Schafer Meadows: a wilderness trip of a lifetime
August 31, 2006
By Dave Reese
A River Through Nowhere: Wilderness Floating on the Middle Fork of the Flathead
The drone of a light plane in the clouds overhead brings our attention away from breakfast. The plane circles again and again, like a pesky mosquito, then finds a break in the clouds and breaks through the opening. The plane touches down at Schafer airstrip only a few hundred yards from where we're camped on the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. As we prepare our rafts and kayaks for a three-day run through an acclaimed Wild and Scenic River, more river runners bring their gear to the launch area in heavy-duty wheelbarrows.
We shove off, leaving all signs of civilization behind, although the Schafer Ranger Station, set deep in the Flathead National Forest, could hardly be described as civilization.
By plane, Schafer Meadows is about a half hour from Kalispell. It is a wilderness unto itself, a place where you can lose your cares about as quickly as it takes to hop a light plane into this remote grass airstrip. Flying in over the Swan Mountains from Kalispell, over the studded crown of the Jewel Basin, you quickly become amazed at just how far away from civilization you really are.
Now, the word "wilderness" means different things to different people, and to some, wilderness is merely a vast expanse of rock and ice-places uninhabitable by neither man nor beast.
To other people, though, wilderness is a place to find solitude. Schafer Meadows is one such place. Nestled in the Great Bear Wilderness near the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Schafer Station is the starting point for hikers, packers and floaters exploring the Great Bear and Bob Marshall wildernesses.
At Schafer you will hear the drone of motors occasionally as light aircraft duck in and out of the grass landing strip perched above the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. But leaving the ranger station on foot, horseback, raft or kayak you quickly disappear into the three million acres of adjacent wilderness areas.
In the spring, when the Middle Fork of the Flathead is at its highest, floating is one of the most popular ways to explore the upper reaches of the Wild and Scenic River corridor. When you put in on the river, you are quickly given an idea of the kind of scenery that awaits you on your float, which can range from 34 miles to the confluence of Bear Creek and the Middle Fork to 55 miles if you go ail the way to West Glacier. Floating from Schafer Meadows to Bear Creek can be done in one day in fast water, though you'll want to take at least two days to allow for a more relaxed pace.
All around Schafer Meadows, tough, bush-ridden peaks and heavily timbered ridges rise up in every direction. For the first few miles from the put-in at Schafer, the braided Middle Fork winds through a bottomlands tangled with cottonwoods torn away from the bank by high water and hardworking beavers.
The first few miles of the trip give you some time to tighten up your load, to lash gear to your boat and loosen up your arms on the oars. But it's not long after putting on the river that your eyes are pulled away from the somnolent, placid scene all around you. Soon the roar of whitewater edges into your consciousness and tugs at your gut like breakfast from a fast-food joint.
The upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River is not imposing like, say, the Grand Canyon, the Lochsa or the Salmon. This river is more of a sleeper that can grab the unsuspecting boater. Along the river, there are tall clay banks festooned with large boulders. Over the years these boulders have been liberated from their banks and have tumbled into the river, creating obstacles difficult to maneuver around in the fastmoving water, especially on the upper section. First up on the agenda is the Three Forks series of rapids-one of the toughes stretches on the Schafer trip. At low wate Three Forks is a bouncy Class III series the splashes you around a bit but doesn't reall pose a threat to flipping a raft. The boulder provide ample play areas for the kayaker; At high water, though, Three Forks is a nail biter that jumps up and grabs th unsuspecting boater.
Car-sized boulder strewn into the river create turbulent pOUI overs and rapids that require the full attention of floaters. A broken kayak paddl or punctured raft on this section coul translate into a long walk out on the trail to Bear Creek.
If you're fortunate to be able to fly up the river en route to Schafer you get a chance to scout the entire stretch. But if the weather's clear and you fly up and over the Swan Mountains, you'll be running this section blind. The Three Forks section ends with an exclamation point, an S curve that twists around a log jam then over a six-foot drop that will leave you looking back at the rapid in awe. You're given a break for a couple hours before the next whitewater section, the challenging Spruce Park gorge.
The gorge is usually done on the second day, since you'll want to camp upstream from Spruce Park to try some fishing at Castle Lake and relax around the river. Spruce Parks is a series of five Class III to Class IV drops in a deep canyon that provide a thrilling intermission from the scenic float.
With all of the ingredients to this trip, from the scenic flight into the remote airstrip to the wilderness float experience, Schafer Meadows is becoming increasingly popular among floaters. Rafters and kayakers from all over the United States and Canada are learning about this little jaunt that is becoming a "must-do" on their floating itinerary. Wildlife is another bonus that abounds on this wilderness float. A herd of about 20 elk grazed on the airstrip as our first load landed, and a group of mountain goats clung to a sheer rock wall as we floated by them. You might also see the shy Harlequin duck, here for some spring mating before they head back to the Pacific Ocean. With all of the popularity surrounding this remote float, only one commercial raft company is licensed to guide trips into Schafer Meadows. Glacier Raft Company, Montana's oldest raft company at 22 years, runs trips into Schafer from early spring to mid summer, depending on flows.
Darwon Stoneman, co-owner of Glacier Raft, says the attraction to Schafer is the wilderness experience coupled with exciting whitewater and abundant wildlife. "I've floated the Selway and in terms of being remote, Schafer is way more remote than that," says Stoneman.
"It's several things: it's a wilderness trip, a whitewater trip, a fishing trip, the scenery and the opportunity to see animals like bear, goats and elk."