The best things about Montana

In vague order of preference, because in two months we’ll at long last be back on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, living in western Colorado.  When we moved to Montana eight years it was for me to attend graduate school, the University of Montana was the best place to offer me admission, and Montana had made that list largely because of all the things M and I did not know about it.  I think we’ve used our time wisely.

1: Big Wilderness



Aka the Crown of the Continent ecosystem of Glacier and the Bob Marshall complex, as well as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Selway-Frank Church complex.  These are the three largest roadless areas in the lower 48, and are all at least partially in Montana.  When summer roads are at their most open a strong hiker can cherry-pick trailheads and walk across any of the three in a day, but at the same time the hardest way through can even in the easiest of seasons take over a week of hard work.  In the winter, all three grow several times larger.  Outside Alaska or the northern half of Canada, there is in North America no substitute.

2: Few people



Montana recently pushed over a million, which is few only by warped contemporary standards, but that spars-ish population is both historically responsible for the three areas outlined above being undeveloped by the time the conservation movement grew to maturity, and for their continued integrity as large and wild.  Yes, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks form parts of the Crown and GYE, and see 3-5 million visitors annually, but that visitation is concentrated in the summer and close to the road.  Even the trailed alpine backcountry of Glacier, for which it’s been increasingly difficult to obtain overnight permits, has big areas which see a few dozen sets of feet each year.  Even the front country of those same parks has plenty of little islands, hidden in plain sight, where solitude can easily be found.

But the real significance here, and the real reason Montana remains so well-comported in this desperate age, is its distance from truly big cities.  The city closest to Montana is not even in the United States, but in Canada, namely Calgary, which is just less than 300 km from the border, and at least 400 km from most prospective destinations.  The closest US cities are Seattle (370 miles) and Salt Lake City (300 miles).  Within Montana both Billings and Missoula clear the 100,000 mark when counted honestly (i.e. not sticking to within arbitrary city limits), and in our home of the past six years (the Flathead Valley) a further 100,000 live in four large towns and the 20 by 15 mile rectangle for which Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, and Bigfork are the four corners.  That’s a third of the states people locked up in a few small places, which means that there are many, many place in Montana which may have plenty of old logging roads blighting their appeal on the map, but also are also visited as infrequently as all but the most remote places within the big name Wilderness-es.  Combined, these first two factors give Montana a vastly different feel than Utah, Colorado, or Arizona.

3: Hunting




If you live in Montana and don’t hunt, big game, small game, or both, you are missing out on what is without question the most distinguished and outstanding aspect of the whole state and it’s massive pantheon of outdoor opportunity.

Resident hunting licenses are dirt cheap.  As a resident you get a general deer tag and general elk tag, every year, which is good for both archery and firearms season, and is valid in 90+% of the hunting districts statewide.  Additional doe and cow tags are available over the counter, and the number you hold is more limited by how much you are willing to drive than anything else.  Still more deer and elk tags can be had via drawing, and many of those are almost guaranteed so long as you read the regulations and draw odds correctly.  Montana has legit hunting opportunities for all other native big game species, save Grizzly Bears and Bison.  Grizzly hunting will happen within the next decade, and bison hunting which doesn’t depend on winter migration out of Yellowstone got a foothold this year with a few early September permits for the headwater valleys in the Beartooths.  Moose, Mountain Goat, and Bighorn Sheep opportunities are for residents at least as good as any other western state, including the only places in the US where Bighorn permits are guaranteed.  For all of the above seasons are long, and generally speaking animals are well-distributed.  The diversity of hunts and hunting opportunities is such that imagination and lifespan form more durable caps on opportunity than anything else.

Small game hunting in Montana isn’t as sexy, but also presents unique opportunities.  For instance, three species of grouse reside in the mountains just north of our house, testament to the elevation change and diverse vegetation therein.  One could, with a three grouse bag limit, fill it with one spruce, one dusky, and one ruffed.  I haven’t done that, and likely never fill, but I’ve managed two of three on over half a dozen different occasions.  With proper motivation and access to private land, non-native pheasant and turkey could be had in the same weekend.

4: Packrafting

This goes along with big wild areas which were developed late, insofar as outside the Montana/Idaho Rockies all the big, gentler rivers in the lower 48 already had a road (or railroad) along side when the age of conservation arrived.  Whitewater outings like the Grand Canyon, or scrappy little creeks like the Dirty Devil, do not provide the same opportunity as the South Fork of the Flathead or (when the NPS removes head from ass) the Lamar and upper Yellowstone.

Relaxing, meditative travel away from roads and on non-technical terrain is one of life’s rare pleasures.

5: Winter



Another of life’s increasingly rare pleasures is a proper winter, which piles snow fast and deep and gives a human pause to reconsider implicit supremacy, by freezing skin and making it inadvisable to leave the house, even with four-wheel drive.  As the world warms this will become and increasingly rare experience, and while increased latitude will protect Montana for a while, the states relative lack of high altitudes (compared to Colorado) will ultimately prove problematic.  In other words, while the ski areas may hang on for a bit, nordic skiing will in many places shortly be a thing of the past.  So enjoy the non-fatbike days while they last, and embrace the scary driving.

