Friday, September 2, 2016

6 Ways of Keeping the Packraft Rivers You Love Permit Free

This past summer I wrote a blog on a classic packraft trip in Montana (South Fork of the Flathead).  In that blog I basically said it is inevitable that this river will become permitted because of packraft use.  The same pessimistic view could be taken on a number of rivers that have seen increased traffic since the popularization of packrafts.  After talking to a ranger and having some veteran packrafters confront me on the topic I no longer believe so.

When you see lots of packrafters and hear horse packers and other hikers quietly grumble about how they used to have it all to themselves, you tend to think, "Geez, everybody thinks there's too many people on this river, it will probably become permitted."  But decisions on permitting rivers are made by looking at impact and data (at least that is my understanding).  The data on packrafters is that we aren't high impact.  When we float rivers, we aren't using trails and when we camp, we don't have horses, we can't afford to pack in much and we act like backpackers (leave-no-trace).  Really the only added impact of packrafters is possibly disrupting the stream-bed  when we skootch our way across gravel bars.  Oh, and fishing, we do that too.

However, the impact people complain about is really more visual than anything.  If you see two large rafts floating down a river with 4 people in each, you'll look up but think little of it.  But if you observe 8 packrafters, either in a group or strung out, you will feel like there are a lot more people on the river.  Even though the former group is hauling in a lot more stuff that can potentially leave more of an impact.  And the method they used to haul it in (horses) definitely leaves more of an impact.

Packrafting is indeed making remote rivers more accessible and more traveled (duh! that is the point of them).  But that is not necessarily a bad thing if you follow a few guidelines.

  1. Act like a "leave-no-trace" backpacker- Make your fires below the high water mark, let them burn out completely and then dismantle your fire ring.  Don't leave anything human at your camp.  Cover your crap and do it far from camp and away from trails.  Gather fire wood from trees that are already dead and on the ground.
  2. Avoid attracting animals- This is especially important if you are in bear country.  Hang a bear bag, far from camp and hang it high.  If you are catching and eating fish, make sure their remains are far from camp.  If you spill food make sure it gets taken care of.  Rangers don't want issues between humans and animals, especially if you cause them.
  3. Blend in- If you wear bright clothes, paddle a bright boat and are loud as you pass other rafters, you will be more noticed.  The more you can blend in the less you will be contributing to other rafters' perception that packrafters are everywhere (our fleet will be gradually moving toward cedar green in color over the next couple years for this reason).  
  4. Be courteous and friendly to other rafters- If people want to talk, be friendly. Share food, drink and tips.  Most of us are in the wilderness to get away from it all.  So people may not want to talk.  Don't force things if this is the case.  
  5. Be respectful of authorities-  If packrafters are seen by rangers as the friendliest and most respectful of all wilderness travelers, it is going to be hard for them to shut us down.  Rangers spend a lot of time alone so usually they are up for a chat, so let them talk.  Be respectful of anything they tell you to do.  Ask them honest questions.  I know these last 3 points change nothing environmentally, but perception does matter when it comes to this sort of thing.
  6. Don't over fish-  This might not apply to everyone, but many back country lakes and rivers are a fisherman's paradise and it can be tempting to stop and fish a hole until you have caught and released all 13 fish that live there.  It may be easy to catch 50+ fish in a day.  Don't do this.  Try to limit yourself on fishing to the cooler times of the day (so the fish you release have a good chance of survival).  Don't drag them up on the rocks and get them off your line quickly.  Bend the barbs down on your hooks.  Enjoy the time you fish, but limit yourself.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Packraft Summer Fishing Trip Pack List

As you probably know, packing is crucial to the success of most summer adventures.  Packrafting is no exception.  Too much gear and you'll look like a traveling gypsy with all kinds of crazy stuff hanging off your pack (this is how I usually pack).  But too little and you might forget some of the important stuff.   A good packing list is essential for helping you remember the important things like....a fishing license or a sleeping bag- both of which have been forgotten on backpacking trips I've been a part of and altered the itinerary significantly.

This list is by no-means exhaustive, but it should give you a good start.  Designed for a backcountry fishing trip in mid-July so it isn't a serious whitewater trip or a dry suit and helmet would be on the list.  Comment with items you think should be in there.

Fishing stuff
·         License
·         Rods

Packraft stuff
·         Rafts
·         Inflation bags
·         Stuff sacks
·         Patch kits
·         Paddles
·         Life jackets
·         Straps
·         Dry bags (one big enough to put all your food in -bear bag)
·         P-cord for boat and bear bag

·         Stove
·         Fuel
·         Sporks
·         Bowls
·         Mugs
·        Coffee press (if you are a coffee snob like me)
Water filter
Water bottles
Water bladders

1st aid kit
Bug spray
Sleeping bags
Sleeping pads
Tent poles

Toilet paper
Trekking poles
Bear spray- 1 per person
Camp chair- if you have extra room

Rain-gear- pants and jacket
·         Gloves- water resistant
·         Hats
·         Socks
·         Pants
·         Shorts
·         Underwear
·         Swimming suite
·         Shirts- quick dry
·         Fleece- jacket or shirt
      Hiking shoes/boots

·         Tea
·         Coffee
·         Gatorade
·         Energy Bars
·         Trail mix
·         Rammen
·         Taco mix (for fish tacos)
      Mountain house or other freeze dried meals
·         Tortillas
·         Oatmeal
·         Dehydrated fruit mix
·         Jerky
·         Peanut butter

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Packrafting the South Fork of the Flathead with 2024 Updates

Updated 5/22/24
Ready to book your packraft rental?  Book online now!
Confluence of the White and South Fork 
Summer 2024 condition updates:
Post from renter who got off water on 6/22: There was only one log across the river. Probably about 2-3 miles from the Danaher/Youngs confluence. Easy to navigate - we just got out in 2 feet of water and lifted the boats over. The hike in via Lodgepole was brutal. Probably 300+ blow down trees that added a lot of time and energy to the hike. The exit sign at the end or start of the gorge has shrubs growing around it and the paint is faded. So far with historically low snow pack in the Bob this season is shaping up to be a shorter, earlier float season with lots of packrafters on the water by the 3rd week of June and then slowing down after the 3rd week in July. 
More updates coming soon as clearer picture of snowpack is available and renters start coming back with reports.

A Word on Flows

Twin Creek Gauge is the best gauge for understanding where things are at in terms of flows. We have renters run the length of the South Fork of the Flathead down to the low 400 CFS although you do have to get out on a few more gravel bars it is doable and still worthwhile at this level. Up to about 5000 CFS is still doable for most novices (although the Young's Gorge section before the confluence can get interesting above even 3000 CFS). Above 5000 CFS you're looking at higher flows and a much faster trip, often dirtier water with the potential for floating logs or hazards that may be hard to see. Most trips above 10,000 CFS are pretty wild and you definitely want to have some experienced paddlers in your group.

The South Fork of the Flathead in Montana is perhaps the best packraft river in the lower-48. There are 3 main reasons for this as I see it:

1.       It is very scenic.  Especially toward the end of the trip, going into  Meadow Creek Gorge.  The deep green water and the canyons make for some great pictures.
2.       It is also very remote.  It is located in one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower-48.   For much of the trip you are 30 miles from the nearest road.  So you can really get away from it all!
3.       The fishing is good.  Not as good as the first time I fished it 10+ years ago, in my pre-packraft days, but still good.  It is also one of the only places you can legally target bull trout in Montana and maybe the Northwest.  Please check current regulations on this.  Keep in mind that is only on the South Fork and not any tributaries, you also can’t keep them and technically you are supposed to get a free bull trout targeting “stamp” on your license (last time I checked anyway).

A number of people have published magazine articles on packrafting the South Fork of the Flathead.  Unfortunately most of those articles are more on the inspiring side and less on the practical, which is what this article sets out to do.  Full transparency: I own a packraft rental company, Backcountry Packraft Rentals, so my business benefits greatly from the popularity of this river.  The river will almost certainly become permitted in the next 5 years, but if packrafters continue to act as low impact backpackers, I am hopeful the permitting system will favor packrafters.

