Crown Packrafting guide: the next version

The Crown of the Continent Packrafting Guide has existed here, quiet and free to all, for a number of years.  It began as a list of waterways I thought might be good for floating, and as the seasons have rolled past and my knowledge grown, that list has gotten smaller.  Due to the way erosion works around here, and the prominent role fire plays in the landscape, there are and will I think always be a lot of mid-sized streams with plenty of water for floating, but far too many logjams and sweepers for doing so to be much fun.  After many trying portage and terror-fests, my list of worthy, recommendable rivers and streams has shrunk drastically, to what you’ll see presented below.  I’ve floated almost all of them, and fortunately gotten reliable reports on all those I’ve yet to see myself.  That’s the knowledge I want to put into the next, more serious version of the guidebook.

So I’m looking for feedback, especially from the many kind readers who have used the guide to plan their own trips.  Assuming the text which follows is the first draft of the eventual final product, what do you want to see, and what don’t you want to see?  Where have I not provided enough information, and where does too much exist?  Feedback is much appreciated.

 

Packrafting the Crown of the Continent

David A.D. Chenault

All content copyright of the author.  Deploy for personal use to your hearts content, but please do not replicate without citation, nor use for commercial purposes of any kind.

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Orientation

Taken together Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex represent one of the largest and most varied wilderness areas in the contiguous United States.  They have been and continue to be shaped by vast amounts of water, and thus represent, along with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Frank Church-Selway complex, the most fertile grounds for packrafting in the US outside Alaska.

This short text is intended to be an inspirational guidebook for packrafting in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, for the intermediate and advanced user.  The vagaries of wilderness packrafting remove it from the appropriate purview of beginners.  My hope is to provide enough information for someone utterly unfamiliar with the area, and visiting for the first time, to put together a high-quality trip, while at the same time maintaining a healthy level of ambiguity and thus, adventure.  I intentionally do not discuss gear, bear safety, backcountry permits, or many other topics vital to a good packrafting trip in northwest Montana.  Anyone not already familiar with these topics, or who is incapable of becoming informed without the one-stop assistance of a guidebook, should probably do something else.  That said…

Packrafting and wilderness travel is dangerous.  The information in this text is highly subjective, representative of limited data, and may be wildly inaccurate.  Use at your own risk.

Packrafting is still relatively new in the Crown ecosystem, as far as the public and land managers are concerned.  As of this writing there are no particular regulations concerning wilderness boating.  Let us keep it that way.

In Glacier NP backcountry camping requires a permit, and most of the time a stay in a designated campsite.   In July-September these are best secured in advance via lottery.  Walk-in permits are also available, and an early arrival the day before one’s trip, as well as a flexible schedule, can usually secure a decent route.

Many packrafters will want to enjoy the excellent fishing the Crown ecosystem provides.  Please note that Glacier (administered by the NPS) and the Bob (administered by the state of Montana) have differing regulations, and that within both jurisdictions rules can vary significantly between bodies of water.

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The North Fork of the Flathead and parts of the Middle Fork receive heavy road access use during the summer and early fall.  Look up any current regulations, and obey them.  Even if not mandated by law, camp in inconspicuous spots, make any fires below the high water mark and scatter their remains in the morning, and dispose of human waste in a mindful manner.  These same admonitions are even more relevant on the wilderness South Fork, as of now the only place receiving noticeable packraft visitation.  A major part of the appeal of floating these rivers is the very substantive illusion that you are stepping back several centuries; it should be a moral imperative to travel and camp in a fashion which maintains and promotes this experience for others.

 

The Waterways

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In the age of internet beta and near-comprehensive satellite photography, the question is not whether guidebooks do violence to adventure, it is how much, and whether they might provide coherent information for the unacquainted out-of-towner without sucking excessive traffic to the highlights of an area.  In the name of maintaining such a balance, the heart of this guide is the following; an alphabetical chart of waterways in the Crown of the Continent, accompanied by information on difficulty, wood hazard, and suggested flow.  Note that this is not a definitive list, streams both worthy and unworthy of packraft traffic have been deliberately excluded.  Below the waterways chart you’ll find a second chart which details suggested flows for the various sections of both the South and Middle Forks of the Flathead.

Technical difficulty, floatability, and wood

Numerical difficulty ratings are inherently problematic, especially in the highly amorphous area of paddling moving water.  The heterogeneity of what class III has come to mean is all the evidence required.  Complicating this further is the peculiar nature of packrafts themselves, and the well documented way in which their strengths and weaknesses are so different than those of both kayaks and large rafts.  Roman Dial attempted to address these differences by creating a separate packraft rating system, but this mere variation on the International Scale fails to address the almost inherent way in which the more dichotomous rating systems de-emphasize personal judgment.

