APA Roundup: Packrafting the Flathead North Fork

…continued from Part 2: Glacier National Park

I have had my packraft for two summers now, and it’s one of the best toys I have. I couldn’t even say how many times I’ve taken it out on the city rivers in Chicago. Whenever I’m not on Google researching ideas for bike tours, I’m doing it for river trips. I have come to find that paddling down a river, a wild one especially, is one of the most engaging ways I can take in the beauty of an outdoor experience. So naturally, I wanted to incorporate it into my Montana trip. Luckily, there were already quite a few people out there who were into the same thing.

Packrafting has already been picking up out west over the last ten years or so, and has developed its own niche in the paddling community. As it grew, the most active among the paddlers joined together and founded the American Packrafting Association in October of 2012. Along with bringing the community together, their focus has been on education, swiftwater safety, wilderness conservation, and river access. Lobby efforts have been done to legalize the sport in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon National Parks.

This year, they had their first ever roundup, drawing packrafters from all around for a weekend of paddling, workshops, swiftwater rescue training, and presentations focused on their current river conservation efforts. The organizers booked the weekend at a group site at Big Creek Campground, right along the Flathead North Fork. They planned day trips for everybody on that river and others in the park, depending on a person’s experience level.

I was planning logistics for my tour through Glacier around the same time I got the notice for this event, and when I realized it was right along the way, I added it to my tour dates. I wanted to take my raft on a challenging river again, but knew that running Class II-III whitewater alone was pushing it at my experience level (a lesson I learned the hard way on the New River last year). But I knew that these trips would have a guide and other experienced packrafters who I could learn from.

So I rode my bike to the roundup at Big Creek after hauling my ass over the Sun Road, locked it on a tree, set up camp by the river, and planned to spend the next day on the water. Moe Witschard, the main organizer, let me ship my raft and paddling gear to his house in Bozeman and agreed to take it to the roundup so I wouldn’t have to carry it with me on my bike. Cool guy.

I got up the next morning and unpacked the boat, ready to hit some good splashes on the river with my new friends. The organizers split us up into three groups, based on our experience levels. I was placed in the intermediate group, seeing as I wasn’t completely clueless out there, but certainly didn’t feel ready to run the big stuff with the best of them. Not yet anyway.

Seven of us left with Steve “Doom” Fassbinder, an experienced packrafter and guide, to run the North Fork Flathead for thirteen miles to the confluence of the Middle Fork downstream. It was a big river, about 200ft wide and moving swiftly at a high gradient. Even the calm sections had enough power to pick you up and take you away. Most of the rapids were rated Class II-III with a lot of splashes and wave trains. It was fed primarily by alpine meltwater, giving it a clear jade color.

Our group got our gear together, inflated our rafts, and got in right by the campsite. We pushed out from shore and each went flying down the river. As we went through the calmer sections, Doom taught us some of the basic maneuvers, had us practice self-rescue, and explained how he was able to read a set of rapids and find the right line. We spent the morning paddling through a number of choppy wave trains and turning out frequently to calm eddies along the riverside. But we all had a great time hitting wave after wave. People fell out here and there, but since there weren’t many hazards around and the water was deep, recovery was pretty easy.

Later that morning, Doom had us all eddy out at one point to surf a set of playwaves. Other rafters went out ahead and surfed the waves for a moment before either flipping or washing out of the rapid. I finally got the courage to try it, paddled upstream against the wave train, and then got distracted. Julia was paddling right in front of me when her boat flipped. She went right under my raft, I felt her head hit the bottom. She took a mouthful of water and came up six feet away, yelling for help. I started towards her. She got herself together and yelled “I’m fine! Get my raft!”

I turned around and paddled for it, easily catching a grab loop (and making me wish somebody was around to do this when I wiped out on the New River last year). Got it! …what the hell do I do now?

I was out of the rapids, but still flying down the middle of the river. I couldn’t paddle without letting it go, and it was too big to pull onto my boat.. Shit! Think for fuck’s sake!

I turned back upstream, put it ahead, let it go, and carefully ferried to shore with it bumping against my bow, a technique I came to find out later was called Bulldogging. I got it to a calm eddy and got my feet on the ground. Julia came over a minute later, out of breath and happy to have her boat back. It was my first river rescue. Go team.

We stopped downstream a while later at a shaded outcropping for lunch. Moe’s group caught up with us and we all sat on the riverbank with our colorful boats, trading rafting stories and shooting an array of interesting shit. Many of these guys have been on some amazing expeditions all over the place, and couldn’t bore you if they tried.

Eventually, we went back to our boats and eddied back in to continue the run. I was the the last one to get back in, and the only one who didn’t ferry out far enough to miss a large log sticking out thirty feet down. Luckily, it didn’t have any branches, but it was coming right for my face as I moved right at it in the current. I ducked backwards as it brushed over my bow cargo and nicked my helmet. With the sudden weight on the stern, my bow flipped and I got a face full of cold, dark mountain water. I kicked my way out from under and grabbed the bow line. Before I could think about self-rescue, I went right for a calm eddy, where I kicked to shore and recovered my breath on a rocky outcropping.

The rest of the day went smoothly, as the rapids got more and more peaceful. We finally ended our trip at the Middle Fork confluence, and celebrated with some ice cold beer.

We joined up with the other groups at the campsite that night for a huge cookout with plenty of beer, meat, and good food. Afterwards, a couple of speakers shared their experiences working with legislators and park officials to legalize paddling in various parks, and prevent the use of dams in different river systems. A couple of guys from Tasmania did a presentation on the Franklin River, where packrafters were successfully able to halt a dam construction project and preserve its pristine beauty. It was all really cool, but my exhaustion had finally caught up with me. I had a massively bad splitting headache, and I was feeling tired out from the last weeks worth of nonstop exploring.

I crashed hard and slept harder.

When I got up the next morning, the groups were gearing up for another good day on the water. The beginner level planned to do the same run that my group did yesterday, and my group was preparing to hike somewhere north for several miles and hit a more technical section of the river. I wished them luck and left the campground with my loaded bike, turning southward on a shitty gravel road towards Whitefish.

I hate gravel. My touring bike is durable enough to handle it, but it doesn’t maneuver for shit. And on this road it was even worse because they just poured new gravel on it. I had to go painfully slow, especially downhill, to keep from spinning out and falling sideways. It was two hours that I don’t care to go through again.

Eventually I hit smooth pavement and had an uninterrupted ride all the way to the Whitefish Hostel. I’m sure by that point I had to have smelled like fucking apple blossoms. So I put my bags down, took a gloriously hot shower, and slept like a king for the rest of the afternoon.

I had two days to relax. And unlike my tour, which I planned down to the numbers, there was no agenda. And that’s exactly how I liked it.