As best as I can recall, I’ve never gone packrafting in December (or January, or February). It’s not the cold, it’s that the cold locks away all the water, and what few rivers are ice free (usually only the Middle and Main Forks of the Flathead) are at levels which don’t tug very hard. We’ve had an odd lead-in to winter in 2015, with November mild and mostly snow free, a bit of snow in early December, and the first half of this week rainy and reaching close to fifty. Which was a recipe for paddling in December. All of Tuesday and into Wednesday morning I watched the gauges as they first did nothing, then began to swell, then finally spoke of the lands eventual inability to absorb moisture when they went to triple normal flow by later Wednesday morning, which was when I told everyone I would not be working today.
I still had to be back by early afternoon, to pick LB up from the “babysitter” (our friend and M’s colleague, whose son is two months old, and with whom we’re swapping going to work and watching babies). Time being never more precious than it is today, it didn’t take long to decide I’d drive north to do one of my favorite little loops, and would get up as early and hike in the dark as long as was necessary to be back in time. As it turned out I was back with time to shower, and eat lunch.
Accessing this particular route this time of year involves 90 minutes of dirt road driving, parking in a small pullout, and a short walk before blowing up the raft to cross the river. In summer you can drive the road on the other bank, but said road is narrow, windy, and slow, and I’ve come to prefer to sneak route under almost all circumstances. I left home shortly before 5, and even with the drive slowed a bit by ice and one skidding stop to let a black bear cross the road, it was still fully dark when I arrived. And wolves were howling, close by.
Fresh wolf tracks, barely visible in the skim of overnight graupel, led all the way down to the gravel bar. Ordinarily I’m not a big fan of being out and about just before dawn in places like this, places which have a lot of the critters predators eat and thus plenty of said predators. I’d figure I’d sing and make plenty of noise until the sun was well up, and when I had crossed the river in the dark (disorienting) and bushwacked through the head high lodgepole forest (disoriented, went SE instead of E and added a mile), found the other road and while walking up it found more wolf tracks and fresh grizz tracks, sing I did.
Whoozz on the road?
Griz iz on the road!
Whooooozzzz on the road?
Wolves on the road!
Whooozzzzz on the road?
I’m on the road.
And so forth.
The term “busy beaver” did not come into being for no particular reason.
From the trail and from the river, I saw close to a dozen big, old, close to 12 inch diameter birch trees, which are evidently the favorite thing for filling the last cracks in the beavers larder.
I was not surprised to see so much sign of life, especially sign that both bear species were still up and about. What bears find to eat in the darkest days of the year, once hunting season ends and stops producing gut piles, I do not know. But no matter how cold it gets, so long as the snow holds off at least a few will still be above ground, no matter what.
I knew the main river was at a good level for floating; I was surprised to see the first major side stream, itself one of my favorites, easily high enough for packrafting. It made for a good excuse to not do the knee deep ford at the trail. Instead I followed deer and elk trails a few miles upstream, blew up, and fought cold wet fingers back down to the river proper.
The whitewater deck is awesome when it’s 30 and overcast.
Paddling in these conditions is actually not a big deal, provided you have enough torso layers and remember to bring waterproof gloves (doh). But when your tieouts start to freeze solid you can’t help but feel hardcore.
Once I got to the river the sweeper dodging and constant maneuvering gave way to floating, mostly backwards, with my hands stuffed in my neck to warm up, and only occasional strokes to keep an eye on what was downstream.
I don’t feel bad spewing about this place and the floats found there because I found them the honest way; looking at a map and deciding to go check out a blank spot, no specific beta. That was the day before interviewing for the job I have now, over five years ago. I’ve learned a lot since then, but the tremendous mountain view from the river hasn’t changed, at all. When I reached the takeout I didn’t bother to deflate my boat or do any organizing, just grabbed boat paddle drybag and walked fast back to the car. I was almost warm when I got there.
Driving home it felt like everything just squeaked together perfectly, especially as 30 miles north of town the snow began coming down thick and fast. As it took was a little willingness to be cold, and a little less sleep.