how deep is the river?

Segue into a new Season

Well, the summer has ended and I can’t believe how quickly it went. Overall, it was one of the best and most memorable summers of my life. I became a better guide, a better worker and, I like to think, a better friend. Now I sit in snowy Bozeman and keep looking forward, but every now and then a moment from the river replays in my head and I end up smiling.

At the end of the season, I had the good fortune of going on two play trips with my peers. Play trips are like raft guide benefits. They’re the time to take what you’ve learned, push your skill level, see a new river and let loose a bit. It is the ultimate perk and like Dani said, the best bonus we could ever receive for a season of work is to be lent a boat (specifically the KILLZONE) to take down the river.

The first trip was a week long expedition on the Main Salmon River (also known as the river of no return) in Idaho. Surrounded by wilderness, it was the ultimate get away. We slept on sandy beaches every night under clear skies that had even more stars than I’ve seen in Montana, which is saying a lot. The water was great, the hotsprings was awesome and the people were just amazing. 

The second was Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River, also in Idaho. Because it is a dam release section of the river, the level was nice and high. The wave trains put roller coasters to shame, and I went through some of my favorite rapids of my rafting career thus far. Even though it was a short trip, spending only three days on the riv, the scenery, the water and the people made every second count.

Wild Sheep Rapid on Hell's Canyon

Each of those trips deserve their own blog post… and maybe I’ll get on that…

But now the rafting season is done and with snowflakes always hanging in the air, I prepare for the next months of my life. Every now and then life offers us a respite from the race and a chance to rotate our tires (or switch them up), fill up our tank and replace our wipers. It even allows us a chance to get the map out of the glove compartment and plan the next section of the trip. Unemployment and several weeks of waiting to hear back from various opportunities has given me such a break, and I have been enjoying it. I fill my time with endeavors that are “intrinsically gratifying,” as my friend Lizzie puts it. As always,  practicing art fills a lot of hours, as does money making schemes that stay just that; schemes. I also spend time educating myself on practical matters of business and finance which, surprisingly, the English Lit program never covered.

Basically, the way I see it, I’m certainly not looking for a career at the moment (which works out great because I don’t think they’re looking for me either…) and I’m not looking for too much security or any commitments past the season in front of me. I’m looking to live inspired, actively and creatively.

About a year ago, a friend, Karl, was rapidly taken away. He has been on my mind lately and I remember the burst of passion for life that I gained from the stories and memories of his life. Karl found his own happiness, defined his own success and lived authentically. He was the type who woke up in the morning, randomly inspired to build a kitchen table, and by evening was sitting down to it for dinner (true story!). A year ago, his memorial made me really question what gives me the most passion, what I would like to be doing the most today. My table is Teest, a collective stuido space for all the Bozeman artists locked in their rooms attempting to work in an un-giving and distracting atmosphere. It has been an idea with me since 2008, and last year at this time, Karl inspired me to make it more than an idea. Now it is a plan, one that will continue to be a goal over the next few years.  So, in my spare time, I continue to build upon it, so that when I do have money, everything will be ready!

And that, friends, is where I am at. I’m sorry this blog lost so much momentum but it does appear that, as Gardiner slips further into the past, I regain the brain cells to pursue more mindful activities. 🙂

❤ katie


Every now and then we all have to take calculated risks. You know there is a good chance something will go wrong or end poorly, but you still go for it hoping it just might end in your favor with glory. Any outdoor enthusiast knows this. Even going for a hike in bear territory is a risk you can prepare for but the simple truth is, you just never know. It is when you don’t know the risks that things can go terribly wrong.

That is why, before our July 4th canyon run, I sat at the picnic tables outside of the office and gave my brother and friends a completely legitimate safety talk.

“There is a very good chance you will swim today.”

Normally, running Boxcar Rapid at high water is an activity done only with other guides. But my brother and friends are strong, active people so I felt secure in their ability. Plus, they were ready to go big.

The river was running at 23,700 cfs. As the day went on, the weather got worse and worse. By our departure time, 6:00 pm, ominous clouds had already formed over Yankee Jim Canyon. By the time we were actually getting onto the river, the temperature significantly dropped (a side effect of which is that our boat became slightly deflated), rain started falling heavily and lightning was jumping around.

