There’s nothing jaw-droppingly beautiful about the stretch of the Yellowstone River between Livingston and Columbus, Montana. The entire length of this river section runs along Interstate 90, which, in the summer, is busy with tourist traffic and long-haul trucks. Yes, there are mountain peaks, but at river level they’re distant, and any haze or smoke from a wildfire can make them disappear entirely. And while the Yellowstone has stretches famous for canyons, rapids, waterfalls and trout fishing, this is not one of those stretches. Here, the river runs through cobbled, braided channels past alfalfa fields and cottonwood stands and the fishing is good but seldom great.
It’s exactly where a dam might go.
But there isn’t a dam.
Instead, on the day that I float this section of river, the only thing slowing downstream travel is a mostly naked man in a speedo emblazoned with an American Flag bald eagle, who is standing on a cutbank, holding a can of beer, and shouting Boooaaat Floooaat!!!
Again, not jaw-droppingly beautiful, but jaw-dropping all the same.
Welcome to the 60th Yellowstone River Boat Float.
In the 1960s the Bureau of Reclamation outlined the plans for a large dam on the Yellowstone River, near Livingston, Montana. The dam, called the Allenspur project, would be used to provide water to several coal-fired power plants. The location seemed perfect, both Montana and nearby Wyoming had most of the nation’s coal deposits, so it made sense to turn those states into the nation’s coal furnace. As part of the project, new and existing power plants would receive a third of the Yellowstone River’s water. But the locals said, “No.”
The people of Eastern Montana depend on agriculture, industry and the extraction of natural resources. Most people here were and still are pragmatic about the tricky balance of protecting the environment and using the environment. The nearby town of Billings is a perfect example of this, winning Outside Magazine’s best outdoor town of 2016, but also being supported by three separate oil refineries.
When the Allenspur Dam Project was formally proposed, multiple groups allied against it. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department supplied environmental data. Local fishing guides and ranchers shared a list of the potential harms to existing economic interests and historical sites. Various Chamber of Commerce gathered data on the negative effects on tourism, and the Yellowstone bourbon distillery brought national attention by flying influential reporters to Montana, where they could float, fish, drink, and, of course, report on the importance of leaving the Yellowstone River alone.
But it was the local residents who supplied the party. The Mayors of Livingston, Big Timber, Columbus, Laurel and Billings, Montana along with the Jaycees, organized a protest in the form of a three-day boat float, starting in Livingston and ending in Billings.
The combined efforts between the various groups and residents saved the Yellowstone River from the Allenspur dam project. To this day the Yellowstone River remains the longest undammed river in the U.S., flowing 671 miles from its source to its confluence with the Missouri River. And while it probably wasn’t the boat float that stopped the dam, the boat float was probably the most fun part of the resistance.
Sixty years later, what started as a protest has turned into a long-running celebration. Every year on the second weekend of July, the Yellowstone River Boat Float begins at Mayor’s Landing in Livingston. Where it ends, however, is a little less predictable. Officially, the float takes boaters from Livingston to Otter Creek and then on to Reed Point before finishing in Columbus, but the river always gets the final say.
In 2022, the historic high water changed some of the stops. In 2023, a bridge collapsed, sending train cars carrying asphalt and hot sulfur into the river and abridging the float, so to speak, to end at Indian Fort Campground.
“Hell or High Water” is an apt phrase to describe the persistence of the boat float. It’s one of those long-running events that caters to the durable and adaptable. You don’t have to listen long to hear someone brag about how many Boat Floats they have attended or how many generations of their family have Boat Floated (yes, it’s also a verb).
Ever since I heard the Yellowstone River Boat Float called the rafting version of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, I’ve always wanted to do my own comparison. But the last few years other obligations (mostly trips on other rivers) had always taken precedence. This year, however, my wife and I decided to “make it happen.”
Our van, however, had other ideas.
Just before Billings our transmission gave out. Following a second-gear drive down the interstate, a night in a Cabelas’s parking lot, and a day shopping for a new van, we finally made it to the Boat Float—a day late and a few hundred dollars short.
Since we missed the Livingston launch, we drove to Otter Creek Campground, the site for the Saturday launch. There, rafts were tied up along the river and tents and R.V. campers were spread out over the broad grassy campground in clusters. We parked the new van and surveyed the scene.