Coming next: The worst things about Montana.

The Spyderco Dragonfly 2 and the Esee Candiru

This time last year I discussed the Candiru, a knife which does a remarkable job presenting a durable hard-use package in a tiny size.  It does so at the expense of easy sharpening and precise cutting, two things which the similarly sized and shaped Spyderco Dragonfly 2 does very well.  After a year of using both it is worth elaborating on the comparison.
img_0821I carry the Dragonfly on a daily basis, as well as on almost every trip I’ve taken into the woods in the past year.  As a folder with a good pocket clip (once I took it off and made the bend more aggressive), it’s just easier to carry and access than the Candiru.  The thinner blade, and steel which holds an edge far longer, makes it more suited than the Candiru for the things I most often ask of a knife: slicing apples, packaging, and the like.  It cuts easily enough to gut a fish, or even a squirrel, though the moving parts make it harder to clean.  The needlessly abundant texturing on the handle and corrugations (“jimping” in pretentious knifespeak) on the blade significantly enhance this crud collecting tendency, without providing much real world function.  I can see corrugations for the thumb on the upper part of the blade, but like those on the Candiru they should be spaced further apart.  The Dragonfly handle should be smooth plastic, though presumably it would then look a little less cool.  These niggles aside, it’s an ideal pocket knife; being just big enough to get things done, with good ergonomics, light weight, and a reasonable price.


The Dragonfly is not a hard use knife, as the chips I’ve put in the blade show.  I can’t recall what I did to snap the last millimeter of the tip off (I’ve done this twice, actually), but I know it wasn’t prying.  The largest chip furthest down the blade was inflicted during some aggressive and targeted whittling of a 12″ larch, in order to extract a broadhead after a missed shot on a deer two days ago.  Clearly, a task for which the Candiru would have been better suited.  Even if one is reasonable and stays far, far away from the often ridiculous world of bushcraft, prepping, and zombie hunting, it’s easy to indulge in a hagiographic, almost paranoid desire to have a knife with which one could do anything up to and including build a crude cabin.  And this desire is rooted in fact, albeit a fact I encounter perhaps every 18 months, or roughly 50-60 field days.  For this reason I’ve occasionally brought the Candiru along on trips where the potential for things to go wrong seemed higher (or where fear was simply more abundant), but the lighter weight, convenience, and usually more pragmatic attributes of the Dragonfly has meant it has almost always been the knife in my pocket.

Ideally, I’d like one knife which combines the slicing and edge retention of the Dragonfly with the abuse-ability of the Candiru.  The Bark River Micro-Canadian has been the number one candidate for some time, but it violates my no-knives >100 dollars policy.  A year from now I’ll probably have purchased one, and will hopefully have glowing things to write about it.

Concerning broification

Broification: a trend in outdoor adventure sports/activities, which results in an increase in the perceived average level of mastery within a given pursuit, thus dissuading novices from pursuing any nascent interest.


If you don’t already read Hansi Johnson’s Universal Klister I’d suggest you start, as it’s one of the most authentic outdoor blogs around.  Mr. Johnson does a bunch of stuff outside, from skiing to biking to fishing to hunting, and is deeply involved in trail and recreation advocacy and local politics (in Duluth, MN and the upper midwest).  He has a longitudinal, multifaceted perspective on the industry, and a habit of telling things as they are, which makes him an ideal candidate for inventing and disseminating the term broification, which I attempted to define above.

Johnson views and pursues broification from the perspective of an access advocate, and I would assume, as a dad.  He sees the artificial inflation of things like skiing and biking as a wedge which will separate current practitioners from future ones, and make city and town governments less likely to see outdoor pursuits as future assets.  When the predominant vision of mountain biking involves 1% terrain* and a riding style which exacerbates erosion it understandably ceases to be an example, both for many new riders and for towns who might be looking to build trails as part of a development strategy.  That >2000 dollar mountain bikes have become commonplace, and that quality <1000 dollar bikes less common, only underlines this problem.

That problem being, a significant part of the appeal here, from fishing across to overlanding, skiing, and backpacking, is being a member of an exclusive group.  Not exclusive because others are excluded intentionally or because of socioeconomic factors, but because membership is gained via skill.  That skill is had from time invested in learning the activity, and with that skill comes an enlightened perspective on the world.  You’ll hear it everywhere in the outdoor realm; ____ (cyclists, hikers, etc) are better people.  More trustworthy.  Easy to get along with.  Kinder.  The  depth of friendship with a new acquaintance is often pushed years forward if said acquaintance is made on a backpacking trip or 100 mile ride or powder day.