Right after we put our boat into the river, the rain became so strong that it overpowered our voices and ears. Our three boats, Liz and Sam on his Cat for safety, Drew and someone else on the Star and 11 of us on the Barge eddied out right before the canyon to wait it out or to bail. When the rain weakened, we pushed off. I was extremely excited. I wanted to paddle guide through the canyon, hit the meat of Boxcar and was grateful to all my paddlers for helping me go for it.

“Forward Three!” I called out to practice our paddles. I felt the boat surge ahead beneath me. “Back Three!” “Right Back” “Left Back”. We were a ready crew.

The first rapid, Revenge, was a huge train of waves. We made it through, albeit slightly sideways. I had never used a guide stick as opposed to an oar frame through this kind of water before.

As we went towards Big Rock, Sam motioned that we should hit it. But I had no interest in running it. I wanted all our energy focused on Boxcar. We came to the Pinch, the area right before Boxcar, where the Canyon becomes narrower and the water speeds up. On each side of the river there are huge boils and eddy lines that can slow boats down and take control. The right side has what is called “The Room of Doom,” because it can grab your boat and pull you in to the canyon walls; a place you definitely do not want to be in.

After the Room of Doom, the river comes around a corner and Boxcar, at high water, takes up almost half of the river. You can avoid it by sneaking by on the left or pushing with all your power to the right. We however, would be doing neither of those things.

We lined up for the pinch and started hitting the big, choppy waves perfectly, following Sam’s Cat, our safety boat. I looked up and saw that Sam’s cat had been caught by the Room of Doom boils and was slowing down. For a second I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to run into him and push him farther towards the walls. I also didn’t want to blaze by him because then he would no longer be our safety.

But hesitation in moments such as these can be treacherous, so when Sam flung his arm in the air to tell us “Keep Going!” we kept going. “All Forward!”

I could feel my paddlers losing their steam, especially once we came around the corner and saw it. “All F*ing Forward!” I screamed as I focused on lining up to the wave. We plowed right into the center of Boxcar.

I remember looking up at wave crashing right on us. Our boat paused for a second and I realized that not only had we lost momentum, but we were being pushed backwards. We had not made it through. I hunched down in the back and watched everyone else bobbing and vibrating as the wave surfed us. Fortunately, the wave held us long enough for Sam to pass by, side swiping and keeping upright even though he could only use one oar. His sideswipe made the inevitable come quicker. Our boat turned sideways and boom, it flipped.

There is an interesting thing that happens with each swim you take. You learn and become better at it. Since I have swam before, I didn’t worry about my breath. Nor did I worry about my arm somehow becoming tangled or trapped. Instead I just held the perimeter line (the rope around the boat) with a determination to stay with it, even upside down and in the water. I trusted my arm muscles to keep me with it but I realized within a few seconds of being thrashed over and over that we, the boat and I, were still in the wave. It had not spit us out yet. Finally a big crash came to my torso and forced me to let go. When I popped up downstream, I looked up river to see two people swimming, but there was still no boat. It was still in Boxcar.

The next thing I noticed was the short but booming presence of Liz screaming at everyone to swim to Sam’s Cat. Everyone got to it and we now know that Sam’s Cat can have 12 people on it or hanging onto it at once. Drew picked up one other swimmer and the boat which was finally free. We got the barge flipped back over (a task that required two of us) and returned to the river. Beers were passed out and there was laughing and cheering and instant recapping of what had just happened.

Later Pat, who watched us from shore, explained that our boat only made it half way through the wave. The front paddlers couldn’t reach any water and that is when we got pushed back in. He also explained that our boat “taco’d,” (in other words folded) because it wasn’t pumped enough. Some say we never had a chance because the wave was just too big. But I still think a few variables could have been altered and we maybe, just maybe, could have made it. I guess we won’t know until next year… as long as the water gets as high again.


Happy Custies from summer 2010

One of the best things a guide can hear from their customers is, “This has been the highlight of our vacation.” Comments like that make us beam with happiness, knowing that they “got it;” they got the river experience that we all feel passionate about; the experience we live for and love.

Being a raft guide is one of the most complex jobs. Not only are we responsible for moving people safely down the river, we are also focused on helping them enjoy the experience the most they can. Carter, a fourth year guide at YRC likes to jokingly explain, We aren’t just river guides. We’re life guides.” To accomplish this portion of the job takes time and reflection as well as an awareness of what your customers want and need. It also takes a refining of story telling skills, knowledge about the river and surrounding area and a plethora of jokes or entertainments.

