It’s a 70-degree bluebird day, mid-week in early June 2011, and 26-year-old Todd Richey and 27-year-old Matt Sylvester are riding the Red Rocket—a neoprene-stinky Subaru with 180,000 miles on the odometer—toward the Bitterroot’s Bear Creek, looking for wood.
Wood is bad. Wood blocks creeks, and Todd and Matt kayak creeks. Todd once turned a creek’s corner to find a downed trunk spanning his path like a splintery clothesline. He couldn’t go over it and he couldn’t go around it, so he popped his spray skirt on the approach and caught the log in his arms and pulled himself up onto it as the creek sucked his boat off his legs and under the log and gone. Todd paddles with a folding saw tucked under his PFD, just in case he or anyone else gets in wood trouble.
Take a moment to consider that.
There will be no wood trouble today, though. They’re just scouting.
Todd and Matt organize Best of the Bitterroot, an annual two-day steep creek race on Kootenai Creek, near Stevensville, and Bear Creek, near Victor. They’re scouting in preparation for what will be the event’s third year, if the weather will cooperate.
Steep creeking is a specialized echelon of kayaking in which primarily young people with large reserves of nerve strap their lower halves into blunt plastic shells and toss themselves down the wet parts of mountains with paddles in their hands. It is rightly considered an extreme sport. It is also, especially in Montana, an extremely temperamental sport, offering an almost vanishingly small window of viable conditions.
A creek that’s flowing too low turns creeking into a game of pinball. The kayaker is the ball, and the bumpers are rocks. A creek that’s flowing too high is basically a fire hose coming down a mountain. Though you will find no shortage of fire hose riders on YouTube, and in American Whitewater’s accident database, that’s no condition for a race designed to introduce new creekers to the sport in a safe and supported environment.
Cultivating new creekers is almost as important to the sport as snowpack and scouting wood. Friends don’t let friends creek solo. You’re gonna want a crew.
Unpenned from the car, Matt bounds up the Bear Creek trail hopping on and off rocks just because they’re there, until he finds the spot: a shady approach to the lower creek with a stone just a few feet off the bank. Matt knows the stone. It’s his gauge. There are no flow gauges on the Bitterroot’s creeks to tell you how high they’re running. You can read the differential between the USGS gauges on the Bitterroot River at Darby, upstream, and Victor, below the creek, and extrapolate how much flow the interstitial creeks are adding, but to know for sure, you have to go look. From experience, Matt knows just where the optimum flow hits his rock. Today, in early June, with the race scheduled for any day now, it’s still running too high.
“Three inches,” Todd says, “makes all the difference in the world.”
Today’s level, Matt says, is “butt pucker.”
Matt’s been checking this rock since the tail end of April 2011, which was, paradoxically, a crummy year for creeking in Montana. The ideal scenario is a heavy snowpack released gently and consistently through a cool spring and, with a little luck, into early summer. In 2011, a heavy snowpack hung on into spring and then cut loose in a blast of warm weather and rain, flooding the Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot. Once the surge had purged, the creeks turned back into pinball machines in a matter of days. For steep creekers, it was a year of water, water everywhere, and entirely too much to run.
Todd and Matt will try again, and again, making the drive and scouting for wood and checking how much of their rock is wet until the creek drops to a level they consider safe. When it’s right they’ll send out the word via Facebook and cell phone, and with a few days’ notice the race will be on.