Johnson’s original post got a big boost last week when it was picked up by Adventure Journal.  There’s a not inconsiderable amount of irony here, as A-J would make about any top-ten list of broifying publications.  Johnson’s post led with a photo of snow-caked blue jeans, A-J a group of mountaineers way the hell up on a snowy peak.  Two decades ago living the dream entailed an old pickup and 50 dollars from the lumber yard.  Today it’s a Sprinter and “custom” mods, starting at 50,000 dollars.  The perception that things of this nature are essential, important, or even the end goal of outdoor activities is probably good for selling stuff to the initiated, but I agree with Johnson that a secondary effect is putting off a certain percentage of newbies.  Why this is a problem is another subject entirely, but I do think it is a problem.


I’m far from convinced that the language of advertising in the outdoor industry is the most important factor.  Public land access and the structural/societal reasons why outdoor recreation remains a white and affluent world are far more significant, long and short term.  That said, broification is real.  It is real because it is a problem, and it is a problem because people lie.  They lie in advertising, and they lie on social media.  They, meaning me, lie right here though I try to not do it too often.  Outdoor sports are awesome precisely because of their accessibility.  Anyone reading this, baring significant disability or medical issue, could with a few years of hard work climb iconic, cool stuff.  Probably not 5.14, but definitely hard 5.11.  Anyone with the inclination to learn and the motivation to get out and progress could within 4-5 years do a trip like this one, as pictured above.  Anyone with a decent bike and a year or two of hard riding can go out and ride the Whole Enchilada, walking only a handful of places.

Publications and companies who artificially inflate reality may ultimately be shooting themselves in the foot, both by reducing their potential market, and by radness fatigue.  Authenticity is in the social media age a precious commodity, and broification is if anything inauthentic.

*Both in terms of skill to ride and more significantly the distribution of said terrain across the planet.

24 hours on the Middle Fork of the Flathead

  • 530pm: It takes right around 90 minutes to drive from Whitefish to the Morrison Creek trailhead.  Delays and shenanigans associated with buying a car had me rushing to leave and forgetting a bunch of food I hadn’t packed, but I won’t find that out for hours, and our new-to-us Xterra hums along paved curves and makes washboard disappear in a delightfully familiar and comforting manner.  I get to the trailhead, which is empty except for two horse trailer and a half-dozen ground squirrels, and in five minutes change shoes, put a few more things in my pack, and get walking.
  • 630pm: This is the seventh time I’ve been down Morrison Creek, though one of those times was on skis and the old growth in this upper section was eight feet deep in snow.  Whether I choose six or seven it is enough times for real familiarity; I shot a squirrel out of that tree two years ago, a grouse off that log three years ago, this creek was knee deep yet warmer five years ago.  The trail is well used and a bit muddy, but my shoes have new tread and the miles disappear easily.
  • 900pm: Pushing into the night comes with issues, and today that is a very large, blond black bear at 50 yards, clearly wanting to use the same trail I am, in the opposite direction.  Were it a griz or a mom with cubs I’ll haul up the steep hill and let it have the path while taking the long way round, but this bear is plainly trepidatious and I am tired so I yell and fire my .410 which gets it up the hill into the bushes.  As I walk by I thank it, out loud, for being courteous, and for coming upon me at a place where my not-too-alert self could see it far off.  In the further 40 minutes it takes me to get to and wade across the river and my gravel bar camp I make a point to be awake and always looking around.
  • 100am: Rain starts to fall on my face through the open door of the BT2.  I zip it shut and fall asleep before my arm is back in my bag.
  • 430am: My nightly piss has in the past five months become inexorably associated with Little Bears usual diaper change, and though I don’t have to pee too badly (bit dehydrated on the fast walk) I get up anyway and walk out onto the gravel in bare feet.  The rain and clouds have passed, a decently strong hint of the milky way is visible straight up, and the shadows of sunrise are already making and eastern horizon light.  I go back to sleep, adjusting my PFD pillow.
  • 630am: I’m awake, under a well lit and pink sky, and hungry enough that going back under is not possible.  Unfortunately I have one ramen cube,two snickers, and 4 100 calorie granola bars in my food bag.  And I also forgot my spoon.  I eat watery ramen with a stick, and one of the snickers.  At least I remembered coffee, and can rely on the double Via to make the morning normal.
  • 800am: On the water and well underway I get to the first proper rapid in the Three Forks sections.  Three Forks doesn’t make sense; the gradient and angle aren’t far different from the immediately downstream and more mellow Lodgepole-Granite section, and it isn’t really a canyon at all, but there are just enough big rocks, steep bits, and rocky intrusions to make some gorgeous and at higher water I imagine challenging sections.  I love the mellow whitewater and utter clarity of the very end of runoff, and while in an ideal world I could do with a bit more flow this section, in these conditions, is simply my favorite float, anywhere.
  • 1000am: Things just keep getting better.  This being my third run through Three Forks combines with the vastly more stable and precise 2015 Yukon Yak to make everything fairly casual-seeming read and run.  Stimulating without begin in the least scary.
  • 1230pm: I barely make it to the far side of 25 Mile Creek and get out of my boat before I piss myself.  I am no longer dehydrated.  I am hungry, and down to two granola bars for the 12-16 mile hike out.  I extend my tenkara rod and tie on a size 8 stimulator, a reliable option for this time of year, and easy to see.  I land a few 6 inchers before hitting a slow drift across a calm pocket right between the sundry channels of the 25 Mile as it crashes into the Middle Fork.  The stiff, 13 meter Daiwa takes a good bend, and I carefully exhaust, land, and thump a fat cutthroat that will be lunch.  Cut in half it just fits in the Windboiler.
  • 300pm: The cost/benefit of the added hiking miles up 25 Mile, relative to the floating you add by going below Granite Creek, is seeming questionable.  The trail goes from narrow and steeply side hilled, coated in deadfall, to muddy and chest high in thimbleberry.  The upper third turns to an old logging road, with only a narrow path through brush and alder overgrowth, obviously more maintained by moose and bears than people.  More entertaining than the wide horse paths of Morrison and Granite, but also more fatiguing.
  • 430pm: I chickened out of the first shortcut because bushwacking uphill in a decade-old clearcut seemed stupid, but I can see the Granite Creek parking lot below, and the Morrison Creek road beyond.  Only a horizontal mile, and 1400 vertical feet of loss, to the former so I dive off the road and try to only fall softly as I repeatedly loose my feet, invisible down in the brush.  The lower 2/3 of the schwack is under the timber and less thick, and the vague mile only takes 35 minutes.
  • 600pm: I was pleased with the bushwack speed, but even more pleased to pop out on the Granite trail right were it widens to old road.  Which is where Kevin and I stopped on the last morning of my very first Bob traverse, in 2009, to string a line between sapling and dry gear.  It seems I can hardly go anywhere in the Bob any more without stumbling upon nostalgia.  I am most pleased when I follow my nose and find the horse trail shortcutting up to the main road, cutting off two miles of road walking in the process.  I run 40 minutes over my 24 hour allowance, but roughly 17 miles of floating and 27 of walking during that time, along with over eight hours of quality sleep, I am quite beyond pleased to get home quickly.  But first I need a soda and cheeseburger at the Snowslip, to cure a bit of sticky mouth and light head.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead is nothing short of one of my favorite trips, ever.  Oddly, I’ve floated big section of the South Fork on more than a dozen occasions, twice the number of times I’ve been on the Middle Fork.  Logistics are simpler for the Middle Fork, at least the lower half, and while the technical challenges are both more sustained and more severe packrafts allow for low water runs which take much of sting out of the legend.  The Morrison-Granite circuit is easy for one car and gives you the very best floating, but is short and has a lot of less than stellar hiking.  I cannot report that 25 Mile changes that very much.

