I just finished updating the Glacier and Bob Marshall packrafting guidebook with the last few months of explorations. Some of the waters I had hoped would prove worthwhile didn’t pan out, but there have also been some truly outstanding floats done. The possibilities for quality packrafting trips in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem (i.e. Glacier and Bob) are stunning.
It’s become clear to me that the Bob will be the focus for packrafting. Glacier, for all its majesty, has few big, gentle rivers within its borders, and those few it does don’t lend themselves to extensive parts of multi-day trips. The Belly, upper St. Mary, and Waterton Rivers will be packrafted semi-regularly for their scenic value, and creek like Red Eagle and lower Coal will be visited occasionally for the outstanding whitewater they provide. The North and Middle Forks of the Flathead run along Glaciers western border, and provide scenic and enjoyable ways to close loops within the park, but for all their often remote feel they’re technically roadside and thus will never be destination packrafting trips.
The major floats in the Bob are worth flying across the country for, and the numbers of folks doing so will only continue to increase. Kraig, the wilderness ranger who visited us at the start of the Bob Open, said that increased packraft traffic is indeed on the FSs radar. He mentioned the visual impact of bright boats, more as a personal issue, as well as the potential for crowding on the river. With respect to the former, its nice that Alpacka is finally doing multi-color boats, as you can get one which is mostly green or blue to blend in, with a few red or yellow patches to make it easy to find a runaway. 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 other packrafting parties (one afoot, the other still in camp one morning). We saw a number of backpackers and horse campers, most in camp, and almost none visible from the river.
The pre-Alpacka reality of boating in the Bob has been that a few parties pay a packer to haul in their big rafts and gear (at least a grand), fewer suffer in under huge loads to pack a watermaster or light IK by fair means, and most plunk down 3-5 grand or more to go on a fully guided trip. These folks are, I presume, lured by the promise of isolation and an abundant, wild fishery. When some people in bright boats float by, who did their trip for the cost of gas and a days walk, the guided parties might well be dismayed. Not a thing likely to be any manner of issue, but interesting to consider.
Something which seems likely to remain an issue of consequence is the lack of packrafting access in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. The American Packrafting Association explains the issues at stake in their June newsletter, and in a letter commenting on the recent Snake River Headwaters Environmental Assessment. If you’re a packrafter, or might become one, it is worth your time to read both, and join the APA.
The concern is this: the GYE (greater yellowstone ecosystem) is along with the Bob and Frank Church complexs one of the great arenas for packrafting in the lower 48. With few exceptions boating of any kind is outlaw in both national parks, which in the case of Yellowstone removes several exceptional rivers from consideration (Lamar, Heart, Bechler), and drastically truncates others (Yellowstone, Snake). Most concerning is that the Park Service has never articulated a substantive reason for this restriction, and as the letter above discusses continues to rely on specious argument and innuendo to guide them in this matter.
I think it’s important for packrafters to advocate for themselves. We’re a weird user group, and the incomprehension we often get when securing permits for routes out of the norm is not purely harmless. As detailed in the above newsletter, packraftin in the Grand Canyon has gone from unknown, to requiring a full river permit on the Dial/Dial/Vernon trip last decade, to being part fo a normal BC permit today (provided your river miles are limited). Not a totally satisfactory solution, but pretty good progress. It is reasonable to expect that Yellowstone and Grand Teton put at least comparable thought into the question of packrafting in their areas.