The 2018 Open took place on a long course, and during extraordinary conditions. A record winter saw the entire Bob complex at over 150% of normal snowfall, with certain areas in the Scapegoat exceeding 200%. At 2.5 weeks until the start the road to the scheduled start at the Indian Meadows TH was still snowed in for 9 miles, dictating a switch to the North Fork of the Blackfoot. This precaution ended up being unnecessary, as consistently warm and very sunny weather for two continuous weeks vaporized mid-elevation snow and brought rivers and creeks up to record levels by Memorial Day weekend. The South Fork of the Flathead exceeded 20,000 cfs, and the South Fork of the Sun 4,000. Participants saw normally inconsequential creeks become major obstacles, and packrafting was a dodgy prospect on all but the flattest of waterways.
Photo courtesy Mike Moore.
16 hikers, including one woman, took the start. Everyone shared the initial miles to the confluence of the North and Dry Forks of the Blackfoot, with two stock bridges moderating the massive (and as of last fall ungauged) river. Almost everyone continued to share miles up the Dry Fork and into Danaher Meadows and down to The Basin, where several passes (Stadler being the obvious, and most popular choice) led over to the Atlantic side and the relatively straightforward terrain of the North Fork of the Sun and Sun River Pass. Perennial Open protagonist Dan Durston continued his penchant for unique routes and headed north to pass the Scapegoat massif on the eastern flank, walking lots of snow down into the Green Fork and Straight Creek, which was well flooded and eventually made for fast but intimidating rafting down to the South Fork of the Sun. Durston portaged a more severe section of the South Fork, camping in the process, before finishing the float to Sun River Butte on his second morning.
Will Blum and Adrian Swanson led the pack through Danaher Meadows, linking up to float a very large Danaher Creek and South Fork of the Flathead, and making it to Big Salmon Creek by 10pm for a 50+ mile first day. They put back on early in the morning, with the narrowed channel transforming the floating experience substantially. In Blum’s words: “Just after salmon park the river got spicier, with big (and incredibly fun) standing waves, nasty holes, and complicated hydraulics with counter currents ready to grab you if one of the many diagonal waves pushed you out of the main flow. ” The pair took out at Black Bear Creek, and Will portaged down to Harrison Creek and floated to Lower Twin Creek, while Swanson headed up Harrison Creek. Blum took Twin Creek over the divide and down to Bradley Lake, on well consolidated snow, and made it to the Middle Fork of the Flathead at dusk. Blum hiked a ways downstream, found a good place to packraft across and, mistakenly thinking he had passed Granite Creek, turned right and hiked upstream in the dark, making the lower crossing of Lodgepole Creek by boat, and swimming one of the upper crossings. A long push until around 330am put him to within a few miles of the Morrison Creek TH, where he bivvied under a tree. This nearly 70 mile day is one of the more impressive pushes in Open history.
Swanson struggled with horrible deadfall linking Harrison into Corporal Creek, loosing the trail and suffering some gear failures. In his words; “…all frustrations together with the thought of an easy (ha) float to the reservoir was too much to overcome at the time, so I pulled the plug.” Swanson did just that the next day, floating the Spotted Bear back to the South Fork, though not without incident. 2 bends in and early in the morning big waves and a hole caused a flip, which a quick mid-river re-entry made unproblematic, and he made the South Fork without further incident. As Swanson wrote; “I’m not sure why, but I assumed that I could have a relative pool-toy float to the reservoir at this point. I was very wrong. The SF below spotted bear was just as fear-inducing as the narrow channel I swam in the morning. The wide river took a lot of energy and hard-paddling to cross between the inside of the turns. The alternative was to hit the huge 5′ waves at the edge of the bedrock walls.”
On his second day Durston took the west side up the North Fork of the Sun, enjoying shorter miles than the east but suffering from several big creeks and lots of deadfall on the poorly maintained trail north of Gates Park. A scary swim into a strainer at Moose Creek had Durston using his boat four times that day, at Rock Creek, Lick Creek, the North Fork, and Strawberry Creek. He made camp at 1030pm on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Flathead, floating the relatively flat miles to Schafer Meadows the next morning and portaging the Three Forks section of rapids before putting back in. The Middle Fork between Lodgepole and Granite Creeks is quite different than above Schafer, and Durston fell victim to the fast and pushy water, getting swept into a hole and flipped. As with Swanson, a quick re-entry kept a potentially serious situation from developing further. The miles up Granite were plagued by deadfall, but Durston ground out the miles to the finish, making the Marias obelisk by 720pm, for a 59 and a half hour finish.
Blum had arrived at the obelisk 4 hours earlier, recovering from his massive day two push and only 90 minutes of sleep to not only make the walk out, but add a traverse over the Continental Divide including Elkcalf Mountain to the mix. As Blum wrote: “It was actually a pretty easy decision. For one, I didn’t relish finishing the route by roadway because the road had been so much more painful than the trail. On a deeper level, I already felt somewhat disappointed in myself up to that point, despite having made great time. I felt like I had wimped out of running black bear for no reason, and like I had let myself lose track of the reason I come to the wilderness to begin with. I figured there would be no better way to reconnect to that reason than to end the trip with giant commanding views into Glacier, which might be my favorite place on earth. Plus my body felt surprisingly good aside from the foot/tibialis issue.”
Blum and Durston would prove to be the only people to complete the course. The Helena-based team of Mike, John, and Andrew made their way up the east side of the North Fork Sun River valley, experiencing creek crossings consistently above expectations. Crossings like Biggs and Route Creeks, ordinarily barely knee deep even in the throes of spring, being major obstacles. This trio elected to take Wrong Creek over into the West Fork of the Teton on their fourth day, rather than push on in slow conditions and tangle with even worse potential crossings further north. Kyle Pucko distinguished himself with a long alternate route, walking the Danaher down to the South Fork, and using the Big Prairie pack bridge to facilitate a safe crossing and exit up Gordon Creek and over the Holland Gap to lower Holland Lake. All other participants took the obvious, shortest exits at Benchmark or Gibson.
With water conditions as difficult as they are ever likely to be, the saving grace of the 2018 Open was warm days and coolish nights (for the fourth year running) which made for both kind temps and snow set up well enough that snowshoes were not needed. Most importantly, good prep and decision making saw everyone survive the difficult conditions relatively unscathed.
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