The ineffable South Fork

A little less than two years ago I took my first trip down the South Fork of the Flathead. To this day I haven’t written about it, I made this short video shortly thereafter and left it at that. That summer was busy with fun, but my leaving a ~ninety mile traverse of a major wilderness unexposited is uncharacteristic.

The simple truth is that I wasn’t up for the task. That trip was too big in my mind and the experience too profound. I had been back to the South Fork since, but not in summer, when the water is clearer than the air and the river beds rock which binds the vast, variegated vallies together, the regions spinal cord, is open for viewing. This past weekend I wanted to take M back, back into the South Fork and back into what is still one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever done. We saw a lot of the same things that I saw in 2010, but for a variety of reasons the experience was quite different.

There are a number of truly classic wilderness trips in the western US which should, the first time, be approached with caution: the Narrows, Royal Arch canyon, upper Pelican Valley, the summit of Telescope Peak, and the real (Wilderness) South and Middle Forks of the Flathead. Not because of difficulty or danger, but because however amazing they will be on the upteenth yearly visit, the joy of discovery on the first trip can never quite be re-experienced. I wanted M to see and feel what I had, which was of course impossible.

Instead we got roasted on the day and a half and 30+ miles hiking up to Big Prairie from the Meadow Creek TH. On that 2010 trip I had M as a shuttle driver; she dropped me at Lodgepole Creek and drove the long two gravel hours in to Spotted Bear. On our own with one car and my injured foot (from the Friday fishing stumble), an out and back on the relatively flat and smooth river trail was the only option. Only out and backs are never that cool, and my foot, which had ached all day Saturday and made walking around the grocery store slow and silly-looking, had put the whole trip into doubt and made it impossible for me to take too much weight. South of Black Bear creek the trail is almost always in meadows or recent burns, and the 90+ degree temps beat down. My foot got better as the trip went on, but the first few creek crossings had me moving at a paranoia-driven glacial pace, and with our packs of roughly equal weight, M was suffering under the load. The 18 miles to a camp at Salmon Forks took a very long time.

Contrast this with my first day, two years previous. It rained most of the way over Lodgepole Pass and down into Youngs Creek. The mud was foot sucking and the air cool and clear. I tried to put in at the junction with Babcock Creek, but ran out of water, only finding enough of a concentrated flow a mile below the Hahn Creek trail. That was just enough hard hiking for the day, as the rest of the trip was all downhill and a carnival of wonders for someone who had only been packrafting and fishing tenkara for 2 months. The final gorge of Young’s was beautiful and perfect, hard enough to be entertaining, easy enough to run onsight. At camp, near Gordon Creek, I had the first of many magic tenkara experiences, pulling fish after fish after fish out from under a log along the bank.

Late on the first day this year, as we strained into the distance looking for evidence of the Big Salmon drainage and wondering whether hiking so far up would be worth it, I realized we could leave our camping gear and most food in situ, and walk to Big Prairie with day loads. M and I had switched pack in the first mile, as the Jam didn’t provide enough lumbar anchoring to allow her to weight the hipbelt as she prefers. My black and white pack did that fine, but the stiff lumbar padding, designed for me, rubbed her lower vertebrae raw. Miles before she had stuffed socks between the belt and her back to provide buffer space along her spine. Walking with light loads the next day was welcome, through nice fishing on the White River and the tremendous larch and ponderosa fields south of it, though the late morning heat did wear on our resolve to make the stock bridge. We finally made the water, floated back to camp, built a fire, roasted a fish, and slept.

The final day was more leisurely, with the best floating a fishing of the trip. Personal highlights were hooking a ~16″ cutt from the packraft with the Soyokaze and getting dragged around a deep pool for 2+ minutes before it broke the tippet as I tried to land it, and seeing M do some excellent bank maneuvering to follow my lines through rapids. The 3 mile hike out wasn’t too bad, though we were really looking forward to soda and cheeseburgers by then. It wasn’t the magic of my first trip, and M is still a bit on the fence about packrafting (it is a lot of extra weight), but it was a good trip nonetheless. My foot even improved day by day. Milder weather and a point to point route would have been better.