Some groups like the quiet solitude the river offers. They are away from their normal distractions and put out in Mother N. How often is it that you are not only away from your cell phone, but you are also threatened with being thrown out of the boat should you bring one? Other groups love to spend their trip interacting and playing with each other. Just today, I had a boat with two families on it that meshed perfectly. In the first swimming section, most of the kiddos dropped willingly (though some needed extra prodding from their parents and I) into the  cold Yellowstone water. In the second swim section, the kids rallied behind my suggestion that it was all the parents’ turns.

“But how will we get them back in?” a bright-eyed 9-year-old asked.

“I don’t know,” I smiled.

Plop plop plop plop. All four parents went in, much to the delight of those remaining on the boat. One even got an extra shove from his daughter’s tiny foot. One mother was very cold, so I pulled her back in. The kids got the other mother in. Then the Dad’s looked at me, “How do we get in?”

“You have spouses on here, don’t you? I guess this is the ultimate test if they want you back in the boat or not!” I laughed as the women reached for their husbands, pulling them back in the boat with the technique we teach everyone during the safety speech. While applauding their rescue skills, I notice that the men always end up awkwardly on top of their female rescuers and, let’s get real, they all love it.

Other boats love knowing anything and everything about the area, so as a guide you do a lot of talking. Other times you do a lot of listening. And every now and then it happens that you get groups who are just not into it. But you just sit back, look at the riv and surrounding landscape and find peace in that. We have the best views from our offices.

A group of Big Sky Youth Empowerment kiddos learning how to work together to have fun!

Customers come in all varieties. The Yellowstone is great because we really can accommodate almost anyone. The custies all work together, whoop and holler in unison and have a great memory to share. By the end of the trip, people are usually smiling from ear to ear and are totally psyched on life. It is nice to feel that we have somehow benefited others.

As a custie from the Bronx exclaimed last year as he shoved a pint of Bozone Amber into his guide’s hand, “You guys really change lives.” If that is even a little true, I am pretty psyched.

They're pretty psyched.. . to be fair, that is some of my family. Dad is front right. 🙂

Every year there is a main event that the raft companies in Gardiner look forward to. Some companies even train for it, paddling upstream for hours on end everyday. Other companies (ahem, MWW) prepare for it by dancing the hardest at every musical event, putting everyone else to shame with their amazing dance moves.  But it all comes down to the guide raft race, where all companies get together to battle it out throughYankee Jim Canyon, knowing only two commands; “All forward” and “All F****** Forward!!!!.”

This year, tensions were high going in. Wild West, who has won every year except the on that MWW pulled through, had a crew that (kind of) lacked the huge muscles of previous years. A new company in town,Paradise, had something to prove, especially since they have guides who were Wild Westers last year. YRC, always a contender in the past, decided to stay dead sober and on top of their game this year. And MWW, who may not always be the biggest crew and has way more women guides than any other company, had the spirit and skill to get it done. As well, there is the Flying Pigs, a group of tight-knit guides full of surprises.

Last year was my first time paddling in the race. We went all forward for 24 minutes straight, only to come in second after Wild West. This year, MWW decided not to participate, much to everyone else’s disappointment. Our decision not to participate was based on the high water and the amount of debris (full sized trees floating down the river). Of course, not joining has only intensified the amount of crap we get for being an overly cautious company, but I can think of many things worse to be made fun of then having good judgment.

Anyhow, not participating gave us the chance to spectate and that in and of itself was a total blast. At about ten to 5:00 last night, we cruised down Highway 89 and parked at the turnout by Boxcar Rapid, the last and most precarious rapid of the race. We hiked up to the cliff hangover, sat down with PBRs in hand and watched Boxcar hole crash again and again, yelling “woooooe!” and “Did you seee that!” every time a log (again.. tree) went in and got thrashed.ClassicRiverentertainment.

The Canyon walls were packed with on lookers. Who these people were, I have no idea. As the safety Cat and kayaker got into place, we speculated the upcoming race. We hoped that Wild West and Paradise would come into Boxcar side by side, only to push each other out of the way for YRC to sneak through and take it home. Suddenly, there was a lot of commotion. Across the River we saw Liz’s truck kick the Old Highway’s dust into the air and nearly toss people out of the bed as she screeched to a halt. The rafts were coming fast.

High-water and All Forwards made them fly past us. Wild West andParadise, both reddish colored boats, were actually side by side and YRC, in their favorite blue, was hanging close behind! Wild West went left of Boxcar and Paradise had only one option; to go through it. We held our breaths as they got closer to it, their raft still pointing sideways, but at the last second they teed up and barely made it through. YRC went right of Boxcar, getting closer and closer to the red boats. The Pigs then came through, a little behind, and hit Boxcar without too much momentum. They high sided beautifully, kept their raft upright and a supportive cheer erupted from the banks.

