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'Wet, wild and dam free': Scenes from the Yellowstone River boat float

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Boat Float

Jon Tripp, a Billings resident, prepares to launch his boat on the first day of the Boat Float, July 9, 2021, at Mayor's Landing in Livingston. Tripp said he was looking forward to the experience and "getting to float some fresh water I've never floated before."

If you happen to find yourself on the middle Yellowstone River during the second weekend of July, listen closely. There, among the rushing of the river or the songs of birds, you might make out a distant, human cry. If unable to make out the slurred pronouncement, the call will soon be repeated by a chorus of fellow humans, provoked by various substances and by the river itself: "Booooaaaattt Flooooaaattt!"

As with any tradition, the current iteration of Boat Float, the notorious river rager that has gone on for more than five decades, has shifted somewhat from its original purpose. Now infamous for fireworks and stripper poles on rafts, the first Boat Float was a protest.

boat float

Margaret Wiggins, from Billings, pole dances on a raft parked at Otter Creek Fishing Access Site on Saturday night, July 10, 2021.

Boat Float

Frank Huston, from Heber City, Utah, finishes a beer bong as onlookers cheer him on the night before the Boat Float, July 8, 2021, at Mayor's Landing in Livingston.

After construction of the Yellowtail Dam began in 1961, forever altering the Bighorn River on the Crow Reservation, conservation-minded Montanans became increasingly concerned about a proposed dam on the Yellowstone River upstream from Livingston, which would have inundated the entire Paradise Valley. The then-mayor of Billings, Willard Fraser, organized a three day float trip in response to the proposal. As it happened, the Yellowstone was never dammed, and remains the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states.

boat float

Sean McDuffee, current organizer of Boat Float, sits in his raft at Otter Creek Fishing Access Site on Saturday, July 10, 2021. McDuffee has been going on Boat Float since the mid-1990s, and says of the next generation of floaters, "God bless their energy."

Although this history eludes many current participants of Boat Float, its legacy lives on as a motto, "Wet, Wild, and Dam Free." If anything, the "free" part is what keeps people coming back. Thanks to coordination between organizers and local jurisdictions along the river, there are no registration or camping fees, but Boat Float also represents a freedom from daily life.

boat float

Emily Jordan, from Belgrade, pumps up a stand up paddle board as her friends watch at Otter Creek Fishing Access Site before the second day of Boat Float on Saturday, July 10, 2021.

Boat Float

William Kincaid, from Alaska, peaks his head over the side of the raft he slept in on July 8, 2021, at Mayor's Landing in Livingston.

Rob Gameon spends his year repairing RV's in Livingston, except one wet and wild weekend in July. "You gotta take time off," said Gameon. "Customers understand it because they're coming all the way up here to do what I'm doing now. If I get three days off in the summer, I'm a happy man."

boat float

People drift past Big Timber on the Yellowstone River during the first day of Boat Float on Friday, July 9, 2021.

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Rachel Leathe is a Chronicle staff photographer. She can be reached at rleathe@dailychronicle.com.

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