The best options remain to use two cars and do the easy shuttle between Bear Creek and Morrison Creek, suck it up and do the 20 mile ride between the two (half paved, on a highway with a small shoulder), or get creative and do a ridge hike and bushwack from Bear Creek to Schafer.  The Big River trail, which parallels the lower half of the Middle Fork, is more scenic and interesting than the trails along the South Fork, and is more likely to be covered in bear crap than horse crap, so that really isn’t a bad option either.  Best of all, and with a correspondingly big driving penalty, would be to shuttle to Swift Reservoir and hike in through the limestone teeth of the Sawtooth Range.  I still haven’t figured out the lowest decent flow for the much mellower half of the Middle Fork above Schafer, so getting good floating in that part without Three Forks being too gnar to packraft remains mysterious.

Bear aware, maybe

Last week a Forest Service law enforcement officer, Flathead native, and longtime recreator in bear country was killed by a bear near West Glacier.  According to rumor, and the local paper,  the bear was probably a Grizzly, and the gentleman collided with the bear while going quite fast down a gentle, tightly forested descent on his mountain bike.  The bear reacted out of surprise and fear, and the injuries were quickly fatal.

DSC00601Grizzly sow and cub, center right, a comfortable 3/4 mile away.  M photo.

There is a longstanding and vigorous campaign around here, and in the Yellowstone area, to be “bear aware.”  As presented in the handouts you’ll get in national parks, the signs you’ll see on forest service land, on the posters you’ll see in local stores, being bear aware means carrying bear spray, hiking in groups, storing ones food wisely, sleeping away from said food storage, and being careful when hiking near food sources or in noisy areas.  As a matter of public policy it is important to have a soundbite-friendly version of this to which neophytes are likely to pay attention, but I cringe 50 times a summer when I see folks sauntering around with spray clipped to their packs, out of reach and available for accidental triggering.  Spray certainly deters attacks, and for every such attack surely gives 100 hikers the poise necessary to not panic during a close encounter.  Incidental, indoor discharge is also responsible for the temporary evacuation of a building or two every summer, and while its effects aren’t deadly, bear spray is nonetheless a potent weapon carried around with a carelessness unacceptable in any other context.

Frankly, while it is unrealistic to expect the millions of tourists who roll through the Crown Ecosystem to undertake sufficient research to form their own opinions of what being prudent in bear country entails, anyone who spends a lot of time in the bear woods without plenty of research is doing themselves a disservice.