We watched the boats for another minute as they entered Champagne Eddy, a place tricky to navigate because of all the swirlies. The two lead boats bumped, allowing one to get ahead, though we couldn’t tell who it was. YRC was then side by side with the second place red boat, pushing strong. We ran back to our car, hopped in and followed the caravan of onlookers down to Tom Miner Bridge, the finish line. We parked and ran down to the bridge to see the end. By that time, Wild West, in their leopard print tank tops, had pulled ahead. YRC was behind them and Paradise behind them. The boats went under the bridge, all the guides ducking quickly in order to avoid a face-full of steel.

The Piggies flipped their boat on purpose and rode it upside down through the finish line to many cheers. Finally, the safety Cat passed through, also to a round of applause. Mark called out, “Want a Beer?!” holding up the last PBR hopefully. The guide couldn’t hear him and was more concerned with hunkering down into his boat to make it under the bridge.

It was over, and once again, Wild West holds the reign.

Paradise pulling out, Wild West going left
The boat order right after Boxcar… It all changed in Champange Eddy
The Piggies with a beautifully executed highside

In Memory of Mr. Karl

If you were ever driving down Highway 89 and found yourself stuck behind an Explorer cruising at 55mph and bumping to the Slim Shady XM station, then you had the good fortune to meet, in some form or another, Karl Jacobic.

When I think of Karl, there is one scene that stands out vividly to me. It was one of those moments you merely catch from your peripheral vision, almost not observing it at all which makes it that much more meaningful. It was a cold and rainy day on the river. Customers were on our deck chattering as they changed from their wetsuits and soaked through fleeces into dry clothes. Rain was still falling as I walked down the cement stairs with customer life jackets weighing down my outstretched arms. I was frowning with focus because even though the trip had been good, I was ready to get my gear work done, change out of my wet suit and get inside for the remainder of the day.

Karl’s group of customers had arrived before mine and they were just finishing up changing when I walked down to the life jacket room. As I turned to go in, I caught Karl in the corner of my eye. He was still in all his gear, his customers were changed and he had in his hand his book of passes to Chico Hot Springs. He was ripping the passes out and shoving them into his customers’ hands, not giving them the opportunity to say no. They were smiling; saying, “Thank You!” and he just smiled and shook his head side to side.

Last November, we had to say good bye to Karl after an unfortunate car accident. But there is no doubt that Karl’s influence on all of us perseveres.

If you see a Montana Whitewater guide donning a neon green hat, you can bet that it is in memory of Karl. He had a one man mission to bring neon back. Also, if they’re rockin’ fake ray ban sun glasses with neon sides, you know that they are in memory of Karl. He rocked the neon greens for an entire summer, reasoning that “custies love it!” Liz, our shortest and most feisty guide, bought the glasses for all of us last summer and wrote our nicknames on the side. Karl gave us all these nicknames, and we rock them proudly.

Me- I’m Potdiggler

Dani- DANI!!! (There is a certain way this is said)

Mark- RFN (no, I can’t say what it means here…)

Dave- Dbag (this was usually combined with Tristan’s to create a rhyme)

Tristan- TbagMoneyMillionare

Liz- Shortstack

Andrew- Ace… and Coonass

Pat- Patty Pat Pat

Pam- Pamcakes

Also, if you stop by the lot while we’re manually pumping our boats, you may hear the cries of “Pump Pump Pump it up!” That was a Karl classic. He was an amazing guide and a wonderful, authentic person to have around. He also taught me that speeding down Highway 89 (a class VI highway…) was completely unnecessary. Instead, one should sit back, set the cruise at a nice, leisurely pace and just chill.

“Potter, you should do it”

Peer pressure around this place is probably the best peer pressure I’ve ever experienced. “You should do it” generally means that I truly should do it… unless of course bars or booze is involved. But more often than not, I am getting pressured to be a better rafter and to take steps I myself am timid to take.

Last Saturday, I let them convince me to guide throughYankeeJimCanyon. An experienced boater may not think this was such a big deal, but I must remind you I am in my second season of rafting experience. So, slightly nervous, I agreed to do it. I had certain confidences… A few days previous I had ridden through on Sam’s Cat so I could just sit back and really look at the rapids. The night after that trip I went to sleep imagining the lines. Marky Mark also made me confident by taking me to scout and answering my questions a hundred times. Also, we had all guides out on the water, so if there was anytime to mess up, this would be the time to do it.

