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A spring paddling primer

Posted on 20 April 2016

By Nathan Wilcoxen


    The early morning sun peeks over the mountains, filling the valleys with crisp light. Paddle in hand, you quietly step into your boat and settle into the water. Snow still blankets the highlands in white, yet a sea of green, splashed with the vibrant colors of the season's first wildflowers, covers the lowlands. As the water laps the boat, a sense of flow overtakes you, making you a part of the runoff itself.

Welcome to springtime in Montana. Winter's icy grip finally has yielded to spring, unlocking a seemingly endless number of boating opportunities and amazing navigable waterways - from f lakes to the most boisterous of whitewater.

Montana's Triple Divide Peak, high in Glacier National Park, is the headwaters of much of the water flowing in North America. From this northern point of water-flow on the Continental Divide, water travels west to the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River; east, then south into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, terminating in the Gulf of Mexico; and north into the Hudson Bay and the north Atlantic Ocean. 

    In all, five major river basins drain out of Montana, heading to all points on a compass.     With all these great water sources, it's no wonder paddlers eagerly await the coming of spring.

    This tour of 20 great spots to paddle begins in the Upper Columbia and Hudson Bay river basins. Virtually all the Hudson Bay River Basin lies in Canada, although some rivers, such as the Belly, Waterton and Swift Current, are in Montana. Scenic and great for fishing, these are short, but fun, recreational floats. Beyond these, you may work your way north to Canada's rivers for more of the Hudson Basin's paddling opportunities.

    The North, Middle and South forks of the Flathead River make up the river system of the same name, which is the headwaters of the Columbia River system. This system provides several great whitewater creeks for whitewater enthusiasts, although many are accessible only by long, strenuous hikes. One such place is Gorge Creek, near the South Fork in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which you can reach only by hiking three miles from the Gorge Creek trailhead.

Only expert boaters should consider tackling this serious section of steep creeking.

    If wilderness paddling is your style, the Flathead ecosystem offers some wonderful trips. The North Fork of the Flathead River borders Glacier Park, the Middle Fork shares boundaries with the Bob Marshall and Glacier, and the South Fork flows right from the heart of Bob Marshall country. Hiring a plane to fly you and your boat into Schaefer Meadow to float the wilderness section of the Middle Fork will give you a magnificent glimpse of wild and free Montana.  

These watersheds, among the wildest in the lower 48 states, are true Montana gold. Boaters may hire guides for multi-day floats, generally designed for rafters and kayakers. Only the hardiest canoeists should try floating down the Middle Fork of the Flathead. 

    The North and South forks of the Flathead are more canoe-friendly, although some portages still may be necessary, particularly the expert-only section at Meadow Creek Gorge, on the South Fork.  

Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, is renowned for its clear waters and many islands accessible by canoe or kayak. Wild Horse Island, near the southern end of the lake, is a wonderful destination for a day paddle. Sizable herds of mule deer and bighorn sheep and a remnant population of wild horses live in this state park. Less-experienced paddlers need to be aware that lake conditions can be challenging.

    Other major boating areas along the Columbia River Basin include the Wild Mile of the Swan River. This difficult section of whitewater flows through downtown Bigfork to Flathead Lake and is the site of the town's annual Whitewater Festival. This event, which takes place in late May to early June, attracts national and international paddlers vying for top positions on the world kayaking circuit. (visit www.bigforkwhitewater.com for more information.)

Freestyle kayakers looking to work trick moves will want to visit the Kootenai River, near Libby. It boasts a solid whitewater run and one of the best play-waves in the West.

Moving south toward Missoula, you encounter the Clark Fork, also part of the Columbia River system. Alberton Gorge, about 30 minutes from downtown Missoula on the Clark's Fork, is a favorite intermediate run of college students testing new skills and of experienced paddlers out for an afternoon surf session.

Another nearby run is on the famous Blackfoot River, best known as Norman Maclean's favorite haunt in 'A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.' The North Fork of the Blackfoot challenges expert river runners with its steep and technical terrain.

    For a true family river outing or one for beginners, try the Bitterroot River. It flows northwest into the Columbia and offers safe, fun sections. Canoes are perfect on the main river, but many of the creeks draining out of the Bitterroot Mountains, such as Kootenai Creek, will test the mettle of kayakers seeking a creek-boating thrill.

       As we travel farther south, backtracking the trail of Lewis and Clark, we meet the Missouri River system, which flows eastward out of the Rocky Mountain Front and into the plains. Because settlers and explorers chose this route for Western discovery and eventual migration, this watershed is steeped in history. Its blue-ribbon trout fishing and outstanding waterways make this river basin a paddler's paradise. Divided into two drainages, the Upper Missouri River system starts in southern Montana and moves east and north en route to the Mississippi. The Lower Missouri River system begins in north-central Montana and meanders east, eventually joining the Upper Missouri.

    The three major forks of the Upper Missouri River are the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers. The seemingly endless opportunities afforded by the Three Forks of the Upper Missouri will please even the most discriminating paddler. Recreational and amateur boaters may leisurely navigate the Jefferson and Madison rivers' many classic floats. The Quake Lake section of the Madison, however, features extremely difficult whitewater suitable only for experienced whitewater boaters. The Gallatin offers runs for beginning canoeists and kayakers and sections for whitewater rafting and kayaking enthusiasts. The Gallatin Whitewater Festival, held in late May, brings out the best in old and new paddlers throughout the Northwest. The creeks and rivers flowing out of the Gallatin Range and the Crazy Mountains, such as Big Timber Creek, will challenge even the toughest whitewater dogs. Boasting huge runoffs and many waterfalls, the drainages of these south-central mountain ranges have been the site of recent and bold first descents. Wild or mild, south-central Montana is a definite check on the spring fun list.

    The Lower Missouri is the classic canoeing river, with the famous and beautiful Breaks of the Missouri a highlight of any paddler's Montana adventure. Fort Peck Reservoir, in the northeastern part of the state, holds the waters of the Missouri before flowing eastward into North Dakota and on to the Mississippi. The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge begins where the Missouri flows into the reservoir and provides excellent wildlife viewing for flatwater paddlers. Touring boaters will love the solitude of the reservoir's many inlets.

Near the state line, the mighty Yellowstone River system meets the Missouri. The Yellowstone splashes into Montana from the southwestern corner of the state, near Wyoming. It's well worth a visit, with nearly 500 miles of floatable river, from its more difficult upper sections to easier lower portions. Plus, it carves right through Yellowstone National Park, with its geysers, buffalo herds, bears and wolves.             Although no stream or river paddling is allowed inside the park, many lakes, such as Yellowstone Lake, offer boaters a unique experience.

Don't worry if you can't make all the stops in one paddling season. Montana is sure to have enough winter snows to fill the rivers each spring ' and the dreams of every paddler.


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