24 hours on the Middle Fork of the Flathead

  • 530pm: It takes right around 90 minutes to drive from Whitefish to the Morrison Creek trailhead.  Delays and shenanigans associated with buying a car had me rushing to leave and forgetting a bunch of food I hadn’t packed, but I won’t find that out for hours, and our new-to-us Xterra hums along paved curves and makes washboard disappear in a delightfully familiar and comforting manner.  I get to the trailhead, which is empty except for two horse trailer and a half-dozen ground squirrels, and in five minutes change shoes, put a few more things in my pack, and get walking.
  • 630pm: This is the seventh time I’ve been down Morrison Creek, though one of those times was on skis and the old growth in this upper section was eight feet deep in snow.  Whether I choose six or seven it is enough times for real familiarity; I shot a squirrel out of that tree two years ago, a grouse off that log three years ago, this creek was knee deep yet warmer five years ago.  The trail is well used and a bit muddy, but my shoes have new tread and the miles disappear easily.
  • 900pm: Pushing into the night comes with issues, and today that is a very large, blond black bear at 50 yards, clearly wanting to use the same trail I am, in the opposite direction.  Were it a griz or a mom with cubs I’ll haul up the steep hill and let it have the path while taking the long way round, but this bear is plainly trepidatious and I am tired so I yell and fire my .410 which gets it up the hill into the bushes.  As I walk by I thank it, out loud, for being courteous, and for coming upon me at a place where my not-too-alert self could see it far off.  In the further 40 minutes it takes me to get to and wade across the river and my gravel bar camp I make a point to be awake and always looking around.
  • 100am: Rain starts to fall on my face through the open door of the BT2.  I zip it shut and fall asleep before my arm is back in my bag.
  • 430am: My nightly piss has in the past five months become inexorably associated with Little Bears usual diaper change, and though I don’t have to pee too badly (bit dehydrated on the fast walk) I get up anyway and walk out onto the gravel in bare feet.  The rain and clouds have passed, a decently strong hint of the milky way is visible straight up, and the shadows of sunrise are already making and eastern horizon light.  I go back to sleep, adjusting my PFD pillow.
  • 630am: I’m awake, under a well lit and pink sky, and hungry enough that going back under is not possible.  Unfortunately I have one ramen cube,two snickers, and 4 100 calorie granola bars in my food bag.  And I also forgot my spoon.  I eat watery ramen with a stick, and one of the snickers.  At least I remembered coffee, and can rely on the double Via to make the morning normal.
  • 800am: On the water and well underway I get to the first proper rapid in the Three Forks sections.  Three Forks doesn’t make sense; the gradient and angle aren’t far different from the immediately downstream and more mellow Lodgepole-Granite section, and it isn’t really a canyon at all, but there are just enough big rocks, steep bits, and rocky intrusions to make some gorgeous and at higher water I imagine challenging sections.  I love the mellow whitewater and utter clarity of the very end of runoff, and while in an ideal world I could do with a bit more flow this section, in these conditions, is simply my favorite float, anywhere.
  • 1000am: Things just keep getting better.  This being my third run through Three Forks combines with the vastly more stable and precise 2015 Yukon Yak to make everything fairly casual-seeming read and run.  Stimulating without begin in the least scary.
  • 1230pm: I barely make it to the far side of 25 Mile Creek and get out of my boat before I piss myself.  I am no longer dehydrated.  I am hungry, and down to two granola bars for the 12-16 mile hike out.  I extend my tenkara rod and tie on a size 8 stimulator, a reliable option for this time of year, and easy to see.  I land a few 6 inchers before hitting a slow drift across a calm pocket right between the sundry channels of the 25 Mile as it crashes into the Middle Fork.  The stiff, 13 meter Daiwa takes a good bend, and I carefully exhaust, land, and thump a fat cutthroat that will be lunch.  Cut in half it just fits in the Windboiler.
  • 300pm: The cost/benefit of the added hiking miles up 25 Mile, relative to the floating you add by going below Granite Creek, is seeming questionable.  The trail goes from narrow and steeply side hilled, coated in deadfall, to muddy and chest high in thimbleberry.  The upper third turns to an old logging road, with only a narrow path through brush and alder overgrowth, obviously more maintained by moose and bears than people.  More entertaining than the wide horse paths of Morrison and Granite, but also more fatiguing.
  • 430pm: I chickened out of the first shortcut because bushwacking uphill in a decade-old clearcut seemed stupid, but I can see the Granite Creek parking lot below, and the Morrison Creek road beyond.  Only a horizontal mile, and 1400 vertical feet of loss, to the former so I dive off the road and try to only fall softly as I repeatedly loose my feet, invisible down in the brush.  The lower 2/3 of the schwack is under the timber and less thick, and the vague mile only takes 35 minutes.
  • 600pm: I was pleased with the bushwack speed, but even more pleased to pop out on the Granite trail right were it widens to old road.  Which is where Kevin and I stopped on the last morning of my very first Bob traverse, in 2009, to string a line between sapling and dry gear.  It seems I can hardly go anywhere in the Bob any more without stumbling upon nostalgia.  I am most pleased when I follow my nose and find the horse trail shortcutting up to the main road, cutting off two miles of road walking in the process.  I run 40 minutes over my 24 hour allowance, but roughly 17 miles of floating and 27 of walking during that time, along with over eight hours of quality sleep, I am quite beyond pleased to get home quickly.  But first I need a soda and cheeseburger at the Snowslip, to cure a bit of sticky mouth and light head.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead is nothing short of one of my favorite trips, ever.  Oddly, I’ve floated big section of the South Fork on more than a dozen occasions, twice the number of times I’ve been on the Middle Fork.  Logistics are simpler for the Middle Fork, at least the lower half, and while the technical challenges are both more sustained and more severe packrafts allow for low water runs which take much of sting out of the legend.  The Morrison-Granite circuit is easy for one car and gives you the very best floating, but is short and has a lot of less than stellar hiking.  I cannot report that 25 Mile changes that very much.

The best options remain to use two cars and do the easy shuttle between Bear Creek and Morrison Creek, suck it up and do the 20 mile ride between the two (half paved, on a highway with a small shoulder), or get creative and do a ridge hike and bushwack from Bear Creek to Schafer.  The Big River trail, which parallels the lower half of the Middle Fork, is more scenic and interesting than the trails along the South Fork, and is more likely to be covered in bear crap than horse crap, so that really isn’t a bad option either.  Best of all, and with a correspondingly big driving penalty, would be to shuttle to Swift Reservoir and hike in through the limestone teeth of the Sawtooth Range.  I still haven’t figured out the lowest decent flow for the much mellower half of the Middle Fork above Schafer, so getting good floating in that part without Three Forks being too gnar to packraft remains mysterious.

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One thought on “24 hours on the Middle Fork of the Flathead

  1. Pingback: 2015 Alpacka Yukon Yak review – Bedrock & Paradox

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