Red Eagle Creek

When and if Glacier becomes a packrafting destination, Red Eagle Creek will be very popular during late spring and early summer.  After the the previous two years’ explorations, I came into this summer with a two-tiered list of rivers and creeks; a must-do list, and a worth checking out list.  There aren’t too many things left on the former.

The curse of Glacier packrafting, and the thing which will probably always hold it back from being as good as it could be, is wood.  Between erosion-ready spruce in soft river bottoms and burnt lodgepole snags many creeks which would otherwise be fantastic floats are nervewracking to the point of not being worth the effort, at least for me (e.g Logging, Camas below the Inside road).  So creeks with enough water for boating, a moderate gradient, and an only modest amount of wood are a big find.

Red Eagle, from the lake of the same name down to St. Mary Lake, is just such a creature.  With a few exceptions.  Early yesterday I drove over Logan Pass in thick fog, crawling at 20 mph with flashers on in 30-50 foot visibility.  In a reverse of the usual weather pattern, it was bright and sunny in the Flathead and overcast and drizzling east of the divide.  I did what will become the standard sport boater route for Red Eagle, parking near the 1913 ranger station and hiking the 7+ miles in to the lake.  It’s a great hike, old growth pines, aspen and flower meadows before the first suspension bridge (pictured above), and for the moment abundant undergrowth in a recent burn after.  A few NW facing slopes had denser growths of beargrass than I’ve seen anywhere, and in a month or so will have insane globemallow thickets.  Red Eagle lake is a destination all it’s own, with great scenery and fishing.  The state record cutthroat was caught there, albeit half a century ago.

Right before the lake you’ll hike over a series of rock ridges running perpendicular to the trail and creek.  In predictable Glacier fashion these form a burly bedrock rapid, in this case a ~150 meter long microcanyon right at the mouth of the lake.  Some one will run this class V at lower water, but it’s very powerful and has two inconvenient logs, one halfway down is river wide but could be ducked, the second barring a left-hand slot just at the end making the right line a tricky must-make move.  Impressive, but not my bailiwick.

The half mile below this gorge is bendy which, also in typical Glacier fashion, produces many river-wide logjams.  Had I not seen the clean creek lower down I might have given it up as a bad job.  Sport boaters will likely prefer to avoid this mess and take the penultimate little creek crossing on the hike in down to Red Eagle.  After Red Eagle straightens out it becomes consistently excellent, and remarkably clean for running through such an extensive burn.  After the eastern suspension bridge the gradient picks up and things get more serious, still very fun boating but scouting is all but required due to there being essentially no respite between drops.  The creek is fast enough that in spite of portaging the initial gorge, mucking around in the wood below it, and scouting plenty in the final few miles, I made it from lake to lake in little more than an hour.

Worth at least an annual visit.

The clouds were fast breaking up for my paddle back along St. Mary lake.  I had hoped for a healthy tail wind to expedite this, but in continuing with the day of backward weather, I had a gentle but unmistakable headwind.  A note of caution for prospective boaters; bushwacking back to the trail from the outlet of Red Eagle would be rather time consuming, and when the winds pick up on St. Mary the swells they build can be positively oceanic.  On the other hand, a calm day could see a trip starting at ending at Rising Sun, with a ferry across the lake to Silver Dollar beach putting you within a brief bushwack of the trail.  I was unable to just float without making retrograde progress, so after 20 minutes of flat paddling pulled over to eat second lunch.  Immediately after beaching I heard a titanic crashing and scrambled for a view, to see a big bull Moose fleeing through the ponds and willow thickets of the (very extensive) Red Eagle delta.  Proof that nothing bigger than a rodent can get through a willow bog quietly.  The paddle down the lake took longer than the creek float, but the day was fine indeed and I got great views and sunburned knees for my patience.

Driving back over the pass I couldn’t but stop and run up Oberlin, having stashed axe and crampons in the car for that purpose.  The skiers, sledders, gawkers, ptarmigan, mountaineering marmots, and scruffy goats were all out in force on a very fine afternoon.

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