One of the relatively few regrets I harbor when it comes to trips not done concerns the summer of 2014 and the Smith River. 2014 wasn’t the biggest snow year Montana has seen, not by a long shot, but the spring was cool and exceptionally wet and the water table kept getting pumped full all over the state well into July. The Smith is a road accessed run whose beauty and moderate difficulties gave it a popularity that made it, as of today, the only permit-required river trip in Montana. For the Smith to hold enough water for floating, even floating a packraft, past the permit period (July 15) is rare, but three years ago the Smith bumped up above 200 cfs in mid-August and stayed there all the way through September. I should have gone then, but put it off because of hunting plans and the drive and all sorts of half baked reasons, and to this day the Smith remains for me a mystery.
Tenderfoot Creek is a conservation success story. It is the biggest single tributary of the Smith, and drains the southwestern flank of the Little Belt Mountains via a long east-to-west valley. The floor and surrounding peaks are both of moderate elevation, which seems to provide just enough winter and gives the mixed forest and meadowland an exceptional beauty. This warm June after a wet winter things just glowed green, from the spruce and aspen thickets up high to the ponderosa parklands along the creek itself. A few patches of private land exist within the national forest, some of which used to bestride the road in a fashion that encouraged the old landowner to (illegally) lock the gate across the public road. But that checkboard intrusion was bought out recently, and now access is uncomplicated but anything save a lack of forest service road maintenance.
We were tipped off to the FS’s apparent indifference by Howard, who was at work filling ruts with gravel on the one mile section of the road which crosses his land, a place his family bought in the late 50s. Do that math and you’ll quickly figure that backhoe work in the full June sun is asking a lot of Howard, so it was entirely reasonable that he was eager to sit down next to our car and chat. By which I mean inquire, with only a hint of rudeness, what the heck we were doing that far in on that road in a front wheel drive hatchback. That we had gotten that far with all tires and the oil pan intact should have been answer enough.
I fear that while my previous writings have given plenty of credit to who much physical work is involved with taking a toddler packrafting, I have in part by intention and in part by circumstance omitted a lot of the stress involved. Little Bear is bigger now, which actually means he fits a bit better in the Double Duck, as he is no longer just a lump in someones lap. He prefers to stand and look around most of the time, and recently to try to help with paddling if at all possible, something we solved neatly for this trip by getting him a tiny (telescoping!) paddle from Walmart. That does mean yet another thing to carry, on our comically overloaded packs whose system really needs to be reorganized.
But the toughest thing about this trip was that floating Tenderfoot Creek was our first excursion, as a family, beyond the gentle and mostly known floats we’ve done over the past 16 months. Tenderfoot is an ideal packrafting creek, or would be with a little more water (we had ~200 cfs on the Smith), but the fast speeds, portages, and constant action make for a lot of stress. Especially for M, crashing through trees and bouncing off rocks backwards. About halfway from our put in to the Smith we decided that a bit more water and a more protective seat for M and LB were in order, and began our walk back to the car early. Long Montana days meant we could drive back up the rough hill well before full dark.
It wasn’t a successful exploration insofar as completeness is concerned, but was a good trip if refining systems and seeing new stuff is the standard. The day was messy at times, very long, and stressful, but all the alternatives seems far worse. Tenderfoot Creek is certainly a place to return to, in several ways and seasons, over the years to come.