Established in October 1983 as part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, the Bear Trap Canyon Unit became the BLM’s first entry into the National Wilderness Preservation System. It remains the only BLM-administered wilderness in the state of Montana. The 6,347-acre wilderness is renowned for its outstanding natural and scenic values. Towering 1,500-foot cliff walls, formed by the abrading action of the Madison River, offer a spectacular backdrop. Holding untold stories of the past, the area shows evidence of use as far back as 11,000 years by the Folsom Culture and other early peoples.
A river outfitter navigates through the notorious “Kitchen Sink” rapid on the Madison River. Because the water was so high and fast, his passengers hiked around it. Photo by Susan James
Dedication Day: Wet and Wild on the Madison. That was the header on an article featuring the dedication of the Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness in the August 1984 edition of The Quarterly Steward. The article reads, “On Friday June 1, Interior Secretary William Clark traveled to Bear Trap Canyon to dedicate BLM’s first wilderness. The dedication was preceded by a lively float trip.”
On June 9th of this year, the BLM celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Bear Trap Canyon’s wilderness designation. It too included a lively float trip. Although accompanied by less fan-fair this time, I couldn’t help but find similarities between the two events even though 25 years had passed.
As with the dedication float, the water was above normal; in fact, this spring brought the most sustained high water flows I had seen in my 12 years working on the Madison River. The heavy winter snows and a cool wet spring made for weeks of high water. The rainy/snowy weeks leading up to the anniversary were concerning. Despite its relatively small size, the Bear Trap Wilderness is a well protected and isolated parcel of public land. It isn’t easy to access from any direction and the whitewater can challenge even the most experience river runners. Would the weather be good? Would the water be too high to float? What are the alternatives? Should we float another section of river, hike the trail, drive to an overlook? Posed with all these questions and challenges, I realized these same wild and unpredictable characteristics are what made our predecessors choose the Bear Trap Canyon to become the first BLM administered wilderness area.
Montana Whitewater (one of only two outfitters authorized to conduct river trips in the Bear Trap) was contracted to supply rafts and guides to escort our group of dignitaries safely down the river. The group included BLM director Jim Caswell, our own state director Gene Terland, and Dillon Field Manager Tim Bozorth as well as representatives from a broad perspective of wilderness and land conservation organizations, local and state governments, the Forest Service, and a reporter from the Dillon Tribune.
In 1984 the weather for the trip was described as “cooperating” but the river experience was evidently wild. “By the week of the dedication, the Madison was running at 5800 cfs…the Kitchen Sink was passed up by the main party as being too dangerous…While the raft was being soloed through the big rapids…one flipped over and gave [guide] Andy Lundstrom an unexpected bath.”
In 2008 the weather was more than cooperative and so was the water. As we began to count down the days leading up the Anniversary we watched the river drop - 5000, 4800, 3600, 3100 cubic feet per second. Although 3,100 cfs (cubic feet per second) wasn’t ideal, it certainly was safe to run. This would be Montana Whitewater’s first trip on the Bear Trap this year. They agreed to run the trip provided all passengers walk around the notorious “Kitchen Sink” rapid. While I watched the experienced guides solo the rapids, using all of their might to stay upright, I couldn’t help but think once again about the similarities between the two trips.
The group met at the Trail Creek Recreation Area in the upper Bear Trap Canyon. This site was constructed in partnership with PPL Montana, the owner of the dam and power generating facility upstream of the wilderness boundary. Here we had a nice breakfast and philosophized about the last 25 years of wilderness and where the next 25 years may take us. Then it was onto the river.
After suiting up in lifejackets, helmets and river gear, the guides gave us a safety spiel that helped to raise the excitement level for what lay ahead. While we waited for our guides to maneuver the raft beneath the low hanging foot bridge, we shared stories about our past rafting experiences. This was the first time I can recall having run the river as a passenger, and I have to admit that this fact made me a bit nervous. As always the canyon was beautiful; eagles watched us above Whitehorse rapid, and kingfishers and pelicans flew all around us. The winds were unusually calm and we saw few other people. As we floated along we discussed the challenges of managing wilderness and our predecessors’ foresight. I heard many people remark about how much they loved their jobs.
The rapids were exciting, but without the threat of rowing the Kitchen Sink my adrenalin was somewhat subdued. Whitehorse rapid went off without a hitch although we all got wet. At Kitchen Sink, we watched from the bank as the guides entertained all of us with exciting runs. Although the decision to walk around Kitchen Sink was unpopular with some, most were in agreement that it was best left to the professionals. And the namesake Green Wave rapid was in full color – one group had a closer look than they may have liked.
We lunched at Bear Trap Creek where a miner’s cabin once stood. After lunch, seasoned Bear Trap veteran “Bullet Bob” one of our guides, entertained us with stories about Bob’s experience guiding the dedication float 25 years ago.
As the day came to a close and we drifted toward the Warm Springs boat launch, the feel of the canyon began to change. The quiet of the canyon was replaced with the sound and site of excited floaters blowing up inflatable crafts of all shapes and sizes weighted down with people and coolers embarking on a much different kind of adventure. Once again I had to thank the foresight of our predecessors for having preserved such a small and meaningful place. Because of them, we are still able to experience BLM’s first wilderness as it had been experienced 25 years ago.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”