Western MT boater alert!

Exceptional conditions have provided the western Montana boater with an extraordinary, perhaps even unique opportunity which will pass quickly. Spend your time this weekend carefully.

McDonald Creek in Glacier is the biggest drainage originating entirely within the west side of the park. It is borne in an impressive spread of alpine meadows and runs through 300 year old cedar forests before emptying into the deepest lake in the park. Several bedrock bands cut upwards into the path of the creek in its lower reaches, creating spectacular waterfalls and slots which are the object of much photographing during the summer. Sadly, those tourists during angry August never see the creek at its best, during the height of June runoff when thousands of brown cfs rage through the aforementioned scenery, creating burly rapids which would be the equal to some of the hardest creek runs in Montana. As all but the uppermost reaches are closed to boating April through September, there is no way to legally run said rapids with enough water to make them doable.

Until now. A good load of snow last week transitioned to rain Sunday and temps in the 50s yesterday and today.  As a result the snowpack below 8000′ is rapidly disappearing and creating record late-season flows.  Above, the Middle Fork is at 400% of normal, and below, Swiftcurrent Creek is setting an all-time record.  The Flattop Snotel (in the headwaters of McDonald Creek) has shed 5 inches of snow in the past 72 hours, while getting over an inch of additional water.

I went out to investigate this afternoon, and found that McDonald had been disproportionately affected.  The Middle Fork might briefly exceed 20,000 cfs in June, 5 times the current flow.  McDonald is running close to bank full, probably 85-90% of a typical June peak.

Read: everything is runnable, if you can run it.  The road is even open to Avalanche.

This afternoon/evening I did a bike shuttle and packrafted from Avalanche down to the Moose ponds, portaging the one big micro-canyon system near the road and another riffle which at these conditions had turned into big water class III.  I’ve floated this stretch before, and a fraction of the flow I had today, and know it well from fishing it this summer.  I was taken aback at how pushy some seemingly innocuous spots had become, nearly getting back-ended by a whirlpool in the first five minutes.  Provided the water doesn’t go up too much, I’m going back on Saturday to do Packers down to Avalanche.  If anyone in the area is interested, I’d like some company.  Bring your drysuit.

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3 thoughts on “Western MT boater alert!

  1. I have paddled McDonald at a good flow all the way to the lake many Octobers ago. It is a great run that in my memory is either flat or falling with very little in between. You are right: it is a treat. I might be up there this weekend. Shoot me an email, it would be fun to get on the water.

  2. Hiked from Avalanche up to Mineral Creek late this morning (so I’d be paddling in the warmest part of the day). The creek has dropped to probably half or less of what is was Wednesday: clear and an ideal level, almost no grounding out up near Mineral, but not pushy except in the bedrock drops. Forgot the camera, sadly. The stretch from Mineral to Logan Creek was my favorite, great scenery, a good gradient, some boulder garden rapids, and excellent autumnal ambiance. Don’t expect to have enough water to float that stretch again soon.

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