When you are a lover of nature and the great outdoors, it’s impossible to go wrong in Montana. It feels like almost the entire state is one huge backcountry just waiting to be explored – mountains, endless wild plains, rivers, and forests. You can pretty much pick a spot at random, and amazing natural adventures await. But the southern mountains are particularly captivating, and a hiker can easily get high up into them and enjoy the peaceful serenity. Many times, I have hiked wherever I pleased in the mountain terrain, until my way would inevitably be blocked by a rushing mountain stream that I would have to somehow route around. The lively small rivers certainly have their appeal, but not when they block your path. But on the other hand, what if the river really isn’t a roadblock? What happens when the river is the actual road?
In Outside’s Boundless: Episode 2 with Rafa Ortiz in Montana White Water, we meet professional whitewater kayaker, Rafa Ortiz, on his way to Big Timber Creek at the southern edge of Montana. For such an obscure river, he’s already heard a lot about it, especially that it has a reputation as a very high-quality kayak destination. Big Timber Creek is your prototypical high mountain stream – fast flowing, narrow, and icy, with sudden unexpected drops and tight corners. Rafa and his two friends, Peter Ely and Kevin Kennedy, are anxious to test their skills against it, but on a wild, unknown river, you don’t want to just jump right in, not if you plan to last long as an adventure kayaker.
There is a lot of reconnaissance to be done when tackling a natural river in the wilderness. You need to get a good visceral feel for the general plan of the river, especially where it speeds up, and even more so for where it suddenly drops 10 feet. The biggest variable in kayaking is the river’s water level, which is impacted by many things like temperature, snowmelt, and rainfall. This is the very first step of a kayaking expedition – finding out if riding the river is even possible!
Once you determine the water is amenable to kayaking, the next step is to figure out the natural hazards, which are typically rocks, logs, and obstacles of that nature. In an area called Big Timber, it makes sense that submerged and water-borne logs must be plentiful. While this recon may sound tedious, the professional kayakers say that it’s actually really fun “to just unravel it,” figure out their plans, and then execute them and find out how good their judgment actually was.
On Big Timber Creek, rocks and logs aren’t the only concerns. Strangely, it turns out that the most worrisome part of the river is also its biggest draw – Big Timber Falls. The kayakers describe it as uniquely special and challenging, and, as shown in the film, it’s pretty scary. So, the guys take their time pondering it. Kayakers need to spend a lot of time studying the rapids and the falls, scouting them from all directions – they want to know what they’re in for before committing themselves to hurtling down the stream.
But thankfully, that’s a concern for tomorrow. Today is a very calm day of walking into the river and then figuring it all out. And what a place to spend a day exploring! The crisp snap in the air, the silent armies of tall firs standing solemnly on the rocky shoulders of the calm mountains, and all the while, the restless sound of Big Timber Creek busily surging its way downward from the snowy heights. As Rafa sees it, “Being able to travel is like a dream come true, just to be able to visit these amazing places.” As the three of them set up camp for the night, you get the feeling that this is the calm before the storm. They now have a good idea of the upcoming terrain and know pretty much what to expect. And yet at the same time, all three have had good long looks at the ominous Big Timber Falls to keep their minds occupied during the night.
All too soon, it’s daybreak, and the three shoulder their colorful kayaks – bright yellow, orange, and blue – and head toward the river. Unsurprisingly, there are some nerves, even from these experienced three. This river flows very quickly in its narrow rocky channel, and as they approach, they get a renewed impression of the wildness of the river. It is fast and scary, and you have to work up the nerve to get in. But that’s part of the challenge, like a skier at the top of an amazing mountain run. You are always the most scared at the beginning, before you start. Fortunately, Rafa has been in this position a million times before. He acknowledges the fears, but he knows how comfortable and confident he will be when he enters the river and returns to his element. He feels best when he knows there’s “nothing else out there except me, my kayak, and the challenge ahead.”
On a rip-roaring mountain stream, there aren’t any places to begin calmly. You pretty much shove off straight into foaming rushing whitewater and are immediately at the whim of the river. And the action footage begins! Roam Media has cameras everywhere – helmet cams, kayak cams, drone cams, still cams – so that everything is captured. Even in this beginning part, the river runs so fast. You see airborne kayaks surrounded by endless spray, kayaks shooting the narrowest of rock channels. The only thing you don’t see is any non-whitewater because this river is nonstop action.
And suddenly, the top half of the river is finished. Rafa comments on the first portion, “It was mind-blowing, we ran those crazy big slides!!” The adrenaline has definitely kicked in, in a big way. With the upper run done, it’s on to the river’s big finale, Big Timber Falls. They have to portage around to enter the lower part, and it’s a nice break in the action to appreciate the somber green of the fir trees once again and catch your breath. But now, the team has to reconsider the main falls. “It’s intimidating! It’s like this beast!”
It certainly does seem alive, this conscious entity at the bottom of the river’s run. It’s quite a tall waterfall for kayaking, and there’s a very precise line you have to hit in your approach. Everyone’s nerves are on display now, as this is the final test, the true measure of the river. Even though there’s anxiety, Rafa knows that as soon as he hits the water, back in his domain, his only thought will be, “It’s on.”
Now the videographers are in full swing, and the film doesn’t miss a detail. The clever use of slo-mo captures the scene and drama – the colorful bouncing kayaks, seemingly levitating over the water, then suddenly plummeting downward, full of spray. This is great to watch! And finally, the big falls themselves, the crucial juncture, the trip’s finale.
What a film! No spoilers, but they did make it. “That feeling of looking back at the beast and thinking ‘mission accomplished,’ there’s nothing better than that!!” The guys bask in their euphoria, relief, exaltation, and exhaustion. It’s over, adventure managed! And the film fades out to the incredible mountain scenery, and the satisfaction of a job well done.