Today’s Tom Sawyer: Livingston girl rows the Yellowstone River

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Photo by Randi and Dan O’Brien
Vay O’Brien, 12, rowing near Livingston on a trip of 636 miles on the Yellowstone.

Photo by Vay O’Brien/GoPro
Vay O’Brien rows through a stretch of whitewater near Columbus.

By Yellowstone Newspapers

Special to the News


Twelve-year-old Livingston resident Vay O’Brien recently completed her expedition to become the youngest woman to captain her own boat down the entirety of the “Last Wild River.” 

The floatable section of the Yellowstone River is known as the longest free-flowing river with blue-ribbon fishing, whitewater adventures, and scenic views, according to a press release from the O’Brien family.

Vay O’Brien floated all 556 miles from Gardiner to the confluence with the Missouri River in North Dakota. 

“I have been planning this trip since August of 2017 after I read ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’” said O’Brien. “I want to have a modern-day North American adventure before I become a teenager. I want to explore something wild.”

O’Brien launched on June 2 and completed the last segment of her journey on Aug. 26, 2018. O’Brien logged a total of 636.58 miles. 

“I had to split the trip into segments because I was training in Canada for skiing trying to get my backflip on snow.”

O’Brien’s trip concluded in Yankee Jim Canyon. 

“I’m happy and sad at the same time because I don’t want this journey to end,” she said. “When I get on the river it just all comes together.”

 Determined to make the entire journey under her own power, O’Brien rowed through wind, rain, lightning, and fog. 

“The wind can be the worst. But surviving the elements is really fun to me,” she said.  “Endurance is hard because you want to quit, but when you make it and finish, you just feel so strong. Both mentally and physically.”

Though the journey proved to be a test of endurance, her trip took much less time than anticipated. 

“From the original planning, I thought it would take me 32 days,” she said. “When I went with the flow, I realized I could do longer days. In one day I went 48.93 miles, which is a big push, but it just felt right so I went for it.”

At one point, her 11-foot 6-inch, forest green, AIRE Puma raft was broadsided at the Intake Dam near Glendive, where water levels were at an all-time high. 

“I felt very scared. It was the first time I ever got caught sideways in a rapid,” she said. “The river was swirling in every direction. I thought I was going to flip my boat. From my river training, I mentally knew the number one rule was to never let my boat get sideways. So, I was really freaked out. It happened because I missed a stroke, but my brain training from skiing helped me get my focus when I was panicked and I got my boat back in line. I got my brain wrapped around it. But it was a learning thing, and even though it was a mistake, it prepared me for the bigger rapids near Gardiner.”

In anticipation of the more significant whitewater sections and long-distances, O’Brien selected her gear with care. Her boat named “Quest,” though small, tackled the biggest whitewater the Yellowstone has to offer.  

“I’ve rowed big rafts before, but I’m so glad to have my raft,” she said. “It’s speedy. This boat is small and petite like me. It can maneuver around anything and is so fast. If you charge the rapid, you can make it through any wave.”

O’Brien also brought a GPS tracker app to document her location and mileage. 

“I used actual topography maps and river maps,” she said.

O’Brien, born in Billings and a Livingston resident of five years, is a Bronze U13 and two time U11 gold medalist slopestyle skier.  It took O’Brien one year to plan and propose the river trip to both her parents and the companies that supported her journey — BUFF USA, AIRE whitewater rafts, and She Shreds Co. O’Brien’s parents, both outdoor enthusiasts, worried for her safety. 

“It takes a good plan and time to pull off any grand adventure,” said her mother, Randi O’Brien, a former whitewater and fly-fishing guide. “We were, of course, worried for her safety on the river. We encouraged her to join the Wave Train Kayaking Team, and we focused numerous days on river training which included flipping boats, identifying hazards and taking CPR/First aid courses.”

“River training was intense,” O’Brien said. “Early this season the flood levels were nothing like I have ever seen. In my first journal entry, I wrote: LESSON #1: Everything on the river can kill you.” 

 “Before my parents let me do the big whitewater, I had to do flip training,” she said. “I’ve never flipped a boat, and I was so happy that I could do it by myself. I felt more of myself, like more and bigger as a person and better at boating. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

“This is a coming of age story,” said her father, Daniel O’Brien. “It takes a certain amount of maturity to make judgment calls on the river. Being able to identify a hazard and navigate yourself into safety takes confidence and self-assuredness. While her trip revolved around the river, it taught her big-picture life skills. The life experience of seeing over 500 miles of river is an education in itself.”

Of her twenty-four day trip, only seven days had notable rapid sections, the remainder of her days were spent learning about the journeys of Lewis and Clark and learning about the habitat and ecosystem of the Yellowstone River.

“I used to think it was rare to see a golden or bald eagle, but when I was on the river, I would literally see them every day,” O’Brien recalled. She encountered baby elk and baby deer, beavers and otters, moose, and bison. 

On her twentieth day on the river, she awoke at 5 a.m. in anticipation of her longest float. “The river was covered in the thickest fog,” she said. “It was scary at first, but then I was so amazed. We could only see 10 feet in front of us. Then the coyotes started howling. First one pack to river left, then another pack across the river. You could hear everything so perfectly. Then the cranes started to call out. It was like magic.”

O’Brien kept journals and used social media to share her experience. 

“But there is only one way to get to see this kind of stuff; you have to be out there. This river is so wild,” she said. “We can look at images on national geographic, but you have to be out here to truly see and feel it all.”

When asked why she took on this expedition O’Brien is clear.

“Because this is a wild river, I don’t want to conquer it. By going the distance, I was able to discover more about the river and myself. You can’t take shortcuts. You really have to think, and problem solve. I think the reason I did all this is because being able to navigate the river is like being able to navigate my life. I’m excited to go where the current takes me.”




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