Being on the cusp of my half three-score and ten, and thus of a disordered mind, I give myself and you this list, of every float however partial I’ve made on the South Fork of the Flathead:
- August 2010, Youngs Creek down to Spotted Bear
- May 2011, over Limestone Pass, down Danaher to Salmon Forks
- August 2011, Cedar Flats to Spotted Bear
- August 2012, Meadow Creek to Big Prairie out and back with M
- July 2013, White River to Spotted Bear
- September 2013, Meadow Creek to Salmon Forks out and back
- July 2014, Bobwhite loop with M, Luke and Spencer
- August 2014, Youngs to Spotted Bear
- October 2014, Black Bear bridge to Meadow Creek
- May 2015, Bartlett Creek to White River
- June 2015, Meadow Creek to White River out and back
- March 2016, Gordon Creek to Meadow Creek
As time and repetition have rolled back the aura of mystery, the haze of nostalgia has replaced it in at least equal measure, and that big roadless river valley lurking behind the east wall of town is in most ways as remote as ever. The precision of memory (that is the beach I slept on in 2010, that is the log under which Spencer swam in 2014, I caught a 16 inch cutthroat behind that rock in 2013) gives me dots to lace down the river, and tie events together, but for all the miles I’ve floated downstream that big thing which has always been hidden two bends forward remains elusive. Going back to the same place repeatedly, to be closer to it often, has only in the end served to highlight how well I don’t know the South Fork of the Flathead.
Epistemic niceties and the details of grammar are, however, irrelevant when your feet hurt, deeply, barely twenty miles in. And by the time bright sun was close to noon on day two I was down to the broad mouth of Gordon Creek, hiking dirt in plastic boots which had on the first day given me half a dozen blisters, and some instep bruising which was an utterly new experience. I didn’t know exactly how high the river would be, but I was certain that floating would be both faster than walking or skiing, and less painful. The 36 miles I’d cover in a packraft were over a third of the trips’ total, and the foot rest they would provide was the only thing which would stop foot abuse from grinding me slow enough that I’d miss my pickup date, which I did not want to do.
M, my wife, has over the years been the prime and direct mover behind anything of interest which has found it’s way to this blog. Most often this took the form of long drives to drop and or retrieve me in innocuous spots on dirt roads. But with a seven-month old in our lives, both my absence and her presence, potentially for an hour longer than intended, at a pullout out of cell range carried a heightened level of import. Things previously taken for granted could no longer.
The ski up past Holland Lake and Gordon Pass, on day one, had rain and snow and rain again, along with navigational issues, sticky snow, and plenty of deadfall. I camped on the trail, atop a foot of snow, damp and tired and worried. But those conditions simply do not allow for haste, nor did the eight miles of skiing the next morning, when the clear night had frozen everything rock hard, and I kept skins on the whole way just to slow me down. Even the extended lunch, gear drying, and packrafting rigging break on a snowy gravel bar in the last hundred yards of Gordon Creek was time that was needed, in order to have a dry sleeping bag, and to be hour-wise and not minute-foolish. So when I got on the water and my feet hoodie was almost too warm in the bright sun I wanted to make up time, and sunk cathodes of experience and concentration into reading the water right and taking the deepest, just possible route through the many shallow riffles.
The upper South Fork runs a taxing pattern at low water, with deep, oblong, almost currentless pools running into each other via gravel bars, cut at slashing diagonals. The river goes from five feet to eight inches in a few paddle stokes, and only a few large rocks will stop a boat cold. The responsible thing here is to get out and let your packraft float free down to deep enough water. When there is no one around, and the water is cold, and you might be quite behind schedule by nightfall it is hard to be responsible, and my boat and paddle took a beating as I did everything guile and muscle permitted to get through without having to get my feet wet. Which I did anyway, six times. One of my best pieces of advice, both for others and myself, is to strongly second guess your judgment when tired and stressed, as those emotions tend to flower false optimism. But this was my twelfth time down the South Fork, my seventh in that spot, and I just couldn’t ignore that I knew what the gaping valley of Big Salmon Creek was, empty space and ragged ridges behind the river banks. I made Salmon Forks, the halfway point of the float and the harbinger of a consistently deeper river, 30 minutes before dark. A hour later the mid was pitched, boat deflated, wood stove roaring, and I was naked and eating ramen as my clothes dried.
Read part 2.