The 1976 addition of all three forks of the Flathead into America’s Wild and Scenic Rivers System assures these free flowing streams in perpetuity for your children and grandchildren.
The Flathead System consists of three gradations: Wild, Scenic and Recreational.
A Wild River is preserved in its natural primitive condition, free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with its watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and its waters unpolluted. The sections of the Flathead River designated as wild are from the headwaters of the Middle Fork to Bear Creek and from the headwaters of the South Fork to Spotted Bear.
A Scenic River is free of impoundments and accessible in places by roads, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and undeveloped. Emphasis is placed on preserving the high scenic quality of the area. The part of the Flathead River classified as a scenic river is from the United States-Canada border to Camas Bridge, on the North Fork.
A Recreational River is categorized. Though some development has occurred along their shorelines, some stretches are in a near natural setting, and high-quality recreation experiences are available. Recreational segments are: on the North Fork, from Camas Bridge to the confluence with the Middle Fork at Blankenship; on the Middle Fork, from Bear Creek to the confluence of the South Fork below Hungry Horse; on the South Fork, from Spotted Bear to Hungry Horse Reservoir.
All three forks of the Flathead are popular whitewater rivers for floaters using inflatable rafts. The Middle Fork is far and away the most popular river because of its relatively easy access and proximity to the West Glacier entrance into Glacier National Park. For instance, the two-hour float segment immediately upstream from the Park entrance records some 11,500 floaters per year. That high volume, of course, reflects an unusually exciting stretch of river, where access is easily afforded and quickly accomplished.
The rest of the Middle Fork, some of it equally exciting, totaling some 125 miles, receives only an additional 1,000 user days. From these figures, one may better analyze the inordinate popularity of the Nyack to West Glacier stretch so heavily used—the one that carries such dramatic rapid christenings as Jaws, Bonecrusher, Narrows, and Pumphouse.
Professional raft companies are located in the West Glacier vicinity. Each provides a variety of whitewater float options to folks interested in an exciting two-day, day or afternoon float.
Access to the Middle Fork’s Wilderness portion is via aircraft landing at Schafer airstrip. This Schafer to Bear Creek segment is a wild whitewater stream of the first rank, and should only be attempted by those with good equipment and lots of experience.
The North Fork is considered a much more gentle stream for its entire American length, though two or three challenging rapids are just downstream from Great Northern Flats. The greatest upstream challenge for the floater, from the Canadian border to Camas Bridge could be low water and log jams. Consider the North Fork a better learning stream for novice or intermediate.
One or two of the West Glacier raft companies also provide float trips on the North Fork.
The Flathead’s South Fork is very different. Except for a gentle five mile stretch from Spotted Bear to Hungry Horse Reservoir, this river is tough to access. There is one four-mile segment called Meadow Creek Gorge that is considered not navigable by even the most experienced whitewater rats.
There is one access trail leading to the river below the gorge. The trail is currently unmarked, about 1-1/2 miles north of the Meadow Creek Gorge trail bridge. Watch carefully for a small track leading east from the Meadow Creek Road. The trail is at the north foot of a steep hill. Parking is limited and it’s a tough carry to get your rafts down to the river. But for those who do, the rewards of floating this isolated stretch (12 miles to Spotted Bear) of the South Fork make it all worthwhile.
Otherwise, the South Fork is a horseback show only. From the Meadow Creek pack bridge on, there are only trails accessing this most remote of all Flathead streams. The South Fork is navigable from some 40 upstream miles, down to the beginning of Meadow Creek Gorge. Surprisingly, there is little whitewater excitement along the South Fork, above the gorge. But it may well be the finest cutthroat trout fishery in the world.
One procedure for rating a river is the International Scale For Grading River Difficulty. It rates an entire river, or whole sections of a river according to the most difficult rapids to be encountered. Thus, if even one rapid rates a Class IV, the entire river or section being described must be rated as Class IV.
The International Scale For Grading River Difficulty:
I. Practiced beginner: Easy sand banks, bends without difficulty, occasional small rapids with waves regular and low. Correct course easy to find; but care needed with minor obstacles like pebble banks, fallen trees, etc., especially on narrow rivers. River speed less than hard backpaddling speed.
II. Intermediate: Medium, fairly frequent but unobstructed rapids, usually with regular waves, easy eddies, and easy bends. The course is generally easy to recognize. River speeds occasionally exceeding hard backpaddling speed.
III. Experienced: Difficult maneuvering in rapids necessary. Small falls, large regular waves covering boat, numerous rapids. The main current may swing under bushes, branches or overhangs. Course not always easily recognizable. Current speed usually less than fast forward paddling speed.
IV. Highly Skilled: Very difficult, long rocky rapids with difficult and completely irregular broken water which must be run head-on. Very fast eddies, abrupt bends, and vigorous cross currents. Difficult landings increase hazard. Frequent inspections necessary. Extensive experience is necessary.
V. A team of Experts: Exceedingly difficult. Either very long or very mean waves, usually wild turbulence capable of picking up a boat and boater and throwing them several feet. Extreme congestion in a cross current. Scouting difficult from shore and some danger to life in the event of a mishap.
VI. A team of Experts: Limit of Navigability - all previously mentioned difficulties increased to the limit. Only negotiable at favorable water levels. Cannot be attempted without risk of life.
Whitewater ratings for the three forks of the Flathead, as agreed upon by Flathead Wild and Scenic River administrators, in consultation with experienced floaters on their best-known segments is as follows:
Border to Polebridge II
Polebridge to Camas Bridge I
Camas Bridge to Middle Fork III
Headwaters to Schafer Meadows III
Schafer Meadows to Spruce Park V
Spruce Park to Bear Creek V
Bear Creek to West Glacier IV
Headwaters to Big Salmon I
Big Salmon to Meadow Creek Gorge II
Meadow Creek Gorge to Harrison Creek V
Harrison Creek to Reservoir
Roland Cheek has lived the better part of fifty years living in Columbia Falls in the heart of the Flathead area. A good many of those years he spent as an outfitter. Most of the rest of that he’s spent observing the area and its wildlife and writing about bears, elk, and the great outdoors surrounding him. His “Trails to Outdoor Adventure” has been syndicated in print and radio. He is the author of six books and countless outdoor articles. Find out more about him at www.rolandcheek.com.
by: Roland Cheek