I was reminded recently that packrafts frame boating differently than just about any craft. Little Bear has recently kindled an interest in fishing, as well as a tolerance for all day endeavors, so I seized the last vestiges of spring which rush out of the southeastern Bob and charge through the northern remnants of the Big Belt Mountains, in the former of the lowest stretch of the Dearborn River. 200 cfs exactly, a good bit higher than the 140 cfs I enjoyed on a short solo overnighter this spring. Key points here being that 150 cfs is plenty to packraft the Dearborn from highway 287 down to the Missouri River, and that this stretch of the Dearborn is one of best of the somewhat limited options for packrafting local to the Helena area.
As will be discussed here soon, I spent seven intense years and hundreds of days getting the know the waterways of the Bob and Glacier, such that in the later half of my explorations I very much took for granted my estimates for what would be floatable, what would be good floating, and what might not make hauling the boat worthwhile. We’re not far from the outskirts of the Bob, but the scale of high elevation (read: no big snowpack) and the orographic peculiarities of our many smaller ranges create a very different set of rules. I’ve hit on a few truly outstanding backcountry floats (the Dearborn being one), and been skunked quite a few times, skunked meaning I carried all the gear way back with full expectations, only to not even consider assembling my paddle.
The above photo, of the ravenous bear in pursuit of trout, was taken a couple hundred miles from the Dearborn. I took not a picture on our recent float, as the Dearborn with it’s many mild to moderate riffles, turns, and high and sudden cliffs has all the ingredients of an excellent float. Things don’t drag, in terms of either paddling engagement or scenery, until the final third, when the land opens up and vacation cabins dot the banks like squonking goose nests. The Bear, at this point, had eaten almost all the gummy bears, and expressed a fervent desire for the float to be two hours shorter. Which prompted a responsible and character-focused dialogue on embracing, not merely enduring, the less shiny parts of cool routes.
At not quite four he had no trouble grasping that this had been a trip worth the nuisance. We even caught a few small fish, brook trout, one of which we gleefully slew to take home and eat. There was squealing when splashed, and a pointed moment when he pointed out that the royal we had failed, and that it was me and me alone who had messed up boat speed and gotten him splashed in the face (true, though I did it with intent). There was also much fascination with the activity of ospreys, the cry of a red-tailed hawk, and size and profusion of merganser chicks, and the infinite kaleidoscope which is the freestone riverbed in summer. As there should be.
I repeat, I was stunned we saw no other boaters, on such a glorious, weekend, day, save lower cabin residents on inflatable sharks and walmart kayaks. I suppose the many riffles were a bit too low for larger rafts, and rocky enough that piloting a hard shelled craft would necessitate serious attention, but I still felt like we were getting away with something. Which I suppose we were. Our fellow river dwellers were mystified that we had come all the way down from the highway, and that day, and with a small human along!
Montana has one of if not the best stream access law in the Western US, and the first and most scenic part of this stretch of the Dearborn was the location of the keystone battle which brought about that law. This first half, which appears almost entirely roadless (if you’re not looking very carefully) is not dissimilar to the South Fork of the Flathead in difficulty, size, and charm. It’s almost disorienting when you realize that those hills, cliffs, and forests are mostly private land, that absent special permission there is no way through other than on the river. A place to be celebrated, for many reasons.
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