Paddling the Flathead River A 158 mile father-daughter canoe trip.
Kelly swiveled in the bow, looking through the widening gap to the other half of the family, waving goodbye from the bank of the Flathead River.
“Dad, let’s go back,” she pleaded. “Please.”
I heard her homesickness, and felt my own tinge of panic. How many times had I been warned about the fierce winds on Flathead Lake? How often had I told beginning canoeists that there’s safety in numbers? And here I was, launching a 10-day trip with a 12-year-old girl as my only companion. At that moment, it didn’t seem significant that Kelly was a strong paddler, or that we’d traveled hundreds of miles in our red Explorer, five or 10 miles at a stretch.
My wife and son disappeared as we rounded a bend. I dug my paddle into the swollen river and soon the first mile was past.
One-hundred-fifty-seven to go.
I started thinking about a father-daughter trip when two guys I admire—two model fathers—saw their 14-year-old girls turn against them. It was nothing bad or permanent; each just had the sudden realization that the Old Man is an idiot.
So I decided that before she became a teen, Kelly and I would have an adventure. Maybe the trust learned on a river would help keep us from drifting too far apart later.
I picked our Montana route for its mix of flowing and still waters, small towns, and isolated shorelines. We would start in Kalispell and paddle the Flathead—river, lake, and lower river—to the Clark Fork River, ending at Thompson Falls. We started the day after Kelly completed sixth grade, in weather that contributed to our gloomy mood. The next day broke clear, but now we were approaching Flathead Lake, which greeted us with its legendary winds. A two-mile crossing took more than an hour.
Pockets full of carrots
The third morning, we caught a friendly tailwind. We paddled five miles to Wild Horse Island and saw two deer, 100 bighorn sheep, and one cute, cuddly black bear that was brown. Kelly’s journal, midday June 20. Lots of critters, but no horses. Kelly carried a pocketful of carrots on our long hike to the island’s high point, 500 feet above the whitecaps. She hoped to befriend the foals she was certain we’d see cavorting in the waving grass. We later learned that Wild Horse Island is home to just three wild horses that have been surgically sterilized to prevent their kind from overrunning the 2,200-acre wildlife refuge
Dad fell out
Water flowing from Flathead Lake plunges through the turbines of Kerr Dam, then churns through Class IV whitewater interspersed with long pools. Our paddling skills were no match for Buffalo Rapids, so we opted to paddle this section in a guided raft. Our canoe made the trip inside the rafting company’s old school bus.
We went rafting for 10 miles. Dad fell out, but I stayed in. Kelly’s journal, June 21. Below the rapids, the lower Flathead River is broad, flat, and swift. On Flathead Lake, we’d struggled to average 3 mph. Now, we whooped when the GPS showed 11 mph. The next day, we traveled 26 miles. Easy, no work. Read the whole time, and swam. Kelly’s journal, June 22.
If You Go
FLATHEAD LAKE MARINE TRAIL–Shoreline campsites are set aside specifically for paddlers at five state campgrounds ( fwp.mt.gov). Camping is prohibited on Wild Horse Island, but allowed on undeveloped Cedar and Bird islands after the spring nesting season.
BUFFALO RAPIDS–The 10 miles of lower Flathead River between Kerr Dam and Buffalo Bridge includes rapids to class IV. Do-it-yourself or hire Flathead Raft Co. (800-654-4359.)
LOWER FLATHEAD RIVER – Buffalo Bridge to the Clark Fork River is 60 miles of isolated, flatwater paddling on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Wildlife is abundant. Carry drinking water. Permits (406-675-2700) are $15 for a conservation permit and $15 for an annual camping permit. Adult fishing stamps are available for one day, three days, or the season.
CLARK FORK RIVER – Renowned for its whitewater and trout fishing farther upstream, the Clark Fork is big and broad below its confluence with the Flathead, with three big dams and only token whitewater. Call (406) 487-2729 for a brochure listing campsites on the sprawling Cabinet Gorge and Noxon reservoirs.
The outhouse incident
Day two on the lower Flathead. At the edge of a cornfield is an uncultivated strip where farm discards rise from knee-high grass: hulks of antiquated implements, bullet-riddled car fenders, rotting barrels that once held agricultural chemicals. A grayed and tilted outhouse.
Early in the trip, we established the Privy Policy, mandating a stop at every outhouse. Kelly had done enough backcountry travel to know that a splintered toilet seat is a luxury not to be missed. Kelly was at my heels when I wrenched open the sagging door, cleared cobwebs with a stick and slowly lifted the lid to check for wasps. It immediately became clear that this retired outhouse was not intended for use. There was no excavation beneath the seat, where a very surprised skunk stared back at me. The wise—and polite—thing to do would have been to lower the lid, and tiptoe away. My reaction was less graceful. Slamming the lid, I nearly trampled my daughter. “Run, Kelly, run!” I yelled. She screamed and obeyed, flip-flops slapping her soles. The canoe bobbled as we leaped aboard.
“What was it?” Kelly asked, panting. I paused. “You can’t blame me for stinking up that outhouse,” was my reply.
Drifting with Scout
I’d brought along a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I couldn’t wait to read Harper Lee’s masterpiece with my daughter. It is a book best shared, a book to discuss.
I read aloud from the stern as Kelly lounged in the bow, etching toe lines in the river. By the time Jem and Dill hatched a plan to get a message to Boo Radley, we were well down the lower Flathead. When Scout and the boys were sneaking into the trial, we were celebrating our arrival at the Clark Fork. We finished up with a long rainy-night-into-misty-morning reading session, spent in a warm laundry room.
We never saw the KOA in Plains, Montana, so we introduced ourselves to the sympathetic caretaker at the Sanders County Fairgrounds, showered in the 4H locker rooms, and pitched our tent beside the poultry building. No campground was ever more pleasant. It was 2 o’clock the next afternoon when we finally pushed off for the final two-day stretch on the Clark Fork to Thompson Falls.
Kelly had started making a list of the things she wanted to do with the rest of her summer—Listen to music … Think … Sleep—but my thoughts ran downstream. The water parting around our island would follow the Clark Fork over three dams to Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, then down the Pend Oreille River to the Columbia River. After that, another 800 miles to saltwater. A canoeist could see the world from this Montana island.
Our trip, though, ended the next day, in a downpour. We pulled the canoe ashore, high-fived and hugged. We crossed the highway and took snapshots of the sign welcoming visitors to Thompson Falls, a town named for an explorer who traveled by river and was the father of daughters.
Becoming a teen
A year has passed, and Kelly is spending ever more time in her room. When I bring up the trip, she dwells on its perceived hardships: rare showers, abundant mosquitoes, no e-mail. In my daughter’s mind, our adventure has become something I forced her to endure.
When a friend asks us to speak to his rotary group, Kelly reluctantly agrees to join me. Standing before that roomful of adults, Kelly becomes animated. She demonstrates how I’d fallen backward out of the raft, and they laugh. She imitates my face at seeing the skunk, and they howl.
“Kelly,” asks an older man. “Would you do it again?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“With your dad?”
She looks at me coolly, and smiles.
“Sure,” she says.
And no word ever meant more.