A Trip to Nowhere: Schafer Ranger Station

Posted on 27 September 2017

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Ron Kopitze and Brian Rogers float the Spruce Park section of the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River recently. - Dave Reese photo

Montana Destinations: Schafer Meadows Fly-In

Schafer Meadows is a wilderness holdout

By DAVID REESE/Montana Living

The clang of the mule’s bell sounds constantly in the pasture at Schafer Ranger Station.

Clothes hang to dry on the line, and steaks sizzle on a wood-fired grill.

It’s an idyllic place, set deep in the Great Bear Wilderness more than 30 miles from the nearest road. There is no electricity and most power available is the oldest kind: manpower.

Crosscut saws and axes are used to cut firewood or blowdown. Wheeled and mechanical devices are not allowed in the wilderness. In fact, the one wheelbarrow left at this wilderness facility has seen better days, and it’s rumored that when it “dies,” it won’t be replaced.

Then there are the airplanes.

Next to Schafer Ranger Station is a long, grass airstrip. On a busy June day you hear the drone of the planes approaching the airstrip from the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Their engines cut to a dull roar as they slowly approach the strip, banking steeply over tall lodgepole pine trees.

Most of the planes that fly into Schafer in May and June are hauling people and gear to float the upper Middle Fork, a nationally designated “Wild and Scenic” river.

Back in the day, you rarely saw more than a couple planes a day flying into Schafer. Now, with more people wanting access to the popular whitewater and fishing sections of the upper Middle Fork, the airstrip is busier. This is somewhat of a dichotomy, since the wilderness concept forbids wheeled or motorized vehicles. But the airstrip was grandfathered in to the Great Bear Wilderness and flights are unregulated to come and go.

On a hot June day, while the airstrip is temporarily quiet, Richard Owens walks down the runway and appears like an apparition out of the haze. He shoulders a long crosscut saw that shines in the late afternoon sun. He’s just finished a long stint of removing blowdown from the trail that parallels the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

schafer meadows ranger station great bear wilderness montana living

A forest worker takes a break at Schafer Ranger Station. Montana Living photo by David Reese

For Owens, the head ranger at Schafer Station, life here is “like a dream come true. It’s quite a privilege to be able to work here.”

While airplanes haul tents, coolers and rafts into Schafer for use by private parties, all U.S. Forest Service work is done by hand. The mule train is used to bring materials and supplies to the remote station, which is one of only two manned remote wilderness outposts in the United States.

Schafer airstrip was originally built as a trailhead that provided access to the Bob Marshall and Great Bear wilderness trail system. Now, the Schafer airstrip is often used as a pilot tourist attraction.

“Lately it seems like a lot of people fly in and take pictures and in 15 minutes they’re gone,” says Owens. “It’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the wilderness.”

Pilots are discouraged to use the airstrip if it’s not to be used as a gateway for the wilderness — like floating, hiking or hunting.

In the busy floating seasons of May and June, Schafer sees about 12 flights a day. Then they taper off until fall, when deer, elk and black bear hunters use the airstrip for access to the wilderness.

Dick Brady, a seasoned aviator, has flown into Schafer and other remote Montana airstrips for 32 years.

He’s seen changes at Schafer, and not just the increase in planes. Now, landing at Schafer means dealing with the locals: wildlife.

“You fly in here after six at night, you have to buzz the whitetail deer to get them off the airstrip,” Brady said, standing next to Red Eagle Aviation’s Cessna 206 after bringing a load of rafters into Schafer. “It used to be just the elk and moose we had to worry about. Now it’s the deer.”

Wes Martin and friend Dale Tennison had tethered their planes at the airstrip’s campground and watched from a split-rail fence as Brady’s flight touched down on the dirt strip. Martin, who has an airstrip at his house in Columbia Falls, says Schafer provides a quick, remote place to land his bright yellow plane for weekend camping trips. This was the first trip into Schafer for Tennison, a seasoned mountain flier who flew in from Spokane via Libby in his 1946 Cessna 140.

“This is gorgeous,” Tennison says while wiping bugs off his aluminum aircraft. “What a pretty place.”

FLOATING SCHAFER MEADOWS

The Cessna 206 banked sharply over the lodgepole pines, cut back its engine and touched down softly on the dirt airstrip at Schafer Meadows.

The occupants, a raft party of three, spilled out of the plane filled with coolers, gear and a raft, and stood in amazement at their surroundings. Rolling mountains covered with thick lodgepole pine and fir surrounded the airstrip in the heart of the Great Bear Wilderness, and a few log Forest Service cabins were set back in the trees.

A lone bald eagle banked high on the afternoon currents overhead. The small plane, meanwhile, taxied back down to the end of the dirt runway and revved its engine in preparation for the 30-minute flight back to Kalispell. The plane rumbled down the airstrip and lifted off, its white wings set starkly against the green backdrop. In a few seconds it was gone, disappearing over the ridge and down the river valley, leaving the fishermen alone, for the most part, in a remote mountain airstrip, miles from anywhere but only a 30-minute plane ride from Kalispell city airport.

schafer meadows great bear wilderness fly in montana living fly fishing

Jim Mann wades the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Montana Living photo by David Reese

Forest Service ranger Al Koss leaned against a wooden fence post, welcomed the rafters and chatted with the group as they filled a wheelbarrow to shuttle their gear down to the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. For this crew of rafters, it was their second annual trip to Schafer Meadows airstrip and this remote section on the Middle Fork of the Flathead.

