Out of Bounds

River Deep, Mountain High

Peak flows are past, but it’s still high-water season and extra caution is required before launching anywhere in Montana

By Rob Breeding

The river flows on and on, Tina Turner sang in the wall-of-sound classic “River Deep, Mountain High,” back in the 1960s.

Tina’s river was a metaphor for love. The river flowing down out of the mountains through town, however, is the real thing.  And like love, rivers are sometimes-dangerous things. 

Sometimes, such as right now.

Peak flows are past, but it’s still high-water season and extra caution is required before launching anywhere in Montana.

The temptation grows as things heat up, but you need to be brutally honest with yourself regarding your river skills. As I write this the Middle Fork Flathead River is running about 10,000 cubic feet per second. Experienced guides know how to handle the Middle Fork at that level, but the inexperienced can get themselves into a lot of trouble, in a hurry. 

Any of the forks of the Flathead are deceptively powerful with that much water, and in spring, the channels are strewn with new hazards. Even at low flows, woody debris scares me to the core. We’ve sadly lost one person on the Middle Fork this year; caution is paramount if we’re to avoid adding to that total.

In the aftermath of June flooding in the Upper Yellowstone Basin, it’s easy now to forget that in the depth of winter the snowpack report wasn’t all that encouraging. Early storms were sparse and after rivers in Montana nearly dried up by July last year, it looked like we were in for more of the same in 2022.

I went back and looked at the snowpack data and the season was the tale of two winters. The Flathead Basin sat at 78% of average on Dec. 1, and that was one of the bright spots. The Upper Yellowstone was just 60% of average. 

From the Bitterroot to the Bighorn, the mountain snowpack was light across Montana’s south-central river basins. And it only improved marginally through much of winter.

Then in April, everything changed.

If it wasn’t for the destruction in Red Lodge, one of my favorite mountain hamlets, as well as in Gardiner and downstream along the Yellowstone River, we’d probably laugh about it now. I can imagine the joke: “Remember when it looked like every river in Montana would be under hoot owl restrictions by mid-June? Now it looks like we’ll be damp and moldy through August.”

Instead of a little Montana weather humor, the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park is closed, for the season and maybe longer. The Gardiner River washed out Highway 89 in at least a half dozen places north of Mammoth Hot Springs. Repairs will be difficult enough, but the highway may need to be rerouted altogether. 

The floods temporarily closed the Park, but the southern loop has since reopened long enough for two tourists in separate incidents to come out on the losing end of encounters with Yellowstone bison. 

Stupid human tricks around wildlife are a common occurrence in the park. The latest was the result of a group approaching a bison too closely on a boardwalk near Old Faithful. It’s hard to know for sure how stupid this trick was, but from the video it appears the injured man wasn’t the primary provocateur. Two other adults and a child were closer to the bull. The man seems to be urging them away as he moves to protect the child.

When he reaches the trio, the man puts himself between the bison and the child. He then takes the brunt of the bull’s rage and is gored and thrown.

It was an upgrade on the adults who ran away, leaving a 9-year-old girl to be thrown 10 feet in the air by another Yellowstone bison a few years ago. 

We love rivers, mountains and majestic wildlife. Be careful out there so like Tina’s, your love flows on and on.

Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.

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