flipped upsidedown once.
The only problem with Ryan as a kayaking buddy is that he managed, somehow, to make all the hydraulic fluid spontaneously gush out of my truck’s clutch on the ride home.