An early-season primer to floating, paddling, and making 2019 your best year on the Flathead Valley’s moving waters
Story by Clare Menzel
In early spring, the flowing waters of Northwest Montana lie low in their riverbeds. Warmer temperatures awaken a frozen reservoir high in the mountains, and as the mercury climbs, water drips, then pours, from the snowpack. Wild streams tumble into each other and eventually dump into the watershed’s main veins. Human inhabitants see the end result of this seasonal surge down in the valley, where hibernating winter rivers swell, rise, and quicken. Peak flows in lower rivers occur in May and June, and as spring heats up into summer, locals take to the water, floating downstream on their favorite stretches. Not sure where to begin? Start here.
Leave it to the Pros
Owning a raft is an investment. Get your feet wet by booking a half-day, full-day or overnight trip with an experienced guide from a local outfitter. All you have to do is show up. In West Glacier, choose between four family owned and operated companies.
Wild River Adventures was established in 1974 by George Mumalo, who is believed to be Glacier National Park’s first river outfitter. In 2013, Kalispell-born river guide Justin Woods, and his wife, Lexi, an Air National Guardsman, purchased the business.
A Grand Canyon daydream led to the formation of Glacier Raft Company, in 1976, by Onno Wieringa and Darwon Stoneman, who worked during winters as ski patrollers in Utah. The company is now owned by Stoneman; his wife, Terri; their daughter, Cassie; and her husband, Jeff.
In 2016, brothers Byron and Lee Beers, along with their wives Sandi and Catherine, purchased Great Northern Resort, which was established in 1977 and named in honor of the railway that put Glacier National Park on the map. The brothers, originally hailing from New Hampshire, both set down Northwest Montana roots in the 1990s.
After a harrowing experience on a raging Idaho river, Randy Gayner and Mark O’Keefe pledged to stick to solid ground. In 1983, they joined forces with their friend Denny Gignoux to guide hiking trips in Glacier National Park — and, nevertheless, the Middle Fork Flathead River wooed them. In 1987, they expanded their business into rafting, officially becoming Glacier Guides and Montana Raft.
Ready to Boost Your Knowledge?
This spring, Flathead Valley Community College’s continuing education program brings Great Northern Resort onboard to offer river skills clinics hosted in West Glacier. “Unless you’re applying at one of the raft companies to be a guide, there’s really no other public training class for rafting or swiftwater,” says Great Northern co-owner Byron Beers. “We’ve had a river school in the past, but it’s been a little bit of hit and miss … This [series] is a great way to get it out to the public.”
River Rafting Paddle Guiding Basics – April 6, 7
Gain skills in reading rivers, choosing a route, maneuvering around obstacles, and handling your paddle raft safely. $295
River Rafting Oar Guiding Basics – April 13, 14
For a fundamental understanding of reading and running a river safely in an oar-guided boat. $295
River Rescue Swiftwater Safety – April 27, 28
Learn and practice skills for responding to river emergencies, including accident prevention and rescue techniques. $295
River Rafting 101 Weekend Series – Every weekend in April
Over four weekends, develop your river knowledge, navigation, and safety skills for paddle and oar-guided rafts. Test your skills during an overnight trip. $1,295
Registration is ongoing. Contact FVCC at (406) 756-3835.
The Big Picture
Near a place called Paradise, a 90-minute drive south from Kalispell, the lower Flathead River joins the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, and travels northwest toward the Pacific Ocean. Some of the droplets in this flow began their journey to this confluence at the trickling headwaters of the Flathead watershed, which springs from groundwater and glaciers alike, as far away as Canada and the Continental Divide. A system of streams large and small twist down the mountains and across the wide bottom of the Flathead Valley, draining this 6-million-acre, teardrop-shaped watershed, the heart of which is breathtaking Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
Serene and scenic, the North Fork Flathead River crosses over the Canadian border near the northwestern boundary of Glacier National Park. A bumpy gravel road reaches all the way up the North Fork Valley from Columbia Falls, providing numerous put-in/take-out access points for paddlers.
In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Danaher and Youngs creeks meet near Flatiron Mountain, becoming the South Fork Flathead River. Between Slideout Peak, Mt. May, and Clack Mountain, Strawberry and Bowl creeks form the remote headwaters of the Middle Fork Flathead River. To experience these forks in their wilderness setting, where motor travel is prohibited, you’ll need a lightweight packraft and backcountry savvy.
The Middle Fork exits the wilderness on U.S. Highway 2, near Essex — look downstream, closer to West Glacier, for the region’s most accessible and exciting whitewater. Below West Glacier, at the end of a popular floating segment known as “the scenic,” the Middle Fork and North Fork flow together under Blankenship Bridge.
The South Fork, meanwhile, must pass through a major impoundment, the Hungry Horse Dam, before meeting its fellow forks at the western edge of Hungry Horse. From here, the main stem Flathead meanders south to Flathead Lake. Of all Northwest Montana’s rivers, these three forks of the Flathead River, which together drain 4,464 square miles of rugged country, see the most dramatic springtime jump in average daily discharge — but recreationalists shouldn’t overlook the watershed’s other rivers.
Whitefish Lake is the source of a river bearing the same name. This flatwater river drains the mountain ranges in the northwestern portion of the watershed. The easygoing stretch of water running through town is low-hanging fruit for those with only have an afternoon of leisure time, or casual ambitions.
Flowing north through the secluded Swan Valley, the namesake river drains countless tributaries cascading down from the Swan Mountains to the east and the Mission Mountains to the west. Trace the Swan River’s origin to Gray Wolf Lake, which is shadowed by the glaciated Gray Wolf Peak, a crown jewel of the Missions. Just outside of Bigfork, where the Swan empties into Flathead Lake, the famous “Wild Mile” whitewater rapids attract daring paddlers. Upriver, there are mellower, picturesque stretches of the Swan to float.
