The Middle Fork of the Flathead River is located in the northwest corner of Montana. Its origin is the confluence of Strawberry and Bowl Creeks (elevation 5,200') near Gooseberry Park in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.1 Referred to as "Montana's wildest river", numerous large boulders have settled in the bottom of this heavily glaciated valley, dropping an average of 35 feet per mile as it plunges out of the largest expanse of wilderness in the lower 48 states.2 The Middle Fork Flathead is one of the most protected rivers in the nation. The entire river was designated Wild and Scenic in 1976 .3 The upper watershed is sheltered by the Bob Marshall (designated in 1964) and Great Bear (designated in 1978 4) Wilderness areas while the right bank below Bear Creek is protected by Glacier National Park (designated in 1910).
The typical boating period is between early June and mid-July, but river flows come directly from snow melt so local air temperatures will dictate conditions. The river can be boated by intermediates during normal flows, but only by experts during high flows. Peak runoff, typically late May, is considered for the most part, unrunnable. Unrunnable due to logs floating in as well as jammed in the river channel, powerful hydraulics, and remote nature of the river in the event of an accident. After mid-July river levels drop sharply. For river flow information, contact the US Geological Survey (USGS) office in Helena at 406.449.5263, the Hungry Horse USDA Forest Service Ranger District at 406.387.5243, or at USGS Flow for MF Flathead near Glacier.
Weather during a mid-July float trip can create heat exhaustion or hypothermia conditions, based on experiences from two consecutive years. One should pack clothing expecting both extremes. River level for trips on two consecutive years in upper reaches does not vary as much as recorded flow indicates - 6" versus 1000's of CFS at West Glacier for two consecutive mid-July trips.
Access to this river is limited to hiking (not practical for river runners), horse packing, or by air to embark from Schafer Meadows. The past two years, Red Eagle Aviation located in Kalispell, MT (phone 406.755.2376) has provided safe reliable transportation. Price is $230 to $280 per plane load (1999 prices) depending on the route to Schafer Meadows airstrip (USDAFS). Limit the amount of gear, especially the size of frame parts as space within the aircraft (Cessna 206) is limited. Limit the size of river craft to smaller rafts (12 to 13 foot), unless early season river conditions suggest prudence in using larger inflatable river craft. Rafts can be paddled or rowed. Catarafts are not a good choice for this river due to the proportion of hardware to carrying capacity of both gear and people.
The typical trip itinerary consists of the following basic activities. First, arrange for a vehicle shuttle to your desired takeout; greatly simplified when one is from the area and can convince relatives to do this for them. Then, fly or horse-pack in. Flying most common for recreational boaters, both options are offered on commercial raft trips. Next, transport your river gear 1/4 mile to river side using Forest Service wheel barrows located at the ranger station (ask first, they may be using them, also). Listen to a pre-trip lecture on zero impact and bear country practices from a Forest service representative. Log your trip on their register. Finally, launch! Proceed to campsite(s), limited in the steep canyon river channel - typical sites are where large side streams flow in. Reach your designated takeout, pack and collect your equipment, go home, plan on doing it again sometime. Currently, no permits are required, but party size for both commercial and non-commercial trips in limited to 10 people.
A horse pack trail exists on river right for the entire river until Bear Creek access, bordered by US Highway 2 thereafter. An alternate access point is Granite Creek which can be kayaked (75' per mile) or via horse pack trail six miles in from the Challenge FS Ranger Station 5. A ranger station is located on river right, below the confluence of Granite Creek.
The lecture on safe, bear country practices is for a reason. In addition to black bears, the Middle Fork Flathead hosts a population of brown bears or "grizzlies" (from their grizzled colored fur). The lecture defines appropriate behavior in bear country, including storage of food and personal hygiene products (tooth paste, deodorant, lotions), food preparation tips, and garbage storage. There are a lot of advantages for utilizing rocket boxes as garbage containers. Advance planning includes obtaining and familiarizing oneself with use of a can of self-defense bear spray (similar to personal self-defense pepper sprays, only a larger, more potent quantity). Packing a gun should only be considered if one has experience handling firearms safely, one has a firearm of appropriate caliber, one has a clue on how one would terminate one of these creatures, and knowing one will face an investigation to determine how one got into such a position that the only recourse was to kill or be killed. Born in Montana, and raised in the local area, I personally think a gun is unnecessary on the Middle Fork. Remember, we're on their turf here. In the backwoods of Montana, with specific exception to bordering Glacier Park, bears attack humans in defense, not as a food source. Don't surprise them, don't put them in a position they could perceive as cornered, don't get between a sow and her cubs and you'll more likely than not be just fine. I could go on and on with bear stories, but I digress.
The typical trip begins at Schafer Meadows (elevation 4,795') and can end at Bear Creek (elevation 3,850') or, alternatively, at the Essex Bridge. The mileage from Schafer to Essex is 31.9 miles; 27.3 miles to Bear Creek plus 4.6 miles to the Essex Bridge.6 Below the Bear Creek takeout is the goat lick, a slumping north bank where mountain goats come down to lick exposed mineral salts.
The most difficult rapids are located in a three mile canyon below Spruce Park (rated by the FS as class 5 at high flows, at normal flows are solid class 4). However, the first rapids, known as the Three Forks Series (FS rated at class 4, normal flow class 3), also require some attention; providing nearly continuous whitewater for about two miles. Below the confluence of Brushshack Creek, low water, boney conditions ease considerably. An excellent river guide to keep handy in an ammo box is the 3 Forks of the Flathead River Floating Guide published by the Glacier Natural History Association in cooperation with the US Department of Agriculture Flathead National Forest and Department of Interior Glacier National Park.
Fishing is good. Basic tackle will consist of spinners and wobbling spoons as well as dry and wet flies. Fishing licenses may be obtained locally. Become fully informed as to regulations and adhere to them.
This description ends at the Essex bridge, but the floatable section includes some 73 miles from Schafer Meadows to the confluence with the North Fork of the Flathead River. There is a heavily boated whitewater section from the Moccasin Creek access to West Glacier that was featured in the movie "The River Wild".
The safe window of opportunity to run the river is somewhat small. Shuttle logistics will be something to be reckoned with. But a journey on a wilderness river possessing the qualities of the Middle Fork of the Flathead is a very rewarding experience. Maybe I'll see you on the river there some day.
|Photos by Al Mickelson and Bill Smith|