Living here, and being in those woods on a daily basis, one is almost obligated to become inured to the hazard.  This past Saturday, on a routine 2 hour hike with Little Bear, on a trail I’ve biked in the past, we came upon a black bear off in the bushes at 30 yards.  Another black bear was right behind it.  I watched them, for less time than I would have had I been without a child in a backpack, and then yelled a little to scare them off.  And they complied by disappearing in the opposite direction.  Bears probably aren’t common in this area, Grizzlies especially, but it is 10 minutes from home, and 300 yards from a group of houses.  Bears don’t easily live among us, but they live far closer far more often than most people imagine.  Grizzlies included.  Certain activities, like mountain biking, are no doubt more probable than others to produce a bad encounter, but more time spent out there increases the likelihood of running across the wrong bear, in the wrong place, and at the wrong time.  When it happens, as it did last week, neither bear nor human may be doing anything miscreant and incorrect.

R0010682Sow griz and two cubs, at a comfortable 1.5 miles.  I later saw them at a less comfy 120 yards.

So the first thing for proper bear awareness is the admission that bears kill humans, and not always when they are a sow with cubs or protecting a kill.  The probability is low, but it is possible that while you are out in the woods a bear might kill you through no fault of your own.

Next, admit that certain activities are less safe than others.  Anything high velocity, quiet, off trail, in the fall during hyperphagia, and in a group of less than four increases the probability of a bad injurious or fatal encounter.  Read Herrero’s Bear Attacks, and all the great data kept by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, and decide for yourself, but in my mind the evidence here in overwhelming.  That said, at least 50% of the time I am personally out in Grizzly country I’m doing at least two of these things at once, and not infrequently all of them simultaneously.

I’ve reconciled myself with that because my reading of the research tells me that the most significant factor in keeping bear encounters from turning wrong is not doing anything stupid.  Be aware of the area you’re moving through, read the situation when you do encounter a bear, and act with cold rationality.  Most of the time all this entails is not getting any closer, acting confident but non-threatening, and allowing the bear to figure out what you are.  My closest sustained encounter with a Griz was during the 2012 Bob Open, hiking through Pretty Prairie around dusk.  I was on high alert, because dusk is good time for bears, especially in the long days of spring, and that area is a good place for spring bears, with big south facing meadows and lots of deer and elk.  True to expectation, I came upon a bear as I emerged into meadow.  It took a good minute or more doing a quarter circle of me at 30 yards, standing to better look and smell several times, before winding me and running off, quickly.  I did nothing but stand still, made possible by not panicking, as I was on bear alert.  It’s worth noting that these days I would probably not hike so late into the night, alone, in that particular place at that particular time of year.  Bears can be almost anywhere at the most unlikely time, but fear evenly applied across settings sucks focus from when it can be best put to use.

Beyond this, bring spray if you want to.  It has a good track record, so long as it isn’t too windy or raining hard.  I still find the fragility of the nozzle disconcerting, and believe that 80% of folks who carry spray are putting themselves at net greater risk, due to the frequency of accidental discharge (spray on shoulder strap, alder pulls trigger, spray in face, blind hike out).  Also bring a firearms if you want to, provided you’ve trained the hell out of it.  Plenty of incidents in Alaska where a good shot saved someone from a good mauling.  That said, 75% of the rafters I saw on the South Fork of the Flathead in early August two years ago had 3-5 pound revolvers in chest rigs, and I’m very skeptical that many would have been able to shoot them well enough to do any good under duress.

IMG_0782Griz print in the Almost-a-Dog chimney, Norris Traverse.  Bears go where they want, often in very improbably places.

In summary, being bear aware is mostly about being self-aware, though having a decent knowledge of what bears do at different times is also important.  A good nights sleep in bear country shouldn’t be the result of ignorance, or even worse, a bunch of Tylenol PM.  It should be earned, over time, and while that doesn’t help the policy makers much, concerned as they must be with greatest good for greatest number, proper knowledge built on a body of experience is nonetheless the only way to really get there.  No shortcuts.

Crown Packrafting guide: the next version

The Crown of the Continent Packrafting Guide has existed here, quiet and free to all, for a number of years.  It began as a list of waterways I thought might be good for floating, and as the seasons have rolled past and my knowledge grown, that list has gotten smaller.  Due to the way erosion works around here, and the prominent role fire plays in the landscape, there are and will I think always be a lot of mid-sized streams with plenty of water for floating, but far too many logjams and sweepers for doing so to be much fun.  After many trying portage and terror-fests, my list of worthy, recommendable rivers and streams has shrunk drastically, to what you’ll see presented below.  I’ve floated almost all of them, and fortunately gotten reliable reports on all those I’ve yet to see myself.  That’s the knowledge I want to put into the next, more serious version of the guidebook.