Once water enters Flathead Lake, whether through the mouth of the Swan or main stem Flathead, it begins moving through the massive body. A single droplet will spend, approximately, just 2.2 years in the lake before emptying into the lower Flathead River, through Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam, to the Clark Fork River confluence, which is the end of its Flathead watershed journey.
The Flathead National Forest float guides to the three forks of the Flathead are available online at www.fs.usda.gov.
44 Years Young, And Wild As Ever
The Bigfork Whitewater Festival isn’t getting milder with age. In 1975, a small crew of madcap whitewater kayakers from across Montana gathered in Bigfork to test their mettle on the Swan River’s furious, ferocious springtime stretch of class IV rapids known as the Wild Mile. The event grew from a grassroots gathering to a professional-level competition, for years welcoming international athletes to Montana as a stop on the Kayaking Pro Circuit. These days, the festival is known for its family-friendly vibe, drawing spectators from near and far to watch kayakers, canoeists, paddleboarders, and rafters navigate these roiling waters.
Event is May 24-26. For more information, visit bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com
Guides Explain the Middle Fork
The river changes throughout the year. Early season, it’s really violent. Chocolate-brown. As the season progresses, it starts changing color. You get this milky green first, and then it goes to a deep blue, and by the end of the season, it turns aquamarine-blue. Most people are blown away. – Jen Buls, Glacier Guides & Montana Raft
Near Lincoln Creek, there’s fairly friendly beach access. A great spot to pull over and stretch your legs … For the folks that like to fish, there’s a lot of action to be had at the mouth of that creek. I’ve also seen bears and moose swim across the Middle Fork right there. – Justin Woods, Wild River Adventures
The most common spot for bears is between Tunnel Rapid and Bone Crusher. There’s a really good serviceberry and huckleberry patch … When you’re floating around the corner, it’s always worth looking up. – Jen
Bone Crusher is the most big and splashy and fun rapid year-round. – Alec Cole, Great Northern Resort
Bone Crusher turns into a good surfing wave. Big Squeeze has a fun surf wave that comes out at lower waters. It’s not necessarily a curling wave; it still throws you around a little like a rodeo ride, but not like carving turns. – Justin
Big Squeeze is a tight fit. If you don’t set up just right, you’ll be getting stuck on a rock on either side of the river. You have to know your way. – Alec
Screaming Right is my favorite because of the adrenaline rush. It’s the most technical one; it’s the one you have to make sure you and your guests are paying attention for. – Alec
Right after Jaws, and right before Pinball, there’s a rock on the right as you’re coming around the corner that I think looks like a skull … You can’t see it in high water — I think that’s why it’s got the holes in it that it does. Years and years of wear in high water. – Reid Copeland, Glacier Raft Co.
I like it when it’s really high. Pinball gets sporty, it’s really boiley, and you never know what it’s going to do with your boat. It’s one of the few features, in this section, that can show you how strong the river can be. This is the section of the river that’s 100 feet deep … It’s an awesome swimming hole later in the season. – Jen
In my rookie year, we decided we wanted to set the unofficial record for laps on the whitewater section. As far as we could tell it was five. We said, “Let’s do eight.” We started early in the morning, and did lap after lap after lap. On the seventh lap, we were going through Pinball — a pretty pushy rapid — the water was high and the hydraulics were stronger. There’s funky hydraulics. We hit it too far to the right, and my side nose-dived into the water. I got sucked out of my boat. You’re not supposed to struggle against the water, because you could be swimming down, but, naturally, I freaked out. I was flailing around, trying to swim, but I couldn’t move my legs. I realized my pants were around my ankles. I reached down, took my pants off, and just started floating to the surface. It was funny to be pansted by the river. We ended up doing one more — we were so tired, we were practically falling out of the boat. As far as I can tell, no one’s beat that record. – Zach Allen, Glacier Guides & Montana Raft
(At Notch), there’s these cliffs on either side, and big logs going across the cliffs. That’s from high water: They got stuck up there. – Alec
In high water, after the Notch hole, there’s three lateral waves, at a 45-degree angle, that can really flip a boat instantly. The Notch hole itself is a pretty clean hit, but it’s also abrupt and fast and hard compared to the rest of the river. – Zach
I took a couple rafting and they were talking about getting married. I’m a wedding officiant, and when we get to the last rapid, Pumphouse, I was joking, “We should do this right now.” … The next day I got this text from them: “Hey Reid, would you be able to marry us tomorrow?” They were probably thinking, “That’d be so cool, to have the river guy marry us.” In the summers, I let my beard grow out, but I clean up for weddings — I kind of think they were mad I shaved. – Reid
The bridge is a beautiful way to end the trip for clients. It’s historic. It’s a pretty swim hole … I spend a lot of time at the old bridge. People go down there to gather their thoughts. I scuba dive, and I love to dive there toward the end of the season, see all the stuff people lose out of their pockets when they jump off the bridge. – Reid
What’s the difference between a river guide and a stand-up comedian?
A comedian doesn’t think they’re a river guide, of course! Most jokes told on the river aren’t fit for print, but these few clean knee-slappers poke fun at those who eschew a roof over their heads, year-round employment, and basic hygiene in order to give you a once-in-a-lifetime experience on the river.
Q. What’s the difference between a river guide and a mutual fund?
A. A mutual fund will eventually mature and make money.
Q. How do you spot a river guide at a party?
A. You don’t have to. They’ll tell you when they walk in.
Q. Why aren’t river guides rich?
A. The river has two banks, but both were liquidated.
Q. Where do you hide your valuables from river guides?
A. Under the soap.