As is our habit, our crew planned one blow-out trip this year. A reunion of sorts that is open to as many as possible. Due to a move, a deployment, and an impending marriage, this time it was just three of us. The Scopas and I on a packrafting trip in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness. We planned multiple trip options to be decided upon when I arrived in Great Falls. We needed to have good(enough) water for our 7 day, 6 night trip. Our likely candidates were the South Fork of the Flathead and the South Fork of the Sun.
Plan A was start at Lodgepole TH on the south side, hike to Youngs Creek, float to White River then hump back over White River Pass. Then we could have floated out to Gibson Reservoir on the Sun River. Plan B was to start at Benchmark TH hiking over Observation Pass to Danaher Creek, floating down to the Flathead and back out over White River Pass or Larch Hill Pass. These were ambitious for us. My packrafting experience is limited and it had been several years since I carried a 30+ pound pack. Not to mention that any altitude over 6000ft. seems to upset my stomach.
The trip got off to a halting start as my initial flight was delayed and I ended up arriving 7 hours late, and to Helena, not Great Falls. Thank you Delta. While I was enjoying a 4 hour layover in Minneapolis, Amanda sent me some links about fires in the Benchmark area. As we looked at the maps, we realized that it was back to the drawing board. Now our shuttles would have to drive a lot farther on both ends. Think adding 3 hours each way to an already 2 hour drive. Yuck.
After perusing the maps all afternoon in the airport and about 4 hours in Scopa's living room, we made a decision. In at Lodgepole Creek TH, over Youngs Pass to Youngs Creek, hoping to float from a trail crossing 1 mile down from Hahn ranger station. Then 3+ days on the South Fork of the Flathead, walking back out over the Swan Range to the west at Wire TH. Projected mileage about 19 miles on foot, 64 on water, and 19 miles back out on foot. This would make it my longest backcountry trip. The entire South Fork on my boat's maiden voyage! This is surely the stuff of legend.
Andy dropped us off at the Lodgepole Creek TH about 1:00 P.M. on Sunday, August 5th. After a departure photo, we took to trail with relish. My 33.75 lb. pack wasn't that bad after all. My phobia for carrying heavy weights kept me lighter than even Amanda. Sure, it could have been lighter, but this was the perfect trip to test my MLD Trailstar.
The trail up to Youngs Pass is wide and easy to follow. It's an area that has burned in the last several years so there was no shade for those first 4 miles. Despite this, it was still very pretty due to the abundance of purple Fireweed blooms. And even though it was nearly 90F, it didn't feel bad to a southerner like me. Youngs Pass itself is very wide so it didn't feel like I'd accomplished much when we rested atop. Amanda stripped one foot to discover that a hot spot was really a torn open blister. Bad start for her! Scopa taped her up and we moved down into the valley following Jenny Creek for the next 5 miles or so until camping at the first flat spot we came to. There was a group of about 18 right next to Youngs Creek so we kept our distance.
Up with the Sun and onward within 2 hours(I know, I know). Our goal was to walk the 9 miles to Hahn cabin and floatable water by early afternoon. The pace was decent but poor Amanda was having issues with her heel. Her faithful husband piggybacked her across about 6 water crossings that day while I carried her pack. Keeping her foot dry was tough that day. Several hours after lunch we arrived at Hahn to find it shut up. We had hoped for fire updates. Oh well, the only indication we saw was haze on the mountaintops north of us in the valley. Within a mile of Hahn we found floatable water. Time to inflate our vessels.
The water was clear and beautiful. We dragged more than I would have enjoyed, but it was a pleasant, breezy day. There were probably 20 fly fishermen on the banks that afternoon in the next 5 miles. It didn't bother me, just surprised me. After all, it was about 14 miles to the nearest trailhead. There were some slight rapids in this section. It was good practice in boat handling. At higher water it would have been VERY interesting. We paddled a lot more than expected and exited our boats to pass by shallows a lot. Eventually we came to the confluence with Danaher Creek to find a half dozen other inflatables. There was a 2-man NRS, multiple Sevylor inflatable kayaks, and one Sotar Kayak. We talked with a great group of guys there. A couple even took our Alpackas for test paddles. Their jaws dropped when I told them our total pack weights were 33-37 lbs. The Sotar alone weighed more than that!
