Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Packrafting the South Fork of the Flathead with 2024 Updates

Updated 5/22/24
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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: https://www.backcountrypackrafts.com/

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