This summary might be more than you want to know, but hopefully it will be informative if you are actually planning on doing the trip.  If you have specific questions please feel free to contact me.

I have done it three times now and have had numerous customers do it and listened to their feedback on different routes.  The first and third times I did it via Young’s Creek and the second time via the White River.  The first and third time we entered the Bob (Bob Marshall Wilderness) via the Young’s Creek Pass off of Lodgepole Trail Head(just north of Ovando, MT) and the second we started from Bench Mark (West of Augusta, MT) and went in on the South Fork of the Sun then up and over White River Pass.  The White River trip was supposed to involve floating the White River but the water was so low (July 20th on a dry year)  that we ended up just hiking to the confluence with the Flathead.

Getting ready to float in 2014
I learned a lot on all three trips and from talking to customers about the area and about packrafting.  Here are a few tips specifically for this trip:

  • 1.       I have done all my trips in July and only been rained on for one-half day.  None of our trips were bad for mosquitoes and we have only seen one bear (black) in all of those days out, but prepare for all these things!  Rain jacket, bear spray and bug spray!  Time of year matters for water levels, the later you go the more you’ll have to portage.  Early-mid July is probably best for flows, mid-late July is best for fishing with a lower risk of fires. Fires are a major consideration...they can happen at any time, but are likely at the end of July and throughout August- smokey air and trail closures being the main problems resulting from them.
  • 2.       If you want to have a more relaxing trip, do one long day of hiking your first day and then float the rest of the trip (its 16-18 miles of hiking over Young’s Creek Pass to the first float-able stretches of Young’s Creek). If you go in over Young’s Creek Pass start as early as possible because it gets hot on the south side of the pass and there isn’t water until you get over the top.  I've heard there was some significant blow down on the pass in 2019 and I'm not sure how much of it got cleared on the trail by the end of the season.  Look for huckberries on the way down.  The White River trip was prettier but demoralizing because we floated (on the Sun River) and then hiked almost two days and then floated two more.   You can also get to Young's creek via Pyramid Pass, but from a hiking perspective it is supposed to be harder.
  • 3.       The gorge section of Young’s Creek can be a bit overwhelming if you’ve never packrafted before.  If the water is low, it isn’t too high consequence (meaning there aren’t any hydros that will kill you) but there are lots of rocks and you will probably scrape your boat a lot and possibly tip (which would be a bummer because you’d have several days of wet gear).  All that said, my friends and I did it and made it through having minimal prior packraft experience.  Not sure how it would be in high water though.  You can easily hike around it on the trail if it is intimidating.
  • 4.       The first floatable stretch on Young’s and the first few miles of the South Fork of the Flathead often have log jams.  Be prepared to portage….but that is one plus of a packraft – easy portages (attach your packraft with the backpack straps up and you can just walk with the raft on your back and carry your rod and paddle).
  • 5.       The ranger station at Big Prairie is worth the stop.  Drink some tang and have an Oreo.  Talk to the rangers and get a tour.  You’re pretty much walking into a small 1870s settlement due to the restrictions on technology in wilderness areas.  You can also see a plane wreck just inside the fence which is pretty cool.  Big Prairie is located at the first pack-bridge that goes over the South Fork.  Be nice and appreciative to the rangers and other forest service workers.
  • 6.       Sweet side-trips that we have done include: Mud Lake Lookout and Salmon Lake.  On the third trip we went up to Haystack mountain and from it you can see the famed Chinese Wall.  It is about a 20 mile round trip so start early and bring lots of water.  It is worth the view!  I’ve heard of people doing the whole South Fork trip in 4 days, but I would recommend at least 6 because you won’t feel rushed. 

  • 7. The following is from a renter in 2019 regarding a new rapid near the White River confluence: "T
    here is a new log jam around mile 84 near Scarface Creek (where the river made a new channel) that we portaged around."
    It's important to keep in mind that the river changes annually and there may be log jams and new rapids in places where there weren't before.  
  • 8.       There is one rapid that has tipped at least one person in our group every year on the last day(although I've heard mixed reports about it washing out since then).  It is hard to see coming up but if you pay attention to the elevation drop of the river, you can see it.  If you don’t see til you’re almost there you can probably skirt it to the right if you paddle hard.  Otherwise, lean forward and paddle hard through the rapid.  It isn’t a bone crusher, but you might lose your sunglasses and anything else that isn’t attached.  There's a nice recovery pool right after so your raft won't wash down stream ahead of you.
  • 9.       The last day of the trip you will see a sign that says something like “take-out ¼ mile”.  Get on the “river right” at this point.  There will be another sign shortly, but the river increases in speed and splashy rapids right at the take-out point so you might miss it if you aren’t ready.  If you do miss it….once again thank God you are a packrafter, because you can easily get out of the pool after the take-out and climb over the small rocky embankment with your packraft in hand or on your back. If you don't get out here, you need to have a helmet and be ready for class VI rapids.
  • 10.       You will hike out 3 miles from the take-out to the Meadow Creek Trail Head parking lot.  From Meadow Creek it is an hour at least, on a dusty road back to Hungry Horse, MT (keep your eyes peeled for huckleberries on the way).  There is no restaurant in Hungry Horse that has all three of the magic trifecta (burgers, fries and shakes), but you can mix and match with the Huckleberry Patch and the Elk Horn Grill.  Or you can go East to Coram and the Glacier Grill.  You will be hungry at this point!
  • Day 3 log jam portage
    From Big Prairie
  • 11.   Regarding  shuttling- after publishing this blog, I found out that there is indeed a shuttle service that there are a couple shuttle services that run vehicles around the Bob.  Ovando River Shuttle- Ginger and Tony deRonnebeck: Home 406-793-2568Cell 406-210-2795 and Four Rivers Shuttle and Boat Rental,  can shuttle your vehicle pretty much anywhere around the Bob.  Contact me directly if you are looking for a shuttle on the East side as I have some contacts.
  • 12. Don't forget forest rangers are the law back there and they (one in particular) follow it to the letter!  On a different trip into the Bob we had to turn around and go back because my friend's fishing license had disappeared out of his pack.  The ranger wouldn't budge, or call in to verify his license.  I also had 3 renters get fined $80/person in the Bob because they didn't have life jackets in their boats.  
  • 13. Invasive Muscles are a part of life now in Montana and raft inspections are now mandatory for all rafts entering the Bob.  You'll need to have your raft inspected and if possible carry some proof of that (either a piece of paper or on your phone).  Please check out the link here for check station locations.  (updated 2023)
  • 14.  Bears- customers ask fairly frequently about bears and how to prepare for them....I honestly haven't heard of anyone encountering a grizzly on the main trail or on the river.  I've seen one Black bear and have had a handful of customers report black bear sightings on the river.  Definitely bring bear spray and hang your food, but the overall concentration of bears is pretty low in that area during the summer.

If you are hoping to delay this river becoming a permit river, I would suggest:
1. Having your fires below the high water mark.
2. Picking up other people's trash if you see it.
3. Not cutting other boats off or paddling through fishing holes that people are fishing
4. Fly fishing instead of spin fishing
5. Pulling your barbs down
6. Limiting how many holes you fish
7. Fishing more for bull trout, because you won't catch as many cut-throats and the ones you catch will be bigger
8. Pulling your fish in quickly and taking the hook out in the water
It might be inevitable that it will be a permitted river just because of the sheer number of vessels packrafting brings but this will slow it.
Helpful resources: Bob Marshall Wilderness Map and Flathead River Guide in PDF form.