Here I use a simple system which is intended to both provide reasonable guidance to packrafters visiting for the first time and maintain a healthy amount of ambiguity and fear.  The four categories (an even number removes the generic, all encompassing middle ground), inspired by climbing grades of days long past, are as follows:

  • EaZy; flat or steadily moving water with only modest demands on the paddler
  • Not Too Bad; definite rapids with modest consequences that baring egregious user error can be run upright just about any old way
  • Pretty Damn Hard; real whitewater in which line choice and constant attention are prerequisites for staying upright, a swim is quite possible under average conditions but the consequences are perhaps less immediate
  • Way Fucking Western; severe whitewater where advanced skill is essential for anything approaching a safe run, consequences of a swim can be quite bad

My personal bias has strongly influenced the above, and it is thus worth stating that I am a risk-averse paddler of modest skill.  Experienced whitewater boaters will probably find my ratings laughably conservative.  

There are cases where a single rapid or several isolated rapids are dramatically more difficult than the rest of the waterway.  In these rare cases I have noted the level of difficulty most likely to be experienced by most paddlers as the main rating, with the maximum rating parenthetically mentioned.  For example, boaters of many abilities will enjoy the great scenery and varied challenges of the North Fork of the Sun, but few will choose to paddle the difficult gorge which forms the last mile of river before Gibson Reservoir.  Thus, this river is rated NTB (WFW).

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Ideal flow is difficult to assess for waterways without USGS gauges.  The subjective term “high” denotes almost bank full or at flood, and the term “medium” means high water but well below the weeds.  Numbers identified refer to the nearest, most relevant USGS gauge, as stated.  These gauges are not infallible, and due to variable flows in feeder streams the reading 60 miles downstream can mean different things in the headwaters.  I have here merely attempted to suggest the sort of flow which will provide good speed fun, without too much speed and terror.

I classify wood hazard in Crown streams as being of three categories.  Low wood stress denotes larger waterways which generally flush well every spring, and where hazardous or river-wide wood is the exception, rather than the rule.  High wood stress denotes that these hazards are not infrequent, but also not constant.  High wood stress streams will be more anxiety provoking for good reason, but experienced wilderness floaters will probably still experience them as if not enjoyable, at least efficient.  Extreme wood stress waterways, of which the Crown ecosystem has many, have not been included in this guide.

Waterway Section Ideal Flow Difficulty Wood Stress
Badger Creek Lee Creek to reservation boundary Medium NTB (PDH) High
Belly River Above ranger station High PDH High
Below ranger station High EZ High
Birch Creek, North Fork Steep Creek to Swift Reservoir Medium NTB (WFW) Low
Birch Creek, Middle Fork Lost Horse Creek to Swift Reservoir Medium PDH (WFW) High
Birch Creek, South Fork Crazy Creek to Swift Reservoir Medium NTB (WFW) Low
Camas Creek Lake Roger to Inside North Fork road High EZ Low
Inside road to NF Flathead Medium PDH High
Coal Creek First patrol cabin to MF Flathead Medium WFW High
Danaher Creek Basin Creek to SF Flathead Medium NTB High
Dearborn River Whitetail Creek to state road 434 600-700 cfs @ Craig PDH (WFW) High
Dry Fork Blackfoot River Cabin Creek to NF Blackfoot 800 cfs @ Dry Gulch NTB High
Gordon Creek Shaw Creek to SF Flathead Medium NTB High
Kintla Creek Lower lake to NF Flathead Medium PDH High
Kishenehn Creek Canadian border to NF Flathead Medium NTB Low
McDonald Creek Above Mineral Creek Medium NTB (WFW) High
Mineral Creek to Lake McDonald Medium PDH(WFW) Low
Lake McDonald to MF Flathead Any EZ Low
Middle Fork Flathead River Confluence to Porter Creek 7000 cfs @ West Glacier NTB Low
Porter Creek to Bear Creek 2000 cfs @ West Glacier PDH (WFW) Low
Bear Creek to Moccasin Creek 4000 cfs @ West Glacier NTB Low
Moccasin Creek to West Glacier 1000 cfs @ West Glacier PDH Low
Mokowanis River Below Cosley Lake Medium PDH High
Monture Creek Hayden Creek to campground Medium PDH (WFW) High
North Fork Blackfoot River Above North Fork falls High PDH High
North Fork falls to first road bridge 500 cfs @ Dry Gulch WFW High
North Fork Flathead River Canadian border to MF Flathead 5000 cfs @ C Falls EZ (PDH) Low
Nyack Creek Upper campground to lower campground High PDH High
Lower campground to MF Flathead Medium EZ High
Ole Creek Lower campground to MF Flathead High PDH High
Red Eagle Creek Red Eagle Lake to St. Mary Lake Medium PDH (WFW) Low
South Fork Flathead River Confluence to Black Bear bridge 3000 cfs @ Twin Creek NTB Low
Black Bear Bridge to Cedar Flats river access 1000 cfs @ Twin Creek PDH Low
Cedar Flats to reservoir 3000 cfs @ Twin Creek EZ Low
Spotted Bear River Above Dean Creek 6000 cfs @ Twin Creek WFW High
Below Dean Creek 3000 cfs @ Twin Creek NTB (WFW) Low
Strawberry Creek East Fork Strawberry to MF Flathead High PDH High
St. Mary River Twin Lakes Creek to St. Mary Lake Medium NTB (WFW) Low
Sun River, North Fork Wrong Creek to Gibson Reservoir 800 cfs @ N Fork Sun NTB (WFW) High
Sun River, West Fork Ahorn Creek to Gibson Reservoir 600 cfs @ S Fork Sun NTB (WFW) High
Sun River, South Fork Benchmark to West Fork Sun 500 cfs @ S Fork Sun PDH High
Teton River, North Fork Bruce Creek to confluence High NTB High
Two Medicine River, South Fork Rowe Creek to Pike Creek Medium NTB (WFW) Low
Pike Creek to confluence Medium WFW Low
Waterton River Pass Creek to Kootenai Lakes Medium EZ High
Kootenai Lakes to Waterton Lake Medium PDH (WFW) Low
White River Brushy Park to above Needle Falls Medium PDH High
East Fork to SF Flathead 4000 cfs @ Twin Creek NTB/PDH Low
Youngs Creek Hahn Creek to confluence Medium NTB (PDH) Low