We set up camp on the east side of the Flathead, enjoying our freezer bag cooking. I played with some new rice sides. The Scopas ate much better than I for the entire trip. Maybe I'm too lazy to prepare good menus.
Up at dawn again, and paddling the mighty Flathead. We were very excited at this point. The valley was wide and gorgeous mountain vistas surrounded us. We made steady progress for less than half an hour before the first of several portages around logjams. It was an amazing sight to see all those long, straight pines stacked up like pick-em-up sticks in the river's bends. At least the boats weren't heavy like a canoe or kayak! After dragging most of the morning I actually said,"that's it, I'm done. I'm selling my boat. How disappointing." I guess I'm a baby about stuff like that. It was so frustrating to go so far away from home and have an experience just like my first canoe trip nearly 30 years ago.
Have no fear. After lunch ate those words. The water deepened and picked up speed. It was a dramatic change. We would find that each afternoon would be better than each morning. And each morning would be better than the previous afternoon. This river just gets better and better. Selecting lines is a skill that needs practice for a would-be packrafter. My skills are admittedly weak. This was only my third trip in a packraft anyway. Come to think about it, that's about all the Kayak experience I had as well. A lifetime in 2-man canoes doesn't prepare you for this. Scopa did a good job of providing mentorship without offending my notably prickly pride. Learning to ride wave trains and avoid holes helped a bit. Heck, I hadn't even known what gimbal meant.
We camped just after passing a spit rail fence on our left that was Salmon Forks Ranger cabin. Our camp area was a narrow shelf on the east side of the river. Scopa hung the bear bag while Amanda and I set up camp. We were done with plenty of daylight left. After eating, I relaxed by my tent and watched Scopa flyfish in the distance. It really is beautiful to watch. Too bad I don't fish.
The river beckoned us earlier this day. We wanted to get past Meadow Creek Gorge today. Not knowing if that meant a long portage or lots of scouting, we made good progress all day. Way over 3 miles per hour. Scopa carried our map (I carried our GPS)and we teased him mercifully for having it out so much. The truth is, it's much more difficult to keep up with your location on water than on land. Differing pace makes it easy to lose where you are. Traveling at the bottom of a valley means that your distant views are often obscured by low ridges. So eventually, I stopped teasing him about it and just thanked him for being so diligent.
By mid-morning, we passed a packbridge with a sign marking the gorge 5 miles below there as dangerous. Goosebumps. That's all I can say to describe how excited we were to see that. My familiarity with my green Yak was improving so I wasn't even scared. Well, maybe a little anxious. I didn't even know we were starting the gorge until the first time I went involuntarily swimming in roaring water, frantically trying to grab my boat. It was a stupid play. The water ahead was calm after a decent sized rapid with 2 holes. I was so concerned with following their lines that I tried way to hard to get out of the main channel as they pulled off to take pictures. I made the rapid, then fought the current just to avoid leading through that section. Lesson learned.
I went swimming 2 more times through the gorge. It was above my skill level by a bit. Amanda went over easy once after getting lodged between 2 rocks(and my boat). Again, bonehead play be me. Following too close to avoid having to pick my own line through what I thought was going to be difficult. I apologized profusely to be met with silence. Ouch! Lesson learned. Scopa handled everything this low water river had to throw at him. He only portaged one time through the gorge(and only after his wife strongly hinted that she expected him to). Even then, he walked downstream and had me push his boat through a 4' wide section of big rapids. Seems he wanted to learn what the water would make the boat do. It got lodged and he had to climb down into the jaws of death to dislodge it. It would have been funny if I wasn't standing beside his lip-biting wife.
We emerged victorious from the gorge and camped at Cedar Flats. Scopa had lost the bear cord(in addition to 2 of our bear spray cans and my survival lanyard) so he fashioned a short rope and headed across-creek to hang our bags over the edge of the sandy bluff. It was a great idea. A bear would have likely been up there searching for it, looked down at us and said,"Oh well, I guess I'll have to eat them instead."
We camped along a trail 20 steps into the woods in a small clearing. This night we pitched only my Trailstar and shared it. Room for 3, easy. That was the warmest night of the trip though and the bugs bothered me a bit that night. Deer flies don't bite as bloody as and Arkansas horsefly, but they reduce your comfort substantially.
