The rise of boater x
And the fall of rodeo freestyle?
Like dirt bikes revving loudly and lined up at the start of a motocross race, an armada of kayakers grouped in a line, shoulder to shoulder for the start of the recent boater x event on the Gallatin River.
Then David Zinn, organizer of the Gallatin Whitewater Festival and leader of the Wave Train Kayak Team, fired a starter’s pistol and a frenzied forward group paddle erupted off the bank at the Lava Lake Trailhead.
In the first 20 yards, defending champion David Schroeder, 46, fell behind. Photos show him in 12th place during the first 30 seconds of the race. As the multi-colored flotilla moved around the bend just before the 35 mph bridge, Schroeder tried to set himself up for a chance to slingshot out in front. It was a risk, but so are many things about boater x.
“I still think it’s on the obscure end of the racing,” Schroeder later said, describing the bumper-boat downriver race that looks like a whitewater version of roller derby or boarder cross snowboarding. “There’s definitely a group of us who think this is the most fun. The aggressive nature of it. Definitely take swipes at each other. It boils down to being aggressive on the passes. And it has the most stories come out of it.”
Schroeder sought to write his defending champion comeback story by making an early gamble, which paid off and eventually put him in the lead.
“I got lucky at the first corner above the bridge,” recalled Schroeder. “Everybody went far left and I was able to cut the inside corner and get back in the position to pass. I just had a few people to beat after that and I just had to track them down.”
But once you’re out front in boater x, said Schroeder, it only gets scarier.
“I just witnessed me being terrified at the front of the pack,” said Schroeder. “It’s a little like being a rabbit with a bunch of foxes on your tail.”
Paddling a Jackson Nirvana medium boat and beating out many younger boaters, Schroeder took first again. By the takeout beneath Storm Castle, he smiled and accepted congratulations from other competitors.
Andrew Wharton, 34, paddles the House Rock stretch where the boater x was held a couple times a week and managed to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Ticking off the event’s appeal, Wharton said, “It’s a mass start. It’s pretty crazy, no rules, knocking people over, fighting for position. It’s just fun, great to be out here. It’s a little bit different experience than just being in the water, different perception, a rush.”
Boater x appears to be ascending in popularity among whitewater boaters, while freestyle rodeo kayaking might be receding further into the margins.
That’s partly because between Butte and Billings, there’s no fixed whitewater feature like Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula.
Zinn, with the whitewater fest and Wave Train, guessed the last freestyle rodeo event on the Gallatin was back in 2009. For those who haven’t seen rodeo kayaking, events are held on a recirculating standing wave, where whitewater athletes perform tricks and work the water in a similar way to surfers carving up the faces and barrels of ocean waves.
Having a reliable “play spot” for freestyling is something kayakers in Southwest Montana have longed for over the years.
“I know it’s come up a number of times. People have put out that thought,” said Zinn, recalling past chat about constructing an artificial surf wave on the Gallatin. In Missoula, natural-looking rock features channel the flow of the Clark Fork in ways engineered to create a rideable surf wave.
“Typically, it’s easier to do in an urban area than on a national forest,” said Zinn, who grew up in Colorado where a growing number of cities from Denver to Lyons to Golden have constructed surf features on rivers running through town.
Zinn said if someone wanted to hold a freestyle whitewater event locally, there are a few natural rodeo waves where it might be possible for boaters to compete.
On the Yellowstone, there’s the Springdale Wave near Big Timber, and further upstream closer to Gardiner there’s Boat Eater and Creighton’s Hole.
Zinn said it’s unlikely but possible for a wave to be constructed near Four Corners on the Gallatin.
“Four Corners would be great, right there at Shed’s Bridge,” said Zinn.
In Boise, many welcomed development of surf waves in a rundown area where the Boise River forms an emerald ribbon through stretches of urban blight. When it was first constructed, Boise’s freestyle whitewater wave was dubbed “the Meth Wave,” because the surrounding area had a reputation for being home to meth labs. It’s now filled with new businesses and attractive residential real estate.
As plans to redo the Story Mill Community Park in Bozeman started to take shape, Zinn said he and others looked at historic flow data for the upper East Gallatin River and figured there wasn’t enough volume to support a surf wave.
In Livingston, on the other hand, the Yellowstone River maintains a consistent level allowing the construction of whitewater features. But there is no organized effort to bring a freestyle wave to this trout fishing town.