From whitewater to wilderness, Montana's best river trips
UPPER MIDDLE FORK OF THE FLATHEAD RIVER
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.
Darwon Stoneman, co-founder of Glacier Raft Co., holds a fat cutthroat trout 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
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. Although the wilderness desgnation forbids wheeled or motorized vehicles, 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 had just finished a long stint of removing blowdown from the trail that parallels the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
Guides with Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier fly fish a section of the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River near Schafer Meadows.The guides and photographer packed in to the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead from Marias Pass with horses and inflatable kayaks. Montana Living photo by David Reese
A guide with Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier 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
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.”
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.
A forest worker takes a break at Schafer Ranger Station. A Forest Service cabin, below, at Schafer Meadows. (Montana Living photo by David Reese)
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.
Darwon Stoneman, left, and Ono Wieringa co-founded Glacier Raft Company, Montana's oldest raft company, with Sally Thompson. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)
The voluntary guidelines were put in place 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."
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.
Dick Brady is a Montana aviator and well-known mountain flier. He passed away at hunting camp in 2019. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)
“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 Meadows 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.”
Fisherman Jim Mann wades the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Montana Living photo by David Reese
The majority of the commercial trips taken into Schafer each year are through Glacier Raft Co, an outfitter in West Glacier, Montana. 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.
A raft descends through the Spruce Park section of the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)
The river can be rated as Class III, although there are 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 lower 17 miles of the float is the Three Forks section, a challenging whitewater section.
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.
Floating past Granite Creek, the halfway point of the Schafer Meadows river trip. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)
Horseback riders cross Granite Creek on their way to Schafer Meadows (David Reese photo/Montana Living)
Hanna Reese flyfishes the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River near Essex, Montana. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)
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.
From catching and releasing one of these cutthroat beauties, to exciting whitewater and remote solitude, this trip to Schafer Meadows on the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead has it all.
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
BELT CREEK, MONTANA
By DAVID REESE/Montana Living
Even for the hardiest Montana residents, rainy weather in June can wear you down.
So when the rain continued to pour, as it can in June, we decided to head for sunnier climes, and the closest place to do that is the east side of the Continental Divide.
We drove from Kalispell, up out of Essex in a miserable, light drizzle and as soon as we hit Marias Pass we were greeted with what was to come: high clouds and sunny, sunny skies. The gorgeous weather followed us all the way over to Belt Creek and Sluice Boxes State Park, south of Great Falls.
Normally I wouldn’t opt for driving five hours to float only a seven-mile stretch of river, but my friend, who had never floated this river, was adamant about trying it.
The river, scenery and camping did not disappoint.
Called a miniature version of the famed Smith River in Montana, Belt Creek meanders through tall, limestone cliffs punctuated by caves. Part of the float is through a state park: Sluice Boxes State Park.
Mining relic in Sluice Boxes State Park. David Reese photos
All along the float are remnants of Montana’s early mining days, with the old mining town of Albright sitting on a bench near the river. Wander through Albright and you can find reminders of the limestone mining operation that took place there in the 1940s, just as World War II was ramping up. Tall furnaces used to smelt the limestone from its ore still stand. Railway tracks snake through the tall underbrush, and an old root cellar shows the ingenious design used by miners 80 years ago.
And then there’s the fishing. River flows were dropping quickly, and we caught Belt Creek just as it was about to become unrunnable in a raft. At that flow, of about 500 cubic feet per second, fishing was excellent.
One member of our party caught a 28-inch brown trout, the largest of the two-day expedition. Since Sluice Boxes State Park includes only about seven miles of Belt Creek, you have to take your time and fish the river meticulously. Or, just relax and enjoy the gorgeous views unfolding all around you. Coming around a corner of the river, focused on filming, I didn’t see at first the two mountain lions getting a drink from the river in the late afternoon heat. The first lion broke quickly into the underbrush, then the second lion scampered away, eyeing me as I floated past in my kayak.
Jeff Littfin rows through Belt Creek south of Great Falls. David Reese photo
The river can be dangerous at most any level, because of the narrow canyon and because of steep drops. On our final day, a kayaker had broken his back in the river and was being rescued. At much higher flows, I could see how this would be an incredible whitewater run for expert boaters. With Belt Creek getting more use, permits are required from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and certain camping restrictions apply.
We floated out of the coolness of the canyon into the flanks of the Highwood Mountains. The hot, dry heat of an eastern Montana summer bore down on us. As we got off the river, people splashed about in the shallow, cool water. I found I didn’t want to leave.
We were blessed with gorgeous views of the Rocky Mountain Front on the drive home. Then, dropping off Marias Pass back into the Flathead Valley, the rain began splattering our windshield. Although it was a long drive, the journey to Belt Creek was well worth it.
Whoever said “Go West, young man” had it all wrong. In a rainy June in western Montana, it should be “Go East, Go East.”
An old mining railway tunnel. David Reese photo
Camping along Belt Creek, Montana. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)
— David Reese is editor of Montana Living.
Elk River, Fernie, British ColumbiaBy DAVID REESE/Montana Living
Just a stone's throw from Eureka, Montana, is the Elk River.
If you want to catch hefty, football-sized cutthroat trout, the Elk River should be a stop on your fishing itinerary.
IF YOU GOBe sure to check with the border patrol, as the Canadian border through Roosville has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
John Hollensteiner holds a cutthroat trout on the Elk River in Fernie, British Columbia. David Reese photo, Montana Living
Bull moose along the Elk River. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)