Deep

3 years ago at the packraft roundup Kevin Colburn blew my mind.  We had been emailing for years, about creeks and water levels, without having ever met and thus eagerly sat down to chat about packrafting.  He showed me a gorgeous photo guide to creeks in western Montana he had put together for friends, and partway through it was a shot of a blue packraft floating a narrow, clear band of water hard up against a 500 foot limestone wall.  I recognized the environs but not the local, and when I saw the creeks name was stunned.  At that point it had been nearly 7 years since I sat down and made a spreadsheet of all the potentially runnable waterways in Glacier and the Bob, and in that interval had been able to either run or investigate almost all of them.  The last few summers of focused effort had been a bit of a slog, full of long hikes, thick bushwacks, and scary portages, often to confirm that a creek was too small, too woody, or too hard.  In early 2017 I took a step back, as part of the process of writing Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, and considered the full spectrum of future packrafters.  Who were they likely to be, and what guidance could I provide that would help packrafting in Glacier and especially the Bob evolve sustainably?  More particularly, how many would ever be up for brushy, inefficient, ephemeral streams which make up the majority, and would any of those folks really need or appreciate the explicit direction or at minimum dereliction of mystery beta in a book necessitates?

So I made the choice to exclude a huge number of smaller creeks from the book.  Fatigue made it easy to be somewhat jaded about that aspect of the project, which in turn made it easy to stuff it deep into the corner of my memory.  Kevin’s revelation that a creek I had never bothered to consider was not only runnable but high quality shook me into both appreciating all that I had seen over the years, but got me thinking about what else a different perspective might give me.  And finally, almost three years on, I put the pieces together and paddled Kevin’s exceptional find.

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I’m not going to name the creek or put it in my guidebook, though there are plenty of hints here, and Kevin has named it in print (for those paying close attention).  The access is complex, even by packrafting standards, and as I found out the window for conditions very brief.  With just enough water to bash down some very intense whitewater and a scenic but poorly conceived loop hike that made for a 14 hour day, it is only the creeks exceptional paddling, unique scenery, and place in my favorite landscape on earth that will most likely see me headed back next year.

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The 200 foot/mile grade is deceptive, in that the lower landslide sieve/rapids fall at over double that, but the top and to a less extent middle sections are impressively steep and continuous.  I was doubly committed from the start, via the big hike in and being at long last in a position to discharge my anticipation.  Commitment was needed, as the initial water was not something I would have bothered paddling had I been in first descent mode.  Narrow rock pivots, willow grab turns, up on one tube squeezes, and all my packraft small water trickery combined with long stern and thigh strap stability hitting the constant 3-5 foot drops.  Before I knew it I was into the upper bedrock section, with sieve-ish boulder gardens, slides, and several 10 foot bedrock waterfalls.  All of the last decades of skills were called on continuously and at once, foremost being the ability to stay poised when the speed of the difficulty kept my eyeballs and brain peeled well back.

I really didn’t have enough water, and while I made due, doing so made things dicey.  I got bumped off line on one entrance and rather than hitting the smooth 20 foot slab to 2 foot drop, ricocheted left and crunched down a four foot drop into a 3 foot wide slot.  Preoccupied with the water in front of me, I almost went blind over one of the ten footers, which a convoluted scout (and subsequent portage) revealed really didn’t have enough water below to be runable.  I also legit pinned a packraft for the first time, when the left tube behind my thigh snagged a boulder in the midst of a 5 footer and I was instantly out of a boat that was being filled with water and smashed into the dark oblivion.  30 seconds of fervent tugging got it loose, about 5 seconds before I was prepared to pull my knife and cut the tube.  Portaging the above fall (the sieve that ate Toronto, in the order of zippy naming) was terrifying, as the 30 mph downcanyon gusts threatened to rip my boat from my hand, my arm from my body, or me and the boat from the earth itself.

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My boat, paddle, and the rest of the my gear all survived, intact, though in the case of the first two I feel compelled to apologize and give them the week off.

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The day was overwhelming, and on reflection feels a bit like cheating.  I had both the novelty of a whole day in new terrain and the calm of a decades experience.  This new memory also has the tinge of mourning, this was my last unrun creek in the whole Bob.

At least until another set of eyes reminds me what I didn’t see.

3 thoughts on “Deep

  1. Tobin Kelley July.6.2020 — 18:51

    Packrafting and lighter larger rafts are great tools for running streams and rivers that in the past sow little to no use. As your post with industrial tourism, gets to, the evolution of gear will lead to an increase in use that we today might find hard to imagine. Look at the South Fork Flathead thru the Bob as an example. And since we don’t have the data, we don’t have the current baseline to know how this use will affect wildlife (think harlequin ducks). As Walter Bonatti said decades ago, “the murder of the impossible” – can’t stop it and it is inevitable.

    1. Very true, and not something to take lightly. I struggled (and indeed still do) with this dynamic and my guidebook.

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