So I’m looking for feedback, especially from the many kind readers who have used the guide to plan their own trips.  Assuming the text which follows is the first draft of the eventual final product, what do you want to see, and what don’t you want to see?  Where have I not provided enough information, and where does too much exist?  Feedback is much appreciated.


Packrafting the Crown of the Continent

David A.D. Chenault

All content copyright of the author.  Deploy for personal use to your hearts content, but please do not replicate without citation, nor use for commercial purposes of any kind.



Taken together Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex represent one of the largest and most varied wilderness areas in the contiguous United States.  They have been and continue to be shaped by vast amounts of water, and thus represent, along with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Frank Church-Selway complex, the most fertile grounds for packrafting in the US outside Alaska.

This short text is intended to be an inspirational guidebook for packrafting in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, for the intermediate and advanced user.  The vagaries of wilderness packrafting remove it from the appropriate purview of beginners.  My hope is to provide enough information for someone utterly unfamiliar with the area, and visiting for the first time, to put together a high-quality trip, while at the same time maintaining a healthy level of ambiguity and thus, adventure.  I intentionally do not discuss gear, bear safety, backcountry permits, or many other topics vital to a good packrafting trip in northwest Montana.  Anyone not already familiar with these topics, or who is incapable of becoming informed without the one-stop assistance of a guidebook, should probably do something else.  That said…

Packrafting and wilderness travel is dangerous.  The information in this text is highly subjective, representative of limited data, and may be wildly inaccurate.  Use at your own risk.

Packrafting is still relatively new in the Crown ecosystem, as far as the public and land managers are concerned.  As of this writing there are no particular regulations concerning wilderness boating.  Let us keep it that way.

In Glacier NP backcountry camping requires a permit, and most of the time a stay in a designated campsite.   In July-September these are best secured in advance via lottery.  Walk-in permits are also available, and an early arrival the day before one’s trip, as well as a flexible schedule, can usually secure a decent route.

Many packrafters will want to enjoy the excellent fishing the Crown ecosystem provides.  Please note that Glacier (administered by the NPS) and the Bob (administered by the state of Montana) have differing regulations, and that within both jurisdictions rules can vary significantly between bodies of water.


The North Fork of the Flathead and parts of the Middle Fork receive heavy road access use during the summer and early fall.  Look up any current regulations, and obey them.  Even if not mandated by law, camp in inconspicuous spots, make any fires below the high water mark and scatter their remains in the morning, and dispose of human waste in a mindful manner.  These same admonitions are even more relevant on the wilderness South Fork, as of now the only place receiving noticeable packraft visitation.  A major part of the appeal of floating these rivers is the very substantive illusion that you are stepping back several centuries; it should be a moral imperative to travel and camp in a fashion which maintains and promotes this experience for others.


The Waterways


In the age of internet beta and near-comprehensive satellite photography, the question is not whether guidebooks do violence to adventure, it is how much, and whether they might provide coherent information for the unacquainted out-of-towner without sucking excessive traffic to the highlights of an area.  In the name of maintaining such a balance, the heart of this guide is the following; an alphabetical chart of waterways in the Crown of the Continent, accompanied by information on difficulty, wood hazard, and suggested flow.  Note that this is not a definitive list, streams both worthy and unworthy of packraft traffic have been deliberately excluded.  Below the waterways chart you’ll find a second chart which details suggested flows for the various sections of both the South and Middle Forks of the Flathead.

Technical difficulty, floatability, and wood

Numerical difficulty ratings are inherently problematic, especially in the highly amorphous area of paddling moving water.  The heterogeneity of what class III has come to mean is all the evidence required.  Complicating this further is the peculiar nature of packrafts themselves, and the well documented way in which their strengths and weaknesses are so different than those of both kayaks and large rafts.  Roman Dial attempted to address these differences by creating a separate packraft rating system, but this mere variation on the International Scale fails to address the almost inherent way in which the more dichotomous rating systems de-emphasize personal judgment.

Here I use a simple system which is intended to both provide reasonable guidance to packrafters visiting for the first time and maintain a healthy amount of ambiguity and fear.  The four categories (an even number removes the generic, all encompassing middle ground), inspired by climbing grades of days long past, are as follows:

  • EaZy; flat or steadily moving water with only modest demands on the paddler
  • Not Too Bad; definite rapids with modest consequences that baring egregious user error can be run upright just about any old way
  • Pretty Damn Hard; real whitewater in which line choice and constant attention are prerequisites for staying upright, a swim is quite possible under average conditions but the consequences are perhaps less immediate
  • Way Fucking Western; severe whitewater where advanced skill is essential for anything approaching a safe run, consequences of a swim can be quite bad

My personal bias has strongly influenced the above, and it is thus worth stating that I am a risk-averse paddler of modest skill.  Experienced whitewater boaters will probably find my ratings laughably conservative.  

There are cases where a single rapid or several isolated rapids are dramatically more difficult than the rest of the waterway.  In these rare cases I have noted the level of difficulty most likely to be experienced by most paddlers as the main rating, with the maximum rating parenthetically mentioned.  For example, boaters of many abilities will enjoy the great scenery and varied challenges of the North Fork of the Sun, but few will choose to paddle the difficult gorge which forms the last mile of river before Gibson Reservoir.  Thus, this river is rated NTB (WFW).


