While there aren’t nearly as many opportunities for kayaking near Helena as there are in other parts of the state, one outstanding exception is the Gates of the Mountains, a river surrounded by 28,000 acres of roadless, undeveloped wilderness. This natural preserve is located halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, just twenty miles north of Helena. It advertises its goals as “to educate, protect, and allow for its visitors to explore one a great place.” The Gates of the Mountains has a marina with 150 private boat docks and a publicly accessible boat ramp, as well as a boat tour serving over 30,000 visitors a year. There you can follow in the pathway of Lewis and Clarke either by taking a boat tour or solo kayaking.
The tour-hour boat tour, which costs $16, takes you past towering cliffs, with ancient rock paintings, and a multitude of flora and fauna, including bald eagles and goats. The boat captain is praised by visitors for his expansive knowledge and for running a tight ship.
Among the many stories retold during the cruise is of the Mann Gulch Fire. On the afternoon of August 5, 1949, a wildfire was reported in the gulch. A team of fifteen smoke jumpers was parachuted in to fight it. However, the fire literally “blew up” and covered over 3,000 acres in very quickly (in about 10 minutes), killing 13 firefighters, including 12 of the smokejumpers. Three of the smokejumpers managed to survive. The fire continued to burn for 5 additional days before firefighters were able to control it. This devastating wildfire is responsible for the federal implementation of several modern firefighting techniques designed to avoid a recurrence of the incident.
For a riveting account of the Mann Gulch Fire, read Normal MacLean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire. MacLean, one of Montana’s most prominent novelists, was an English professor at the University of Chicago for many years and is best known for his novella A River Runs Through It, which was made into a film by Robert Redford. Young Men and Fire was published posthumously with help from Norman MacLean’s son John MacLean, who has himself published four books dealing with different devastating wildfires around the country.
If you prefer to go kayaking alone, you can rent kayaks and equipment at The Base Camp at 5 W. Broadway in Helena:
The fee for using the public boat ramp is $5. Visitors recommend kayaking on a weekday, to avoid the weekend crowds, and recommend an early start to avoid the heat; and they recommend bringing sun screen, a good hat and plenty of water. They report having been passed by eight or nine motorboats, including the tour boats, on a weekday. They report that most motorboat drivers are courteous and safe, but that you should be aware that an occasional rude driver can throw up a big wake. It’s an easy paddle from the marina to where the tour boats have their base, taking about fifteen minutes. From that point on you can paddle as far in as you like, but of course should keep in mind your return travel time. Headwinds sometimes come up in the late afternoon.