South Fork Flathead flow guide

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This was originally posted almost three years ago, but I’m bumping and updating it in light of record-setting low flows which will seriously effect packrafting this summer and fall.  I’ll include specific predictions for when I think each section will cease to be floatable, and some trip recommendations.

The wilderness portion of the South Fork can be divided into four or five sections, each with a different character:

1) confluence to Big Prairie pack bridge
2) Big Prairie to White River
3) White River to Salmon Forks
4) Salmon Forks to Black Bear Creek
5) Black Bear Creek to Mid Creek takeout

They are described below in turn. All cfs references are to the Twin Creeks gauge.  (This gauge is below the Spotted Bear river, so it does measure quite a bit more water than you’d see above Meadow Creek, but it is a reliable indicator nonetheless.)

1) This section is open, meandering, with big views, good camping, and often extensive log jams. At flows much below 1200 cfs this section gets pretty draggy, and packraft speeds will likely average below 2 mph. At around 8000 cfs this section is a laugh, and speeds approach 5 mph.  For 2015, I wouldn’t recommend floating this section much past mid-July.

2) Below Big Prairie things get a bit more constricted, and Burnt Park has what are two of the cruxier rapids at lower flows (between river miles 8 and 10.5). At 5000cfs or above these get washed out and are noticeable only as slightly bigger wave trains. Low water speeds (below 1500cfs) are 2-2.5 mph, while around 8000cfs speeds likely approach 8mph in the more constricted sections. Below river mile 11 things mellow out and the river from here to Big Salmon is very similar.  Again, much past mid-July will be very slow for this section, this year.  There are plenty of deep sections that are fine below 1000 cfs, but also plenty of gravel bars and rock gardens which will get very slow.

3) From White River to Salmon Forks the river splits the difference between the first and fourth sections. At lower flows, there are plenty of braids and gravel bars set within low dirt hills, and no obstacles of consequence. Speeds below 1500cfs approach 3 mph. Below 800cfs, they’re closer to 2, with lots of rocks to avoid.  For 2015, avoid this section beyond August 1st.

4) Below Salmon Forks (the entrance of Big Salmon Creek) the river becomes more concentrated, with steep pine-covered walls. This is probably the point below which floating is decent at just about any level. Speeds between 1000 and 1500cfs are around 3mph. At lower levels floating is mellow. Above 5000 or so cfs things get pushy, with the many riffles morphing into larger and larger rapids.  This section is good floating even at 500 cfs in early October, and should be fine floating all year.

5) In the short stretch between Black Bear Creek and the Mid Creek takeout are several tricky bedrock rapids and micro-gorges, which are worth paying heed at any level. Speeds are relatively fast, and the fishing is excellent. Watch out for the final takeout warning sign, which is well above river level and midway through the rapid right after the takeout gravel bar.  Meadow Creek gorge is pretty fun packrafting at low water, and the silver lining of 2015 is that it’s in good runnable shape right now, and should remain so all summer.

Normal July packraft trips in the Bob often involve hiking into and floating either Youngs or Danaher Creek down into the South Fork.  And for good reason, as these trips which see the drainage grow and evolve are the best in the Bob.  This year they are just not going to work.  Danaher is probably only good for another week, if that, and lower Youngs for perhaps a bit longer.  For alternate July routes I’d concentrate on the lower South Fork, and the Middle Fork.  As of this typing the Middle at West Glacier is at 2300 cfs, just a hair above what I consider the ideal level for a full run of all the great whitewater from Schafer to Bear Creek.  In what is shaping up to be the worst boating summer in quite some time, this is just about the only silver lining to be had.

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2 thoughts on “South Fork Flathead flow guide

  1. We are planning on taking 3 14′ rafts in, and floating from Gordon creek to Mid creek the 13th – 18th of July. As of today flows are 1170 cfs, and I am getting nervous. What are the bare min. flows for the South Fork and rafts?

    1. Tough for me to answer Sam, as I have minimal experience in big rafts. I’ve floated by and chatted with folks in oar rigs at ~1000 cfs, and they report that the stretch between Gordon and White is tough going. For the most part you’ll have long pools which will be more than deep enough, but plenty of gravel bars transitioning from one to the other which will probably require dragging, as well as a few boulder garden riffles/rapids in which you’ll likely get hung up. Last year there were three large log jams in the few miles below Gordon, which would require a full on 30-50 yard drag. I’d bet they’re still there, with runoff having been so light.

      In short, if you decide to still go, pack light and prep your group for the first 1.5-2 days of river travel to be long and physical. Properly equiped and with the right attitude you’ll still have fun.
      Honestly I’m curious if your outfitter has contacted you warning of the low water? I’ve passed folks putting their gear together in the upper reaches during very low water and worried that they hadn’t been warned about what they were in for.

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