We took our sweet time breaking camp this morning. A bit sore from all the hard paddling(and swimming) through the gorge the day before perhaps. We knew the water would help us cover ground fast. The only thing is we were also coming to the realization that our exit plan was going to be extremely uncomfortable for Amanda due to the angry flesh on her heel from Sunday's open blister. It's hard to keep it dry when you're in water all day.
I overturned my packraft after a nasty solitary hole that I should have avoided. The hole was about 3 feet deep with backflow making a loud sucking sound when the butt of my boat ended up there. It actually made me stationary, bouncing in place. When I paddled hard right to try to push out, the entire boat turned that direction and flipped me in an instant. I kept my paddle but couldn't grab the boat for about 30 yards downstream. And the water was moving fast. This one actually scared me a bit. Lesson learned; don't zig when you should zag.
When we stopped for lunch, I removed all gear from my bag to make sure it was dry. My Zpacks liner drysack and Mountainfitter drysack kept all moisture at bay. The Lifeproof case for my iPhone worked seamlessly as well(there were about 3 drops inside it the previous day after the canyon). Using their Delorme Inreach in conjunction with an iPhone, we began making arrangements to be picked up about 4 miles into Hungry Horse Reservoir at Peters Creek Campground on the East Bank. This cut a full day off our trip and still we would have plenty of time to waste today. Scopa went fishing, Amanda laid in the sun, I laid in the shade. The UV index must have been high that afternoon. Once we finalized our extraction plan, we headed downriver a few miles to camp by the first road bridge on the river. There were some very friendly and generous trail angels camped beneath it. They gave Amanda first aid supplies and a Dr. Pepper, and Scopa and I adult beverages and ribs and chicken. We set up the Trailstar again and made a fire and dinner. Amanda crashed early while Scopa and I stayed up to put out the fire. It was a wondrously cool night.
This was the earliest we actually got in the water. Although we only lacked about 5-6 miles, there was no telling how much time the lake paddling was going to take. Our ride was scheduled for noon. It was the coolest morning by far on the trip. Maybe low 50's. No sooner than we got in the water Amanda found the fast channel along the east bank and hit a rock, spilling her into the water. It wasn't a spectacular crash like mine, but soaked her nonetheless. After hearing her teeth chatter 15 minutes later, we pulled off to build a fire and dry her out a bit. She took it with good cheer and appreciation. And she didn't even complain about being wet or cold. Tough gal!
Within an hour we were paddling on the calm, wide water of Hungry Horse Reservoir. It was fairly slow going. We took a few breaks before a slight headwind picked up. Scopa even enticed me to try to create a sail for our boats with my Trailstar. Failure. We deduced that a large kite would be the only practical way to pull yourself across calm water. The headwind made breaks counter-productive, so there was little choice but to paddle non-stop. Our top speed on the lake was about 1.5 miles per hour. Do the math on that one and you'll realize that we paddled non-stop for about 2.5 hours or so. Precisely 2 strokes short of making my arms fall off. Scopa's navigation led us directly to Peters Creek campground. We had a short swim/bath to remove stench before a long car ride back to Great Falls. Max arrived as we were deflating rafts and packing up.
As we began our trip back from the wilderness, I fell from consciousness. Oddly, I dreamed that the trip went on. One of the things I find about true wilderness is that it either gives me a slight sense of unease or a craving for continuation. This time, I wanted nothing more than to plan the next trip back into the "Bob". I lament that the GPX file from my Garmin was corrupt so I can't show you our route. The simple version is 19 miles walking to water, 5 floating Youngs Creek, 60 miles floating the South Fork of the Flathead, and 4 miles across Hungry Horse Reservoir. Most of those miles across pristine wilderness. The trip of a lifetime. Thanks to the Scopas, the Poyes, the Kelsos , and Jeff Gravatt for making it happen for me.
Lessons and Observations; Lifeproof cases for iPhones do keep water out. Keep GPS off when you know you won't get a signal(battery) and touch screen not rubbing anything(battery). Clip bear spray to pack when rafting & portaging. Trailstar makes a poor sail, but worked well and slept 3. Carry backup bear line. Beef Rice Sides need meat too. Delorme Inreach really works. Cairn Map of Bob much better than Forest Service map. Flatwater packrafting is hard. Tape Amanda's heel before first step on trail. Be thankful for such great friends. Carry a dedicated water shoe(barefoot runners worked for them).