The South and Middle Forks of the Flathead are the major wilderness packrafting rivers in the Crown, and a major part of their appeal is their length and heterogeneity.  These attributes can also make planning trips of a given difficulty complicated, for packrafters who generally prefer lower flows with more technical but less pushy and committing water.  As the following chart details, balancing this, especially for the length of the Middle Fork, is difficult.

River Section Flow (cfs) Estimated MPH Details
South Fork Flathead Confluence to Big Salmon 600 2 Plenty of dragging on gravel bars, not recommended.
5000 4 Ideal.
8000 6-8 Spooky, with odd boils and standing waves in new locations.
Big Salmon to Mid Creek 600 3 Straight forward, rapids consist mostly of rock dodging.
5000 6 Rapids get big and bump up a level in difficulty and commitment.
8000 8 Committing, with significant hydraulics for sustained stretches.
Middle Fork Flathead Confluence to Porter Creek 3000 ? My guess for lower limit of decent floating.
8000 3-5 Straightforward with a few rapids, enjoyable.
Porter Creek to Bear Creek 1000 2 Too low above Granite Creek, fine below.  
2000 2-4 Lowest suggested level for Porter to Granite.  Spruce Park still pushy at this flow.
5000 3-5 Significant hydraulics in many spots, considerably more committing and technical.

Suggested Trips

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There are a number of excellent day trips to do done in the Crown of the Continent, moreso in Glacier due to a greater degree of road access.  Hiking into and floating out of the Belly River is a good beginner option, as is Camas Creek upstream for the Inside North Fork road.  Lower McDonald creek is the classic first packraft float, and is great for kids and families.  A variety of dayhiking and day biking trips can be done on various stretches of both the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead.  Coal Creek is an outstanding whitewater day trip, as is the North Fork of the Blackfoot and the Dearborn River.  In Glacier the classic Gunsight Pass dayhike can, when done west to east, be made even better by floating the St. Mary River.

One of the better multiday trips in the Crown starts by hiking either the Highline Trail or Flattop Mountain over 50 Mountain to the Waterton River, which can be floated to Waterton Lake.  A hike to either Bowman to Kintla Lake then leads to the North Fork of the Flathead, which is floated south to close the loop via a car or bike shuttle on the Camas Road.  The South Fork of the Flathead is the classic multiday in the Bob, but with daunting logistics it is tempting to settle for hiking the valley trail just to float back down.  Rather than settle, start your trip at the Silvertip trailhead up the Spotted Bear River, and use a variety of on and off trail options to get into the lower White River, which can be floated to the South Fork, and in turn back to the Spotted Bear ranger station.  A car or bike shuttle gets you back to the start.  Another attractive loop which combines good floating and easy logistics starts and ends at Benchmark, and links hikes over Stadler and White River passes with extended floats on Danaher Creek, the South Fork of the Flathead, and the West Fork of the Sun.

 

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6 thoughts on “Crown Packrafting guide: the next version

  1. This information might be hard to gather and a bit subjective, but “recommended minimum flows” for packrafting on each river would be super helpful. Thanks for your guide and all the info, it is invaluable for MT packrafting!

    1. Appreciate it Bradly. I’ve tried to provide them for the rivers with gauges. For the ungauged creeks I mostly have not been on them in enough different conditions to do more than provide a vague guess.

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