With Beastie Boys blasting on my internal stereo, we started out. Right before the rapids start, the air fills with bird calls from all the guides. Kaw Kaaaw!!! Getting Psyched. We hit Yankee Jim’s Revenge, the first of the three main rapids, exactly where Mark had told me to. We pushed through it, got in the wave train after it and even though they were pretty scattered and taking my oars wherever they wanted, we got through perfectly. We completely avoided Big Rock and Boxcar which is the safest line for boaters and customers. But like Mark said, sometimes avoiding things is a lot harder than going right for them.

There is a significant difference in the way you feel when you’re guiding and when you are paddling. The guide seat brings with it a responsibility for the people on your boat and for what happens. When I paddle, I totally resign to the guide and do my best to just paddle hard. But as a guide, you are making all the decisions and hoping that they are the right ones!

Since that first run, I’ve guided once more, paddled for Carter on a Yellowstone Raft Company (2nd best company here) play trip (on which we ran everything and somehow managed to stay in the boat! I was freaked out) and just last night Tristan and I rowed the Puma through. There hasn’t been too much carnage, though there is the occasional spill. Liz and Dani took the Mini through Boxcar and as they were going into it Sam called out, “Oh, they’re goin’ through it upside down!” But, being the pro’s they are, they recovered their boat and paddles with smiles.

The water level has started to climb and the Canyon is getting pretty big. I would like to, on the next run through, hit some of the bigger stuff.  Especially with other guides. Any carnage is made a lot easier when the swimmers are all Swift Water technicians! Tonight, most of the MWWers and two very lucky YRCers are going for a 5 hour float to a camping spot past Emigrant.  We will be putting in at town and heading through the canyon and down Paradise Valley. Should be a wonderful night… and if you have any doubts, check out our shopping list…

morning planning meeting!

I am currently doing my best to be patient, but it sure would be nice to get this show on the road!

The Yellowstone is the longest un-dammed river inNorth America, so the only person in control of our river flow is Mother Nature and her many moods. So far this year, she has been “warm” for five days. They haven’t been consecutive, so what that means is that the (more than) 250% snow content that is just sitting in the park upstream of us has not yet melted off.

Just like a bunch of friends waiting for the arrival of a new baby, we have created a pool. $10.00 to guess the highest CFS and the date of the peak water this year. There are a lot of predictions going around… that it could all melt off in one huge go and then our river will peak ridiculously high for a short period of time, only to come back down. Or, it could melt slowly (but hopefully not this slow…) and give us a lower-high water that will keep up for a longer period of time.

CFS means Cubic Feet per Second, and it is the way we measure the flow of the river. A cubic foot is about the size of a basketball, so to imagine CFS, picture said number of basketballs crossing a line in the river every second. Today it is at about 17,000. Last year’s high water got up to 25,600 cfs or so, and this year, some predict it will get up to 33,000 or more. Quite frankly, that is a lot.

At high water, the river is moving really fast, there is a lot of debris floating with us (full size trees, for example) and the river turns a dark brown. At certain levels the waves that we enjoy getting splashes from get washed out, but there can also be big roller waves that make it a rodeo of a good time. Also, we have to be more careful about the customer that goes down the river (taking into account age, strength etc.). Falling out in such fast water can be a dangerous thing, depending. But, as we all know, we don’t generally have swimmers so it is still safe for most everyone but the rare case.

I simply cannot wait for the weather to warm up and to find out what is going to happen with the level this year. For weeks, we have been buzzing with anticipation, and having a similar conversation almost every night about the crazy amount of snow up in the park (and this entire region) and about how high the water could get. We’ve had to have special safety meetings to discuss our plans for the potential of an accident on the river with either a private boater or another company. I am just excited to see what happens, and I guess I just have to remain patient and let Mother N do her thing.

The betting (on the cfs/date) is mostly secret, but I know that my bet was 31,500 cfs and the date (separate things) is June 18th… or 19th… I don’t remember what I wrote down. But, with this weather forecast (rain and storms until Wednesday); I probably will not be getting the date right. Way too soon. However, I still have some hopes for the CFS, though the longer Mother N waits to warm up, the more convinced I am that it is going to be one huge hot flash with the highest water possible!