Fear and Loathing on Montana’s Middle Fork of the Flathead

An adventurous group "on the Social Security end of things" learns a few whitewater canoe lessons deep in the Great Bear Wilderness

Anxiety squatted over our preparations like a brewing storm – that special mix of exhilaration and dread before a daunting run. The guidebook I looked at called it a "rampage" and labeled the upper Middle Fork "the biggest whitewater river in the state." It warned, "Be prepared for the whitewater ride of your life." Friends who had attempted the same run in similar conditions on a raft trip a few years earlier told us that it was "the hardest physical thing they had ever done," and these were folks who had done a few things.

Then, at the airport where we arranged the fly-in for our gear, one of the pilots talked about a group earlier in the summer who he had refused to fly in. "I looked at them and their gear, and I told them, you will die," he said.

We were an experienced group, albeit a little on the Social Security end of things. Among us we had search and rescue folks, former rangers, international outfitters, wilderness adventurers with impressive resumes, medical professionals. Everyone was pretty fit, pretty experienced and savvy enough to know we should be careful on this one. So yeah, there we were, in late July, waiting for our gear at the Schaefer Meadows landing strip, deep in the Great Bear Wilderness, after hiking in 14 miles on a trail.

The river was running at roughly 2,000 cfs at the downstream gauge, which meant it would be a bony run. On the continuum between bony and pushy, we deliberately chose bony. At higher water several of the rapids are rated Class IV+, and a handful more earn Class IV, depending on the guidebook you use. Lower volume would mean more lining, more wading through boulders, but less terror and fewer boat-eating holes.

To avoid the herculean labor of our rafting friends, we also chose inflatable SOAR canoes to skinny down boulder gardens and through the rocky narrows that they had had to shove and carry and heave their way through.

After lunch the parade of blue inflatable canoes strung out on the meandering, gin-clear mountain flow. For a mile or so it was lovely and sedate, if thin. Then the work began. Bend after bend of rock-strewn shallows. In and out of boats, lining past snags, pinballing through drops, hanging up, reading water for that channel with an extra inch of river.

For the first day and a half, it went like that – out of the boats more than we were in them. Past monstrous logjams that reminded us of high water conditions, through rocky canyons, some dramatic drops. More than once we strung out in a tag-team lining challenge, passing boats down a boulder-choked drop or craggy pinch-point, tossing ropes, swinging boats into eddies, hauling over boulders.

In the longer boulder-gardens, we transformed into a parade of waders working boats through shallows, or humping them over a sleeper, stuttering down the miles. Below the confluence with Granite Creek, volume increased, we could run longer stretches. It was still gnarly, but the beauty of that wilderness sank in more than it could when we were so riveted on the next tight spot.

Beauty … and fish. Fish everywhere. Every night trout lay out on the grill by the dozen. Turquoise water flashed under the hulls like something out of the Caribbean, interspersed with emerald green depths. More than once the river slammed around a rock-bound corner into eddying pools full of lounging trout.

The peak of anxiety focused on the 3-5 mile Spruce Park whitewater section near the end. We allotted an entire day to the short, but challenging stretch. At the first big drop we deployed our lining team down the shore and passed boats one after another through. Rapids kept coming, mostly runnable, but we all focused on the final Class IV of the trip. One of the canyon-lined rapids featured a run through a narrow 'gunsight' between boulders, and some emphatic moves below. It was also difficult to line because of high cliffs.

In the end, after the usual protracted scouting discussion, we all ran it in one form or another. Everyone survived, but it was a circus of backward sneaks, lost paddles, grabby eddylines and quite a lot of unfiltered reaction from the peanut gallery.

Still, we were waiting for the final major rapid. Bend after bend the boats edged around the corner, anticipating the roar.

Finally, miles downstream, someone fired up a GPS and announced that we had passed the last big rapid already, and that it was the one we had all managed to run with various levels of hilarity and mishap.

Relief lifted like a lid off of a pressure cooker. Time to camp. Time to fish. Time to savor this beautiful, dangerous, wild place in mental comfort for one more night.

KEYS TO SUCCESS:

We survived, and actually thrived, on this potentially hazardous run for a couple of reasons.

  1. Picking the right water level. A little higher might have been nice, but consciously choosing dates when we knew the river volume would be down was key to managing the danger.
  2. Choosing appropriate boats. The inflatable, self-bailing canoes were perfect for sneaking through water a raft would have never made it through, and carrying enough gear to support a multi-day journey in comfort.
  3. Granting plenty of time. We allotted five days to travel some 30 miles. It allowed us to take it easy, never feel rushed, and take the safe route without the pressure to make miles. And it gave us plenty to time to fish!
  4. Working as a team on everything from lining boats
    to picking a campsite.
  5. This link has good information on the river.


—Check out Kesselheim’s picks for four of the best extended wilderness paddling trips in the continental U.S., as well as his recent look at the future of America’s longest free-flowing river.