Playing on the Zambezi of Montana


Kootenai Falls, MT | Angel Collinson

Kootenai Falls, MT | Angel Collinson

When I first moved to Montana to work as a river guide during college, everything about the place seemed bigger and wilder than I expected. Driving north with my best friend and our two kayaks, we had no idea that we would soon be living in a broken down school bus, dodging grizzly bears, and reveling in the seemingly endless rivers surrounding us.

One place that has come to embody Montana for me is the Kootenai, a breathtakingly beautiful river that flows south into the U.S. from British Columbia and had a large role in defining my love of rivers and time spent on the water.

The Kootenai holds this special place in my heart both for its spectacular, unique whitewater (the Kootenai is sometimes referred to as “the Zambezi of Montana”), and for the truly wild character it still maintains. 

The second largest tributary of the Columbia River, the Kootenai is home to all the large carnivores still present in North America. Abundant native fish attract the carnivores and the anglers alike. The basin has a surprisingly small human population, the indigenous portion of which dates back hundreds of years. Sitting along the river’s bank for even a few moments, it’s easy to feel the wildness of the place.

The best-known section of whitewater on the Kootenai is a short mile or two of exciting class IV that drops briefly into a committing gorge. Beginning with 20-foot Kootenai Falls (the site of “the gauntlet” in the 1994 film The River Wild), the gorge also holds three or four big water rapids and a stellar surf wave that’s not for the faint of heart. Bedrock ledges emerge from the river at bizarre angles, forming powerful eddies in the turquoise water.

I’ve only been to the Kootenai twice. Each time, our group of paddlers emerged from the gorge wide eyed and grinning, feeling like a larger-than-life experience had just been inexplicably packed into two ridiculously short miles.

On a personal level, the Kootenai has brought me together with other paddlers who have since turned into lifelong friends. It has dished out bruises and plenty of adrenaline. I have always been awe-struck by its power and beauty, and will be for as long as I continue to go back. I hope that anyone lucky enough to visit this remarkable river will feel something similar. 

Kootenai River, MT | Nick Babouletos

Kootenai River, MT | Nick Babouletos