Regardless, one of the must-do trips in the western US.

9 responses to “The ineffable South Fork”

  1. My own “M” like yours, has a similar feeling about packrafts and weight. But somehow this last summer in the Brooks Range she warmed to the overnight version of packrafting. Here’s to us continuing to encourage our better halves without spoiling.

    Maybe you and M can come up for next year’s Alaska Packraft Festival that will feature car camping, hiking and river waters for all.

    Your M and her signature skirt look quite fashionable on the trail.

    Nice music and neat looking trip.

  2. Meatballs?


    I can live with that. Had she said tartlets I’d be *extremely* concerned about whatever you did wrong and blamed me for.

    1. We wouldn’t have been there without your boat… therefore it is all your fault… D didn’t blame you for anything, but I blamed you for everything… :)

  3. It looks like the heat hasn’t let up since my wife and I were there a month ago on our Benchmark/Danaher/SF Flathead/Pagoda/Larch/NF Sun loop.

    For a portion of that trip my wife wasn’t too sure about packrafting either. The weight wasn’t so much her concern, rather she wasn’t sure if she could ever relax and enjoy the trip instead of incessantly stressing about what lies ahead. She had a nervous time in the splashy Burnt Park area and we were considering bailing over White River pass to avoid the NF Sun float. That was actually the plan until we ran into Forrest McCarthy and Tom Turiano just a few miles before the White River junction.

    Paddling with Forrest and Tom put her right at ease. Seeing those guys chatting and floating backwards through wave trains she had previously considered scary, gave her a new perspective and the confidence to jump into a few. She had a great experience as the four of us floated to the Black Bear bridge. Two days later on the NF Sun she was entirely different paddler with enough confidence to enjoy the experience.


    1. Dan, we had a big group that included experts and beginners alike and that really put my wife at ease, too. That might be the secret: more boaters of all skill levels surrounding our spouses.

  4. So reading D’s report I felt like he left out the most infuriating part for me, which was that he gave me the impression it would be a nice float, and just a small step up from my previous two (2) times in a packraft… then the third rapid we went through required a quick zig zag maneuver I totally failed to achieve (due both to strength and style) which resulted in me plowing straight through a two foot wave. I was disconcerted. I asked D if this was what he anticipated the river being like, and whether or not he expected there to be more situations like that and all he could tell me was “last time I floated it the water lever was different, and there was nothing like that, so I don’t know, there might be a lot more of that.”

    That made for 36 hours of stressing that right around every corner was going to be a bunch of boulder gardens, and while scouting and portaging were obviously options, that was going to make for an even longer day and a half on the river.

    But it sounds like ya’ll’s ladies issues have been very similar to mine. D and I have discussed at length the different dynamics involved in Couple Trips vs. Couple with Others Trips. I do think the secret of outdoor Couple Harmony is Other People… but they can be so hard to find/coordinate :)

    1. M, Peggy and I had this conversation last night and she would agree that, “the secret of outdoor Couple Harmony is Other People… but they can be so hard to find/coordinate” and even when you find them, it can be a challenge to “all get along”.

  5. Sounds like a fantastic trip, but I could help but reply to M’s comment. A decade ago my sig. other at the time bought a whitewater canoe. I can completely relate to her feelings of being stressed out for most of 36 hours, and I wasn’t even piloting my own boat. That canoe was also the source of some of our biggest pre-breakup fights. Our outdoor couple harmony improved after he sold the canoe and we took up bike touring instead. :-)

  6. […] The later issue I thought bizarre, as wilderness river traffic in the Bob cannot amount to much.  Last August on the South Fork we hit close to the peak of backcountry traffic, and saw three bigs rafts and two […]

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