The South Fork in March: a route planning case study

The day after tomorrow I’m headed into the Bob for a trip I’ve wanted to do for years, but was skeptical would ever happen; a pre-melt packraft on the South Fork of the Flathead.  I’ve floated every piece of the wilderness South Fork at least three times, and have been on significant stretches in every month between May and October.  Until last winter I assumed that for the river to be both high enough to float and free of ice bridges would require extraordinary circumstances.  Lamentably, those circumstances have arrived for the second consecutive year.  If March isn’t so warm that the mid and upper elevations start melting, as they did last year, we might yet see a reasonably late melt off, so I’m not writing off the 2016 floating season just yet.  But the Middle Fork at West Glacier has been above 1000 CFS for over two weeks, and surged nearly to 2000 for a brief window.  This, together with the fact that I’ve floated below Salmon Forks (on the South Fork) at 400 CFS with no issues, make me quite certain that the packrafting will be more than worthwhile, perhaps even good.  So long as I bring enough clothes the two days of the trip I’ve dedicated to floating between Gordon Creek and Meadow Creek gorge ought to as pleasant as winter packrafting can ever be.

graph

I’ll be starting at Holland Lake, and skiing in Gordon Creek, for several reasons.  First, the descent from Gordon Pass makes it easy to avoid probable trigger and runout areas for avalanches.  Second, the bulk of Gordon is treed, unlike the next four drainages north, and this time of year should have less deadfall and more consistent snow cover.  The sunny week between February 13th and 20th will have melted a lot of south facing stuff, even up to fairly high elevations, and I’d prefer to make life as easy as possible for this stretch.

I know all this because I’ve been down Gordon before, and through Gordon Pass several times.  The big route planning question is the exit.  When I first started thinking about this trip it was ski-only, then it was a packraft trip that had me skiing over into the Middle Fork and exiting at either Skyland or Bear Creek.  However, the last week has been cloudy and cool, with freezing temps overnight, and the floating promises to be slower, the higher altitude trail breaking tougher, and the lower elevation snow just plain nasty.  Therefore my ambition was scaled back, and I’ll be skiing out Bunker Creek and exiting back to highway 83 south of Swan Lake.  In person I’ve never seen a single foot of the various options for doing this.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 10.29.38 AM

The most likely and convenient route is Inspiration Pass, shown above.  I’d prefer to end in Lost Creek, which involves traversing north from the pass and going down the switchbacks shown at the very top of the map.  7000 feet is high enough for avalanche danger to be a serious consideration, insofar as wind loading is concerned.  Winds have been high this week, so slope aspect and angle are of particular concern.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 10.30.38 AM

In general, but especially solo, I prefer to avoid avalanche terrain.  Angle-shading tools in online mapping programs are great for this.  They aren’t comprehensive or definitive, but they’ll give you a lot of information in one glance.  As can be seen above, the ascent to Inspiration should be good to go following the summer trail.  The traverse north follows a bench which could be fine, especially given the tree cover, though if things are at all questionable bumping up higher to the ridge looks like a better option.  If conditions are really bad I’ll swing south and go down the trail route into Goat Creek.  This isn’t ideal because I’ll have a number of miles to make back north once I get down into the valley, and because the road is less likely to have speed-facilitating snowmachine tracks, but if conditions and/or visibility dictates should be an almost foolproof option.

Earlier this week I put a lot of energy into stressing about final route details, mainly because I really wanted the elegance of the longer, definitive traverse into the Middle Fork drainage.  Resolution was provided by focusing back on the most desirable aspect of the route, given current conditions, which was without doubt being able to have good floating between Gordon and Big Salmon Creek.  From there, logic and reasonable conservatism, given the possibility of very slow skiing, dictated the rest.

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5 thoughts on “The South Fork in March: a route planning case study

  1. Dave- sounds like a great trip! When we headed down Gordon last year (albeit May) we all commented on how it looked very floatable (it’s a fairly long grind on foot to the S Fork). Look forward to hearing of your adventure and the conditions on the ground.
    Mike

    1. Gordon has ideal volume and gradient, but the wood slows it down a lot. Good fun, but not faster than the trail under any circumstances I can imagine.

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