As a rookie raft guide I had many nightmares involving Boat Eater. Vacations ruined, children injured or permanently scarred, and a few dark, watery deaths— all caused by my incompetence.
Boat Eater is a massive recirculating wave and, if you hit it at medium to high flows, is as close as you can get to a guaranteed flip on the Yellowstone River.
As a less-than-gifted rookie, I had been relegated to running the easier half day stretch of river through most of my first season. Boat Eater only came into play on the full day, which ran through Yankee Jim Canyon, where the Yellowstone’s big shit lives.
Considering my lack of competency at the time, I figured our head boatman would never risk sending innocent, paying customers into the canyon with me.
Then, Hank from Ohio showed up with his family, looking for high-action adventure. Pipebomb, our head boatman and my whitewater Obi-Wan Kenobi, simply said “You’re up”.
Hank was a large man. Like snaps-the-legs-of-most-chairs-he-sits-in large. I’d guess somewhere between 350 and 400 pounds.
Listen. I am not fat shaming. Big people are great. Nothin’ like a hottie with a little extra body. Slay my hefty queens, slaaaaayyyy!
I myself struggled with weight in my early 20s. Turns out if you drink Irish Car Bombs every weekend and eat enough veal parm sandwiches and falafel platters at 3:00 AM, you’re gonna lose that bird’s-eye-view of your dick you typically enjoy at the urinal. So, I understand the struggle.
I don’t hate the big-boned cause I’ve been there. But an overweight person on your boat adds an extra level of stress, as most whitewater deaths occur due to heart attack brought on by cold water immersion, something a man built like a Macy’s Day Parade float might be susceptible to. I can’t help but make jokes in order to handle telling the story of what happened that day, as it still scares the shit out of me.
Anyhoo, Hank brought his wife, his two sons, and their aunt with him. The sons both looked to be in decent shape. I assumed the two of them would be strong paddlers, but otherwise felt that I was fucked with this crew.
They were, as the French say, les incompétents.
I wasn’t confident I could get them through Yankee Jim Canyon safely. Our owners had reassured us that if we were ever uncomfortable with a group of paddlers, no guide would be forced to take that boat out. Sizing up my crew on the deck of our office, I decided, embarrassing as it was, that I had to give this trip to a more qualified guide—someone less likely to end up responsible for a triple-XL body bag getting filled.
Then, Hank and his family introduced themselves. Rafting was going to be the highlight of their trip to Yellowstone, they said, and joked about being totally comfortable swimming. They were gregarious, hilarious, and fat flat out fun. Their stoke level was through the roof. And, suddenly, so was mine.
If I was destined to put them to death in the drink, at least I’d get to say goodbye with a smile.
Instead of giving up the trip, I just said a few Hail Marys and made sure they all signed a waiver.
They paddled surprisingly well in the initial rapids and Hank’s humor kept everyone giggling in the flatwater.
Earlier, I’d briefed them on what was waiting in the canyon.
The move to avoid Boat Eater, as I look back on it now, is fairly simple. It sits on the left side of the canyon, at the bottom of a large wave train inside of a rapid called Yankee Jim’s Revenge. Start left, above Revenge, drift near a cottonwood that hangs off the bank, then charge hard to the right.
A lateral wave breaks from right to left and you must punch through it with power to avoid Boat Eater. Don’t, and you’ll be pushed directly into its foamy teeth. If that happens, hang on and hope you get spit out of its angry, watery asshole, instead of being pinned to a rock beneath the surface by 12-20,000 cubic feet of water.
Make it through the lateral, but fail to maintain momentum on the backside, and the strong current coming off the right bank will send you into that hydraulic hellhole as well.
As we approached Yankee Jim’s Revenge and the roar of Boat Eater reverberated off the canyon walls, the crew’s joy quickly shifted to silence.
Twenty yards from that mean lateral wave, I set our boat’s angle and gave an all-forward command. They dug in hard with each stroke, and generated solid momentum. We were movin’ ; streaking across the water like gas station burrito and Big Gulp-fueled Vikings. The bow (that’s the front) of our boat made contact with the lateral, sending a wall of water up and over us. The force of impact sent them reeling, causing a pile up of arm flab and man-tit on the floor of the boat. All that weight shifting backwards at once put a stop to any forward momentum we had.
Frantically, I pleaded with them to get up and keep paddling as I pulled on my oars to try and retain our angle. Mom burrowed into a crease in the floor of the boat, terrified, and the rest flailed, only hitting water with every other stroke.
I panicked; we didn’t have enough power to beat the current. Pulling on my left oar and pushing with my right, I turned us around completely. Between Boat Eater and the left bank there was a thin sliver of current that we might be able to ride to safety—The Sneak Line.
This was NOT the recommended line, as most boats were too wide, including ours.
I bounced our stern off the bank and set our bow right on top of Boat Eater.
It was all brute force, no mercy—fiendish foam, an aquatic catastrophe, imminent death— terror on the river, desperate shrieks and cries, pleas for an end to the ride, or dry land, salvation, any escape from the watery grave I’d floated them into.
But we weren’t going anywhere, as the force of the recirculating wave held us in place and violently shook everyone to and fro.
My voice boomed off the canyon walls, as I called for a non-stop back paddle. “All back, all back, ALL FUCKING BACK! Go, go, go go!”
But in their panic, no one listened.
It surfed us for what felt like days, but was likely no more than a few seconds. One son began to slip, and reaching to steady him, Hank accidentally sent himself over the boat’s edge, right into the middle of Boat Eater, and was Augustus Gloop-ed into a liquid underworld.
I thought we’d flip and join him, but miraculously our boat was washed out into the slack water behind Boat Eater. We were fine. But there was no Hank. The whole family frantically screamed his name and clawed at the water.
The big vein in my temple pulsated as I did the math. Big guy. Big fucking guy. Like ‘sir, this plane cannot take off unless you exit’ big. Ice cold water. The most dangerous feature on the river.
I killed a dad. I killed Hank.
Just as I was preparing to vomit, I saw an orange blob float towards the surface. Hank came up, alive. Blue in the face, shell-shocked, but alive.
I bellowed at the others to paddle towards him and leapt for his life jacket, crazed, as we might still have to get him to dry land and a defibrillator. I grabbed his shoulder straps, dug my feet into the side of the boat, and thanks to adrenaline, heaved that porker right on top of me.
I managed a scream even as gravity and his gargantuan torso forced the air out of my lungs.
“Hank! Are you ok?!”
He responded with long, labored breaths, and a blank stare, as if he’d just seen God.
I asked again.
I shook him and shrieked “Hank! ARE. YOU. OK?!”
He steadied his breathing. A wry smile started to materialize, while his eyes swung left to right, as if following a waiter who’d just strode past his table balancing a Bloomin’ Onion.
Finally, he looked back at me and sputtered, “It was fucking…AWESOME!”
Back at the shop and safe on land, I attempted to hug him, barely getting my arms round his massive frame.
“Thank you for staying alive” I gasped.
“Thank you,” Hank said. “That’s the biggest thrill my family and I have ever had.”
He handed me a $100 tip, I told Pipebomb everything had gone smoothly, and that night, a dirty river guide from Jersey drank A LOT of three dollar Montana margaritas.