The trip is a favorite treat for many rafters and kayakers who fly in from around the country to experience solitude in the Great Bear Wilderness. There are only two ways to get here. You can pack in with horses from Bear Creek, along U.S. 2 on the southern Border of Glacier National Park, or you can fly in to Schafer airstrip.

This section of the upper Middle Fork presents floaters with two to three days of heart-pounding whitewater, beautiful scenery and world-class fishing for native westslope cutthroat trout. Only two outfitters are licensed to take clients into the upper Middle Fork: Glacier Raft Co. in West Glacier, and Wilderness River Outfitters and Trail Expeditions in Idaho. With incredible fishing, scenery, floating and solitude, the river is seeing increased use on the 30-mile section between Schafer Meadows and the Bear Creek takeout along U.S. 2. Still, a river permit is not needed - "yet," says Steve Penner, recreation forester for the Hungry Horse Ranger District.

As the popular section of the Wild and Scenic river sees more use, floaters are asked to bring along fire pans, carry out their human waste and not remain at the popular Castle Lake trail head campsite for more than one night. The Forest Service uses its "Limits of Acceptable Change" in monitoring use on the upper Middle Fork.

Within those guidelines it will determine if the river will go to a permit-only system. "A lot of people are discovering the upper Middle Fork, but we're in pretty good shape with most of our indicators," Penner said. The voluntary guidelines were put in place two years ago by Flathead National Forest, and it's possible they could one day be mandatory as the river sees more use. "We're still following through with those, but we have not made it mandatory yet," Penner said. "We might want to make that required. Right now it's just a matter of education."

float fishermen fly fish a section of the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River near Schafer Meadows. Montana Living photo by David Reese

Float fishermen fly fish a section of the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River near Schafer Meadows. Montana Living photo by David Reese

The majority of the commercial trips taken into Schafer each year are through Glacier Raft Co., but between the two companies, there are about 400 client days taken in there each year, Penner said. What keeps floater use down on the upper Middle Fork is the river's remoteness and the fact it is "fairly difficult" at all water levels, Penner said.

The river can be rated as Class III, with several Class IV whitewater sections. Add in the fact that the section of river is miles from any road or rescue operation, and it could be rated as Class V, depending on water levels. With boulders choking the river at lower levels and creating huge hazards at high water, the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead is not for inexperienced floaters. The upper section of the run includes the Three Forks series of rapids.

The rapids are drops followed by pools, and the rapids are caused by huge boulders that have tumbled down out of adjacent banks. There are few eddies in high water, making scouting difficult. In low water, the boulders present a serious challenge to navigation. Logjams are also common. After the Three Forks rapids, the river mellows a bit, and fishing is excellent for the next several miles. You then encounter the Spruce Park section of rapids. Here, the river narrows through a canyon, while several tributary streams add water volume, creating an exciting whitewater section. (You'll have to put your fishing rods away for this section!)

WHITEWATER is what brings most of the floaters to the upper Middle Fork. But there's a short window of opportunity to be seized by fishermen as well, when the river drops and clears. From late June to mid-July, when there is enough water to float out of Schafer, the fishing can be excellent for cutthroat trout. After the first two weeks in July, the river drops too much to be able to get much more than a small raft out of there, although some people pack inflatable kayaks in.

schafer meadows middle fork of the flathead montana fly fishing river

A pack-rafter floats a challenging section of the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River below Schafer Meadows. Note the use of a helmet. Montana Living photo by David Reese

The fish that are caught in the upper Middle Fork can be much larger than the ones caught in the Flathead River system between West Glacier and Kalispell. It's common to catch up to 20-inch cutthroat trout, which happen to be the purest genetic species of westslope cutthroat trout in Montana. In fact, the fish have been used in cutthroat hatcheries for planting in Montana rivers and streams.

 Darwon Stoneman, founder of Glacier Raft Co., holds a fat cutthroat caught on a fly in the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Montana Living photo by David Reese

Darwon Stoneman, founder of Glacier Raft Co., holds a fat cutthroat caught on a fly in the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Stoneman packed in an inflatable kayak on horseback for this trip. Montana Living photo by David Reese

There are two schools of thought surrounding where the fish come from in the upper Middle Fork. Some biologists say the large cutthroats in that stretch are resident fish that never migrate down to Flathead Lake. Other experts say that the fish are part of a migratory run that makes its way from Flathead Lake every year.

Pat Van Eimeren, a fisheries biologist with the Flathead National Forest, says a study being worked on by Clint Muhlfeld, another fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, will help determine where those come from. Muhlfeld is using technology that measures the amount of calcium in a fish scale.

The scale of a fish from the lower Flathead River, for instance, would have a different chemical makeup than one from the upper Middle Fork, and by comparing the scales with water samples taken from different rivers and streams, biologists will be able to determine exactly where fish were raised. This information will also help biologists determine what changes in Flathead Lake might have on fish that are found nearly 100 miles upstream.

From catching and releasing one of these cutthroat beauties, to exciting whitewater and remote solitude, this trip has it all. Whatever the reason people come to Schafer Meadows - whether it's fishing, floating or scenery - the trip is a wilderness classic.

IF YOU GO

Be sure to stay up on river levels. Anything lower than four feet on the USGS river indicators means you'll be dragging your boat through some of the rapids.

Glacier Raft Co. in West Glacier is the only Montana outfitter licensed to take clients into Schafer Meadows.

They can be reached at 888-5454.

On the Web: www.glacierraftco.com



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