If you do need a rental, I am happy to accommodate that need!  Please check out my website:

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Losing Your Packraft Air Valve Cap in the Backcountry

It's one of those moments that could ruin the trip you look forward to all year.  The rest of my group had already inflated their rafts and were traveling downstream to find a better spot for lunch.  We were 25 miles from the nearest road and 20 miles from where I last inflated my raft.  I unrolled my packraft and there was no air valve cap.   How was I going to keep air in my raft?!?  I had three days of floating ahead of me and it was nearly 30 miles to where we would be picked up!

I tied off my inflation bag to keep most of the air in and floated down to meet the rest of my party.  I had to orally inflate it several times in the half mile I traveled on the river so I was definitely going to need a better long term solution.  For a second I pictured the spot where I had deflated my raft and rolled it up on a gravel bar.  I thought, "some fisherman is probably holding it right now wondering what it is."

By the time I arrived I had thought of several different ways to remedy the problem and avoid having to pack my raft out (an embarrassing and demoralizing thought to say the least).  Most of my ideas involved taping over the valve, either with duct-tape or tyvek tape.  Luckily my friend Benn had a better idea:

Rather than tape over the valve that was attached to the raft he taped over the inflation bag valve opening with duct-tape, letting the tape overlap all the way up the threads.  Then we screwed the inflation bag back into the air valve opening.  The duct-tape over the valve-end shut off the air and the duct tape around the threads seals it in tight like a cap would.  I had to inflate the raft orally, but given the situation, it was a small price to pay for not having to walk out or re-inflate my raft every 100 yards.  I did notice my raft lost a little more air than the others, but the difference was pretty minimal.

The easy way to prevent this situation is to always make sure the cap is attached to the string before rolling the raft up.   However, if you're like me, you don't always try the easy way first.  Hopefully if this ever happens to you or someone you are packrafting with remember this trick and you can really save your trip.  Also, always bring duct-tape!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Importance of Scouting Rapids

Look how calm that water looks.

Keep in mind, my friends and I are backpackers turned packrafters.  I don't know all the right white-water terms or elementary lessons (as this story will illustrate).  I write this for the benefit of others who are new to white-water and particularly to packrafting.

"Go for it! You'll be fine!"

My three friends were beached on the bank opposite my raft.  I had planned to pull off on the on my side of the river and we were all going to scout the next rapid, but there wasn't a good spot to beach and the current was going too fast.  As I sped along the bank, I shouted back, "Should I just go for it?"  As if I had much of a choice at that point.  

I managed around the first boulder just fine but the next one was a dewsey.  Trying to stall for time to plan my next move I broadsided the boulder and foolishly leaned away.  My raft tipped over, the velcro holding my spray skirt to the raft released without me even pulling the handle and bam!  I was in the water and on the scariest 2 minute ride of my life. 
It turned out, this particular section of class 3ish rapids had no real recovery area.  The current was strong and the energy I had was sapped by trying to stay afloat after each successive rapid and small water-fall.  I was able to keep my feet forward for much of the journey, but managed to bang my knee up pretty good on a couple boulders.  My friend Seth, who had started soon after me, but did not see my spill, caught up with me at an eddy the marked the end of the 150 yard section.  I was so exhausted and out of breath, it was all I could do to grab the back of his packraft as he towed me to shore.  

Fortunately the temperature was still in the 60s and after putting on some of Seth's dry clothes and doing some jumping jacks my body heat began to return.  For everyone else however, the adventure was far from over.  Seth ended up being the only one to make it through without going for a swim.  

Shivering after the last rapid
Benn, the third member of the group, anticipating the spill potential of the rapid made an attempt to pull over near the boulder that ejected me.  His raft was suddenly sucked down under a different boulder.  He pulled himself out but it took deflating the raft and a great deal of tugging to get the raft out from under the rock (the 6-point elk shed tied on the front of the raft didn't make things easier).

Tyler, the final member of the party was able to get through the section that tipped Benn and I, but was dumped on a different boulder.  He was able to get to shore with his raft, regroup and go through the final 4-foot waterfall on his raft.  

Needless to say, once we had retrieved all the rafts and paddles, we packed everything up and started the 7-mile hike out (we were pretty close to our planned destination).  