The crowd was an eclectic mix of anglers, hippies, rednecks and river rats—par for the course for Montana, I reckon. On Friday night, I sat around a fire with a group that consisted of Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribal members and a guy named Cole who wore an animal tail off his cowboy hat and had a bumper sticker on his flatbed truck that said, “This Machine Kills Hippies.” But, as on the Savannah, we all come down to water, and we don’t have to agree on much to agree that floating down a river is a good time.
Sporadically, someone would yell “Boooooattt Flooooattt” and dozens of campers would answer back.
The next morning brought hundreds of rafts on trailers. A veil of dust hung above the gravel road leading the campground all morning. Although the Boat Float starts on a Friday, the majority of the boaters put in on Saturday (at least until Montana makes the Boat Float a state holiday).
Maybe it’s the crowd or the spirit of the event, but the single muddy boat launch at Otter Creek was congested but chill. No impatience or yelling. People were happy to put down their beverage to help a stranger unload a raft.
My wife and I took our time rigging our raft and enjoying the scene. By the time we launched most of the boaters had floated well downstream.
We floated through braided channels of cobblestone and past stands of Poplar and Cottonwood that lined the river and crowned the interiors of large river islands. The cotton was blowing off the trees like a summer snowstorm. Through this stretch of river, the current ran quickly, but there were no real rapids to speak of. The Yellowstone River Boat Float is in no way a whitewater festival. It is, as the name suggests, a float.
Most of the craft on the river consisted of the 13 and 14-foot rafts used by local fly fishermen. But there were plenty of SUPs, kayaks, canoes, and pool floaties including a giant pink flamingo, the native bird of drunken debauchery. Many of the rafts flew flags, U.S, Montana, and Pirate to name a few.
All along the river groups of rafts beached for lunch, for ‘happy hours,’ for dance parties. At Hamburger Island the Hagerman Ranch grilled ranch-raised burgers for hungry rafters. Everyone we met was friendly and fun. The only fights were water gun fights, and the only accidents happened during spontaneous dance parties on raft tubes.
The whole thing seemed pretty tame in comparison to the lore. As I prepped for the trip, I had scoured the Yellowstone River Boat Float Facebook page (viewer discretion advised) and made a post asking for anecdotes. I had read about stripper poles, wet-t-shirt contests, raft disasters, and airplane crashes. During this year’s float there were a couple of rescues by the Fish, Wildlife & Parks boat that ran up and down the river, but no fatalities, and no serious injuries.
Because of the railroad bridge collapse downstream, the float ended at Indian Fort Campground, near the tiny town of Reed Point. As with Mayor’s Landing and Otter Creek, the boat float had special use of the entire campground and camping was free. Clusters of campers filled the cottonwood grove.
As the sun went down, a couple of local school buses shuttled boaters a mile into town for a street dance. At the dance, ranching families and boaters mingled, laughed and danced. When I said to my wife that this was probably the biggest night of the year for Reed Point, a local pointed out that Reed Point also has the World’s Largest Sheep Drive—consider me corrected.
Let me be the first to say that The Yellowstone Boat Float isn’t for everybody. It’s garish, loud, irreverent, occasionally obscene.
To be fair, it’s a little trashy.
But it’s not actually trashy.
As you expect from river people, on both the river and at the campground leave no trace is gospel.
Yes, the boat float is a hedonistic party, but it’s also an authentic celebration of people who love and respect this river, a group of people who are less “visible” in the conservation scene but every bit as important.
There’s an underlying stereotype that dictates what an outdoors person is supposed to look like. The dress code is expensive, and though the industry has made moves to change it, it’s still somewhat exclusive to a particular class of America. Few of the Boater Floaters passed the dress code but their intentions were driven by the same values as a well-dressed outdoors person—the value of a free-flowing river.
Mark Twain once wrote, “You tell me where a man gets his Corn Pone, and I’ll tell you what his opinion is.” The general idea being that most of us have a set of beliefs and ideals that support our livelihood because our livelihood (i.e. job) supports us.
If you mine data, protecting the environment doesn’t cost you anything. But if you mine coal that’s a different equation. Yet, despite that reality, most of the people I met care about the Yellowstone River and would protect it even at a personal cost.
In fact, I think that if I were to ask them the same question that was asked sixty years ago, “River or Coal Mine?” I know what their answer would be: Boooooat Flooooat!!!!!
Editor’s Note: As a PSA, NRS encourages all future Boater Floaters to wear a PFD. Don’t have one? Shop now.