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|Confluence of the White and South Fork|
Summer 2023 condition updates:
The road to Meadow Creek Campground is officially closed on both sides of reservoir (not all the way down). My understanding is that forest service employees are rerouting paddlers and backpackers around Salmon Forks on the South Fork. If you were planning on Floating the South Fork it's probably a good time to make other plans. Here's a link to the inciweb fire info: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incide.../mtfnf-tin-soldier-complex
I have asked several renters in the last couple of days (who got out early this week or over the weekend) how often they had to get out to walk through/around low spots on gravel bars. Sounds like at least 10 times a day for the first couple of days. Fishing is good though.
Spoke with a renter today who came out on Sunday 7/23.
Hike in: trail in great shape from Lodgepole. No issues.
-We thought Young's creek too inconsistent to float until near the confluence. I'll send you a picture of the point where the trail crosses. Since you know the trip so well, you will know how to interpret.
-Two log jam portages early. A tree down across a narrow spot in the flow has been cut but it leaves a passageway that was pretty tenuous.
-Gravel bars as I said in my email (walked 1-2 each day for a 100ft). After the White River - pretty rare to walk the boats.
-We walked around the rapids near Picture Creek. We are average experience level and it looked like a little much for us.
-The last rapid (which you warned of in your blog) flipped me. Having that pool to float out into is great. My 6 wt is at the bottom of that pool - ugh.
-We saw no Bears - definitely followed all the bear rules.
-The Rangers were great. They definitely checked our paperwork and it was no joke.
-Boat inspection was easy. Glad we did it.
We put in at the confluence of Youngs and Hahn on 07.02 and water levels were mostly good. Had to portage three times on Youngs over log jams, and one rapids section at the entry to the gorge.
We never had to portage after entering the S. Fork proper on 07.03, and water levels in most channels were good throughout the rest of the trip. I believe the gauge we referenced on 07.01 had the S. Fork at 1300 CFS.
My wife and I took out at Mid Creek on 07.05. Our more experienced partners attempted Meadow Creek Gorge, but bailed a mile in due to difficult scouting.
South Fork updated: June 24-July 1, approx 1800-1500 CFS (Twin Creek Gauge)
Just talked to our first south fork of the flathead renter who got out over the weekend (7/1). Water is unseasonably low and he thought future trips might consider putting in at the confluence of young's and Danaher. There's a rock "that could eat a boat" at the beginning of young's canyon. Also very close to mid creek take out a hard right turn with a rock that flipped a couple boats. Didn't sound bad on the log jams, just low water.
Twin Creek Gauge is the best gauge. We have renters run the length of the South Fork of the Flathead down to the low 400CFS although you do have to get out on a few more gravel bars it is doable and still worthwhile at this level.
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 rive will almost certainly become permitted in the next 5 years, but if pack rafters 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|
- 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: "There 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!
- 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 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.
|Day 3 log jam portage|
|From Big Prairie|
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.