Ideal flow is difficult to assess for waterways without USGS gauges.  The subjective term “high” denotes almost bank full or at flood, and the term “medium” means high water but well below the weeds.  Numbers identified refer to the nearest, most relevant USGS gauge, as stated.  These gauges are not infallible, and due to variable flows in feeder streams the reading 60 miles downstream can mean different things in the headwaters.  I have here merely attempted to suggest the sort of flow which will provide good speed fun, without too much speed and terror.

I classify wood hazard in Crown streams as being of three categories.  Low wood stress denotes larger waterways which generally flush well every spring, and where hazardous or river-wide wood is the exception, rather than the rule.  High wood stress denotes that these hazards are not infrequent, but also not constant.  High wood stress streams will be more anxiety provoking for good reason, but experienced wilderness floaters will probably still experience them as if not enjoyable, at least efficient.  Extreme wood stress waterways, of which the Crown ecosystem has many, have not been included in this guide.

Waterway Section Ideal Flow Difficulty Wood Stress
Badger Creek Lee Creek to reservation boundary Medium NTB (PDH) High
Belly River Above ranger station High PDH High
Below ranger station High EZ High
Birch Creek, North Fork Steep Creek to Swift Reservoir Medium NTB (WFW) Low
Birch Creek, Middle Fork Lost Horse Creek to Swift Reservoir Medium PDH (WFW) High
Birch Creek, South Fork Crazy Creek to Swift Reservoir Medium NTB (WFW) Low
Camas Creek Lake Roger to Inside North Fork road High EZ Low
Inside road to NF Flathead Medium PDH High
Coal Creek First patrol cabin to MF Flathead Medium WFW High
Danaher Creek Basin Creek to SF Flathead Medium NTB High
Dearborn River Whitetail Creek to state road 434 600-700 cfs @ Craig PDH (WFW) High
Dry Fork Blackfoot River Cabin Creek to NF Blackfoot 800 cfs @ Dry Gulch NTB High
Gordon Creek Shaw Creek to SF Flathead Medium NTB High
Kintla Creek Lower lake to NF Flathead Medium PDH High
Kishenehn Creek Canadian border to NF Flathead Medium NTB Low
McDonald Creek Above Mineral Creek Medium NTB (WFW) High
Mineral Creek to Lake McDonald Medium PDH(WFW) Low
Lake McDonald to MF Flathead Any EZ Low
Middle Fork Flathead River Confluence to Porter Creek 7000 cfs @ West Glacier NTB Low
Porter Creek to Bear Creek 2000 cfs @ West Glacier PDH (WFW) Low
Bear Creek to Moccasin Creek 4000 cfs @ West Glacier NTB Low
Moccasin Creek to West Glacier 1000 cfs @ West Glacier PDH Low
Mokowanis River Below Cosley Lake Medium PDH High
Monture Creek Hayden Creek to campground Medium PDH (WFW) High
North Fork Blackfoot River Above North Fork falls High PDH High
North Fork falls to first road bridge 500 cfs @ Dry Gulch WFW High
North Fork Flathead River Canadian border to MF Flathead 5000 cfs @ C Falls EZ (PDH) Low
Nyack Creek Upper campground to lower campground High PDH High
Lower campground to MF Flathead Medium EZ High
Ole Creek Lower campground to MF Flathead High PDH High
Red Eagle Creek Red Eagle Lake to St. Mary Lake Medium PDH (WFW) Low
South Fork Flathead River Confluence to Black Bear bridge 3000 cfs @ Twin Creek NTB Low
Black Bear Bridge to Cedar Flats river access 1000 cfs @ Twin Creek PDH Low
Cedar Flats to reservoir 3000 cfs @ Twin Creek EZ Low
Spotted Bear River Above Dean Creek 6000 cfs @ Twin Creek WFW High
Below Dean Creek 3000 cfs @ Twin Creek NTB (WFW) Low
Strawberry Creek East Fork Strawberry to MF Flathead High PDH High
St. Mary River Twin Lakes Creek to St. Mary Lake Medium NTB (WFW) Low
Sun River, North Fork Wrong Creek to Gibson Reservoir 800 cfs @ N Fork Sun NTB (WFW) High
Sun River, West Fork Ahorn Creek to Gibson Reservoir 600 cfs @ S Fork Sun NTB (WFW) High
Sun River, South Fork Benchmark to West Fork Sun 500 cfs @ S Fork Sun PDH High
Teton River, North Fork Bruce Creek to confluence High NTB High
Two Medicine River, South Fork Rowe Creek to Pike Creek Medium NTB (WFW) Low
Pike Creek to confluence Medium WFW Low
Waterton River Pass Creek to Kootenai Lakes Medium EZ High
Kootenai Lakes to Waterton Lake Medium PDH (WFW) Low
White River Brushy Park to above Needle Falls Medium PDH High
East Fork to SF Flathead 4000 cfs @ Twin Creek NTB/PDH Low
Youngs Creek Hahn Creek to confluence Medium NTB (PDH) Low

The South and Middle Forks of the Flathead are the major wilderness packrafting rivers in the Crown, and a major part of their appeal is their length and heterogeneity.  These attributes can also make planning trips of a given difficulty complicated, for packrafters who generally prefer lower flows with more technical but less pushy and committing water.  As the following chart details, balancing this, especially for the length of the Middle Fork, is difficult.

