Smith River alone

The Smith is, for the time being, the only river in Montana which requires a permit. This has been the case since 1989, and the 59 mile “scenic” and mostly roadless stretch is now a state park, with a lottery for the probable floating season of April through early July, and fairly long odds (less than 1% chance most years) for the prime slots late May through mid June, when kind temps are almost certain to aling with enough water to float big boats. Last year stepdad Dick pulled a mid-June launch date on his first time of asking, and while the Smith lacks a point system making one year no more likely than the next, spiritually this was exceptional and a good reminder that you’ll never draw if you don’t apply. At that point I had gone 5 years without drawing a permit, and with reknewed interest, early this year took a closer look at the draw stats, chose what in years past had been the most likely date, and pulled one for April 14.

Eight days from launch, as we were marveling at ice formations against region-wide cold temps in Zion, the Smith was reading as still ice affected and likely frozen enough to not be floatable, something a fairly strongly worded email from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks supported. In the week prior this changed quickly, one of the reasons I love spring out here, with a weekend near 70F spiking the river past 2k cfs (which is a lot for that little river). I was excited, as a wave that big surely blew out all meaningful ice jams and shelf ice, but when I eventually got a ranger on the phone the conversation was far from definitive, with them discouraging my going and reluctantly agreeing to my plain questioning that I could go, and that while they would not be present at the put in to do a formal check in and camp assignment, neither would they ticket me for being on the river.

So I showed up the morning of the 14th to a put in coated in 2 inches of snow from the day before, ground squirrels running riot and the river brown and healthy. I got rigged with a purpose and was bent over tempering, probably 90 seconds from getting in the water, when a pair of legs appeared 8 feet away and asked me to come over to the office. As it turns out the rangers were expecting me, were entirely pleasent, and couldn’t really account for the messaging and change in tone on the part of their office. I got sorted quickly, got on the river, and made it 22 miles to camp right as the sun was going behind the cliffs.

The Smith’s long popularity is logical; it is a long but not too long stretch without (drive-in) public access, it is scenic, and the floating is easy. At the same time, the management situation is peculiar to both the river and to central Montana. The Smith is notable for being mostly unroaded, imbued with conventional mountained wild scenery, and also being mostly private land. The middle third is mostly forest service on the east bank, and there are islands of BLM and state land throughout, but since taking charge FWP has had a lot of work to do arranging the many designated camps either on public land, or securing private easements to put them elsewhere. Elsewhere in central Montana public-private patchworks often makes places seem more wild, or at least less humaned, due to difficult access. The Smith is that, with the contradictory guaranteed (legally) and easy (logistically) access of being a navigable river.

All of which is to say that is was quite the experience being permit number 1, the first floater down that year (I remain both surprised and not that no one essentially insisted on launching the day before) and as the rangers were at pains to say, off down the river before they had been able to launch their customary pre-season check. Sub-division and gentrification has over the years put a lot of private summer cabins along the Smith, especially in the more rugged and scenic stretches, many of which are shockingly large and modern given the drive in. Last year, with a few days towards 90 and the general rush of summer just taking hold, we saw people often, both on the water and on the bank. That side roads being snowed in seemingly kept (and had kept, all winter) all cabin owners away changed the tone of the days hugely, as well as in my mind reinforcing the argument against such things, with familiarity and ease far to easily serving complacency.

That said, neither snow cover nor fast new grass and buds could hide how beat out most of the camps get each summer, nor how covered in cow shit they get each fall. It is more subtle, but more important to not the near total absence of sage in the flats and bottoms nearly the whole way down the river, one assumes due to ranchers burning and dozing it out decades ago, something the cattle must appreciate as much as the wintering deer (both species) miss. I saw every animal one might expect given the circumstances; both sorts of deer, elk, turkeys, sandhill cranes, bald eagles, beaver, muskret, endless mallards and mergansers and most vocally canada geese battling over prime secure nesting sites in the cliffs. No black bears, as things were still too snowy. No grizz or wolves, they’ve been shot out of these mountains for the better part of a century. I saw mountain lion tracks on my one hike far above the river to look for bear; it seemed like a mother and older but were doing well pursuing mule deer up on the ridges, as well as two fluffy and sleek coyotes mousing along the river bank. And sheep, lots of sheep out on the prairie, with seemingly days old lambs, which were very loud and very cute.

I’ve yet to be on the Smith when both the water was clear and I wasn’t on a mission to get out of my packraft and hike back into the highlands, and thus haven’t caught many fish. When I do that too will be changed, with rainbow and brown trout largely supplanting the cutthroats and whitefish which should be the dominant species. These places in Montana are subtle like that, introduced abundance does a thorough job of subsuming what we’ve lost for ourselves.


3 responses to “Smith River alone”

  1. Pretty cool experience, Dave. I haven’t floated it since 2014 but it’s still a very memorable trip. My neighbor floated it 21 times in his heyday and he has a friend who floated it 50 years before passing away. My neighbor wrote up a cool one-page lifetime trip report that I’ll email over to you. I think you’ll appreciate it.

  2. Danielle Coffman Avatar
    Danielle Coffman

    I need to do more river stuff. I did get a packraft – it hasn’t been put to good use sadly. — Danni

    1. Let me know when!

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