Lessons Learned

After a few days of reflection, I think the most important take-away from this adventure is scouting.  Followed closely by staying in a tight group when going through rapids.  If you scout rapids, you can get through them better and/or make better decisions about whether or not to portage around them.  If you stay in tight groups, it is easier to pull over as a group and if you do go into a gnarly section of rapids, you can bail each other out (particularly if you have a throw rope).  One final note, if you're new to white-water, it is better to hone your skills on sections of rapids with many recovery areas.  It allows you time to think through your next move, or if you are dumped it allows you to get to shore and re-group.  
Amazing views early in the day!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Beginning of Backcountry Packraft Rentals

I glanced down off the trail and noticed a deep pool with a strong current going through it.  It was a steep downhill slide to the pool, but if I had learned anything about backcountry fishing, it was that pools like this are worth fishing.  I scrambled down and let my “hopper-dropper” float through the rapid.  The hopper almost immediately popped under, indicating something had taken my “dropper” (in this case a copper john).  I caught one hard-fighting, 16” cut-throat on each sides of the pool.  As I climbed back onto the trail, I felt fully alive and in love with backcountry fishing.  Over a fire that night, my friend Benn and I discussed our amazing two days of fishing in the Bob Marshall. 
As good as it was, two full days of tough hiking was a high price to pay for two full days of fishing.  If only we could just continue down the river, past the remote ranger station at Big Prairie, through the narrow canyon slots and walk out into the Spotted Bear parking lot forty-some miles to the north.  As tempting as that was, we only had four days.  A trip like that would take more than a week if we hoped to hike it and fish just the best spots as we walked.  Plus, we’d be completely exhausted from hiking hard to keep pace in-between fishing holes.  Not that we’re against exhaustion, but this was a fishing trip, not endurance training.  Of course there was always the raft option.  We had some connections to horses and rafts, but the logistics and costs involved in an endeavor like that get difficult quickly.  As we hiked out on the fourth day, we decided one way or the other we had to come back, even if it meant a ten-day trip to do the river full justice.

Then we discovered packrafts!  Small, durable, ultralight, inflatable, packable, high-performing, rafts designed for the Alaskan wilderness.    Three years after that first trip into the Bob, we went back in, this time with Benn’s brother, another mutual friend and my wife.  The trip took six days.  One day of hard hiking, one day that involved several portages around log jams and four days of uninterrupted fishing and floating bliss!  Our meals were amazing as each one of us tried to outdo the other with our assigned night of cooking (meals included: jumbleia, chicken dumplings, Paiute mountain pizza, fish burritos, and pad Thai).   Fishing was excellent, although the fish were slightly picky at times.  We saw bull trout on two occasions and the second one bit into a 10” cutthroat that was being reeled in.  Camping spots were excellent and even included an island one night.  We stopped and saw a girl who was in our wedding at the Big Prairie ranger station.  This isolated settlement seems to come straight from the 1870s and is an experience in itself.
We ended our trip in the picturesque slot canyons that take you to the edge of Meadow Creek Gorge (a dangerous class IV + stretch of river that we decided to save for a later date when we have more experience and helmets).   We actually missed the pull-out (a sign that says “danger pull out now”) and had to climb up a small slot cliff, but with packrafts this is easily done!  Benn’s family was even nice enough to shuttle our car back to Hungry Horse so we ate the customary burger, fries and shake and returned home. 

During the planning stages of this trip, decided to buy two packrafts rather than rent them with the intention of starting my own rental company.  The time for that is now here!  Backcountry Packrafts Rentals LLC is officially open for business!  As I researched packrafts I realized the myriad of other outdoor activities packrafts can be combined with.  You would be amazed at what you can load on a packraft and still be able to run rapids.  A short list of activities to be combined with packrafting include:  fishing, hunting, mountain biking, skiing, camping, mountaineering, rock climbing and canyoneering.  Packrafts are the ultimate outdoors men raft because they are capable of running almost any rapid and add to so many things most outdoorsmen already enjoy.  We ship anywhere in the lower 48!  So check us out a company that’s true Montana!