Packrafting the Crown of the Continent
David A.D. Chenault
All content copyright 2017, the author. Deploy for personal use, and 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 lower 48. 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.
A good case can be made for this book never having come into existence. There is a special place in hell for every guidebook writer, and especially for those who are the first to publish on a particularly precious place. My only justification for doing so anyway is that increased use makes such a book inevitable, and that by participating publicly this book can shape for the better how people packraft in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem. Hopefully in a decade I won’t have too many regrets.
This book 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 equipment, 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, culled from limited data, and may be wildly inaccurate.
Use at your own risk.
Packrafting is relatively new in the Crown ecosystem. As of this writing there are no particular regulations concerning wilderness boating. Let us keep it that way.
A major part of the appeal of floating the rivers and creeks outlined in this book is the very substantive illusion that you are stepping back several centuries and seeing Montana as it existed before roads, logging, the mountain pine beetle, and Meriwether Lewis. It should be a moral imperative to travel and camp in a fashion which maintains this experience for others; both those packrafters who will follow in the weeks and years to come, and the non-packrafters with whom you will share the forests and valleys.
While on the river, keep all aspects of your impact in mind. Camp below the high water mark, on durable surfaces such as sand or gravel, and ideally in places which are not visible or easily accessible from any trail. Build fires out of driftwood, scatter the ashes before leaving, and bury human waste well away from the water. Consider limiting group size, as well as boats, paddles, and tents in lower impact colors. A party of packrafters might spend three days floating 50 miles of river and due to pace see no other floating parties. A group of fly fishers might spend the same three days fishing a few miles of river from a hike-in base camp and see multiple packrafting parties totaling twenty individuals. In order to respect everyone’s wilderness experience, and preempt the need for future regulations, packrafters should think about their impact as broadly as possible.
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 fishing in the Crown at its best recalls the profusion of game that presumably existed throughout the Rockies before widespread European involvement. 50 or more fish in an afternoon and evening is not uncommon. Packrafting makes getting into the wilderness easier, and access to the waterways and their corners and pockets more direct. Montana biologists have in recent years reported more fish sporting hook holes and hand prints, especially in the South Fork of the Flathead. Estimates for mortality after fish are caught, handled and released are as high as one third. Consider limiting catch and release fishing to cooler times of the day and year, and only hooking one or two fish from any given run or pool. Or eschew it altogether in favor or catch and cook fishing, following fish size guidelines for the waterway in question.
Finally, it is tempting for aspiring packrafters, especially those traveling from far away, to skip the learning curve, rent a boat, and go late in the summer when the rivers are low and the weather warm and unthreatening. Many floaters, past and future, will have the South Fork be their very first packraft experience. Do not do this. First, packrafts have as boats become so capable that the initial difficulties of paddling them does not well hint at the hazards which even easy rivers feature. A dozen or even fifty paddlers doing something without harm does not mean that the same thing is either safe or advisable. Second, a true wilderness float such as the South Fork of the Flathead is a tremendous experience. Even the most prolific hikers and floaters only get a few chances to do something so grand for the first time, when all is new. Short cutting the apprenticeship necessary to build the needed skills inevitably cheapens the experience.
Seasons and logistics
For most packrafters river travel in the Crown will remain a late spring and summer affair. The rivers are at their kindest after snowmelt has peaked, the air warmed, the trails dried out, and the water cleared. A handful of the largest rivers keep enough water for packrafting all the way through autumn and even into winter, at least until they begin to freeze, but most do not. By early September most creeks in the Crown, and many of the rivers, are too low to float.
Therefore most packrafters, especially those traveling to visit, will confine their floating to late June, July, and August. The amount of water each winter stores in the high mountains, as well as when and how quickly that water is distributed to the lowlands, varies dramatically from year to year. Aspirants hoping for ideal conditions, namely clear water and fast but unthreatening flows, will do well to monitor area Snotel sites and weather, and try to correlate historical data to the trends of the current year.
Relatively few USGS gauges exist for rivers and streams in the Crown. Those that do, and how to best extrapolate their readings, are mentioned in the individual drainages sections which form the bulk of this book.
In Glacier 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.
Glacier and the Bob are big places, and while the access roads are generally good for passenger cars after the snow melts, drives one an eastern trailhead to one on the west can easily take 4-6 hours. Putting together a quality route with only one vehicle can be tough. Suggestions for loops, as well as point to point routes, form the last section of this book.
Technical difficulty, flows, and wood
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. The list of waterways is far from definitive, streams both worthy and unworthy of packraft traffic have been deliberately excluded. As mentioned in the introduction, wilderness swiftwater is not a suitable place for anyone lacking the confidence to operate under the burden of discovery.
Rest assured that there are worthy streams not mentioned in this book, and indeed that as an author there is much that I don’t know about packrafting in the Crown. In the case of every waterways discussed here I have either floated it myself, usually more than once, or hiked along it with the specific purpose of investigating the possibility of floating (and in many cases decided that coming back with a boat would be a waste of time). While the limited number of times I’ve visited a given place makes the following inherently suspect, I have always tried to give my best, most reasonably conservative guess.
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 Darn 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 Frickin’ 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, and usually require a number of portages, 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|
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.