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

Updated 6/29/21
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Confluence of the White and South Fork 
Summer 2021 condition updates:
I've had a lot of questions lately about flows and how low is too low to float the South Fork of the Flathead specifically. I did some digging and found a renter who floated the South Fork in September 3 years ago. He and another guy hiked up the South fork to Big Prairie ranger station and were on the river the first 5 days of September.  There are 7 miles between Big Prairie and the confluence where the South Fork starts.  The section up river from big prairie is flat and deep so I don't think there'd be much portaging there.  He said they had to get out on a few gravel bars but were getting out a lot to fish anyway so it didn't seem to make a difference.  As of 7/21 current flows are 1000 fps on the nearest South Fork gauge- according to the data there would have been 390-460fps during the renters' trip in September of 2018.

Heard from a group that got off the river 7/17 that there is a huge strainer spanning the South Fork of the Flathead near where Gordon Creek comes in to the South Fork.

15 down trees on Young's Pass.  Only a few that had to be walked around.

Put in at Babcock creek, the big strainer on Young's creek (gorge) from last year is gone.  There is a small strainer right after the 1st major left in the Young's gorge, on river right side, basically in the 1st rapid.  On 7/1 it could be paddled around in a packraft and in lower water it would be an easy portage and you could possible paddle under.   The rest of the gorge was mostly rock dodging.  A ranger said he will run the gorge this week and will put flagging on small strainer

South Fork- no portages on south fork, hiked up white river- 30 downed logs, got out of white once- White runnable on 7/3/21.  Report came in on 7/8

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 5+ 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.  According to 2016 regulations it is open the 3rd Saturday in May through July for Bull Trout catch and release.  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.  There is definitely the possibility of the river becoming permitted in the near future, but if pack rafters continue to act as low impact backpackers, there is a chance that the river will continue to be open to anyone who wants to raft it.

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.  Montana Adventure Shuttles and Four Rivers Shuttle and Boat Rental, both based out of Missoula, 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 carry your inspection papers with you.  Please check out the link here for check station locations.  (updated 2020)
  • 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 accomodate that need!  Please check out my website: