The 10 best packraft runs in Bob Marshall country
What a summer of packrafting it has been. Above all else, exceptional floats of all varieties have been the theme. Normally I don’t go in for lists; subjectivity makes them an absurd exercise and I intentionally do not indulge in traffic-driving techniques or cater to folks poor attention spans. The following is an amusing and challenging exercise for me, and perhaps a help to others.
To make things more rigorous, I’ve restricted myself to listing sections of no more than 10 miles. Comparing the 40+ wilderness miles of both the South and Middle Forks against the 8-10 floatable miles of the White River or Youngs Creek stacks the deck almost to the point of meaninglessness.
One of the defining characteristics of packrafting should be that you feel way out there while doing it. Unlike on the ubiquitous trails of the lower 48, while floating a wilderness river you’re traveling on the landscapes terms, much like humans of centuries past did. One of the best places to feel this is the uppermost 10 miles of the Middle Fork of the Flathead, which starts very close to the most remote place in the Bob. Even at a fairly big flow (~8,000 cfs at West Glacier) this stretch is impressively moderate, with few true rapids or logjams. You can kick back and enjoy the floating, scenery, and ambiance at all once.
Vaguely roadside, but the quality makes up for the number of day-tripping fly fishers you’ll see. Rowdy when the South Fork is at 5000 cfs, and just fun when it’s at 1500. Disclaimer; along with the forks of Birch and Badger Creeks, the Spotted Bear above Dean is one of the few guaranteed to be good things in the Bob I haven’t yet run. Pentagon to Dean probably deserves a higher spot on this list.
Moderate, remote, with a transitory season and just enough wood to keep you on your toes: the North Fork of the Sun is an absolutely classic packrafting river. There’s a pretty broad range of possible flows here: the near-flood of 1700 cfs is doable, if quite exciting and too high for fishing. Like the West Fork, 500 cfs is probably close to the lower limit in these upper stretches.
The quality and variety of this run surprised and impressed me. Not only does it have the expected riffles, meanders, and logjams, but also a handful of fun little bedrock drops and micro-gorges. It’s at the top of my list to re-visit next year. Like the White, the West Fork flow drops faster and sooner than the larger rivers discussed here. Much below 500 cfs on the South Fork Sun near Augusta is probably too little to be enjoyable.
In this final wilderness stretch the South Fork equals is not exceeds anything on the Middle Fork in depth and profundity, and forms a truly impressive valley with rapids, huge pools, hanging gardens, and some fantastic campsites. Meadow Creek gorge bears caution and a helmet, but at low water isn’t as formidable as is commonly portrayed. There is no disadvantage to running this stretch very low indeed, 600 cfs at Twin Creeks works just fine.
This almost doesn’t count as a wilderness run, and thus isn’t quite proper packrafting, but it is a fantastic whitewater run in a gorgeous setting. At the levels suggested it is the hardest run listed here, and a perfect skills test ideally suited to the virtues of a packraft. It goes at 250 cfs, while I imagine anything above 500 is quite pushy and another level of difficulty entirely. 350 is probably a good compromise.
Taken as a whole the South Fork is without question the best packraft in the Bob, but which section you prefer will always be a good subject for debate. I like to split the difference and have the big views of the uppermost section with a taste of the whitewater, deep pools, and brilliant cobbles of the lower sections. And this stretch has ridiculous fishing. It’s good at any level between 1000 and 10,000 cfs at Twin Creeks, but somewhere around 4000 is probably the best compromise of a fast river and good whitewater action with clear water and good fishing.
The White is an ideal packrafting river; incised in a broad valley away from heavy trees with a continuous but not steep gradient. The result is a rollercoaster of continuous moderate whitewater with minimal concern about wood. It’s probably just as good up to, if not above, Needle Falls, but I haven’t gotten there yet. Adding to the mystique in the fact that the White is the most remote river in the Bob. Ideal packrafting levels are around 4-5000 cfs on the South Fork at Twin Creeks.
The Middle Fork is a big river with an even bigger basin. As mentioned, the upper half, from Strawberry Creek down to Schafer, meanders through hills and gentle valleys with big views and mild water. The lower half is another matter, and runs between steep forested walls with almost no respite. The Three Forks section between the end of Schafer and Morrison Creek is the steepest few miles on the river, and features several very challenging boulder garden rapids. It is also gorgeous, with kaleidoscopic cobbles and huge dark pools. Morrison to Granite is much milder, but similarly scenic. An ideal packrafting level is between 2000 and 4000 cfs at West Glacier, higher if you’re skilled, lower if you’re less so.
Little did I know that my first packraft in the Bob would be the best around. Youngs is small, clean, fairly technical, and absolutely gorgeous. 2-3000 cfs on the South Fork is a good level, lower if you’re less experienced on whitewater.