River Section Flow (cfs) Estimated MPH Details
South Fork Flathead Confluence to Big Salmon 600 2 Plenty of dragging on gravel bars, not recommended.
5000 4 Ideal.
8000 6-8 Spooky, with odd boils and standing waves in new locations.
Big Salmon to Mid Creek 600 3 Straight forward, rapids consist mostly of rock dodging.
5000 6 Rapids get big and bump up a level in difficulty and commitment.
8000 8 Committing, with significant hydraulics for sustained stretches.
Middle Fork Flathead Confluence to Porter Creek 3000 ? My guess for lower limit of decent floating.
8000 3-5 Straightforward with a few rapids, enjoyable.
Porter Creek to Bear Creek 1000 2 Too low above Granite Creek, fine below.  
2000 2-4 Lowest suggested level for Porter to Granite.  Spruce Park still pushy at this flow.
5000 3-5 Significant hydraulics in many spots, considerably more committing and technical.

Suggested Trips


There are a number of excellent day trips to do done in the Crown of the Continent, moreso in Glacier due to a greater degree of road access.  Hiking into and floating out of the Belly River is a good beginner option, as is Camas Creek upstream for the Inside North Fork road.  Lower McDonald creek is the classic first packraft float, and is great for kids and families.  A variety of dayhiking and day biking trips can be done on various stretches of both the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead.  Coal Creek is an outstanding whitewater day trip, as is the North Fork of the Blackfoot and the Dearborn River.  In Glacier the classic Gunsight Pass dayhike can, when done west to east, be made even better by floating the St. Mary River.

One of the better multiday trips in the Crown starts by hiking either the Highline Trail or Flattop Mountain over 50 Mountain to the Waterton River, which can be floated to Waterton Lake.  A hike to either Bowman to Kintla Lake then leads to the North Fork of the Flathead, which is floated south to close the loop via a car or bike shuttle on the Camas Road.  The South Fork of the Flathead is the classic multiday in the Bob, but with daunting logistics it is tempting to settle for hiking the valley trail just to float back down.  Rather than settle, start your trip at the Silvertip trailhead up the Spotted Bear River, and use a variety of on and off trail options to get into the lower White River, which can be floated to the South Fork, and in turn back to the Spotted Bear ranger station.  A car or bike shuttle gets you back to the start.  Another attractive loop which combines good floating and easy logistics starts and ends at Benchmark, and links hikes over Stadler and White River passes with extended floats on Danaher Creek, the South Fork of the Flathead, and the West Fork of the Sun.


wilderness in Wilderness

The Bob is awesome. Video by Michael Reavis.

Anyone who’s been out in the woods a lot and has been paying attention should be aware of this problem; that even the quietest, most fleeting and “natural” of human travel in the wild has a significant impact on the plants and animals who live there full time.  And there is virtually no way, save perhaps the more abstract political/policy realms, in which that impact is anything other than negative.  This isn’t the space to debate the axiomatic, idiomatic importance of wilderness for the human soul, but it is the space to say out loud, repeatedly, that in the 21st century we humans inevitably do violence to parts of what we value when we go out to find it.  At the same time, folks like the Sustainable Trails Coalition point to considerable evidence that the architects of the Wilderness Act intended for people to not only be visitors to Wilderness, but to be catered to in the process.

So perhaps it is time to admit that the Wilderness Act needs revision.  I’ve never been in favor of stock in Wilderness, and I am no longer in favor of bicycles being admitted under certain circumstances.  Instead, lets make Wilderness wilderness and ban any substantive human presence: any buildings, any bridges, and any trail maintenance.  Shoulder areas around the areas of greatest biological integrity can have trails cut and faster-than-foot methods of travel allowed.  Many current roads can remain open, but allowed to fall into decay, and will become bicycle, stock and sub 30 mph ATV only by default.

There is precedent, in the form of the Bear Management Areas of Yellowstone and of Wildlife Management Areas nationally to name two examples, for humans being eliminated entirely from the landscape, at least on a seasonal basis.  I just don’t think it’s realistic to implement that on a grand scale, and have always been in favor of the most democratic way of capping visitation: making stuff hard to get to.  It has simply been too easy, in the midst of all the fighting over what was and was not included by the Wilderness Act, to not ask broader questions.  And as Casey said a few months ago, science and common sense are both telling us, ever more loudly, that the Wilderness Act asked the right questions, but didn’t think big enough.