Packraft paradise 

For a float on the South Fork, small is beautiful

"What the hell are we doing?" I asked myself.

It seemed like a logical question after glancing at the map one last time and mulling over the distance we had to travel in the next five days. When our ride pulled away from the Pyramid Pass trailhead a few minutes later, the reality of the trip began to sink in.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

My wife, Megan, our friend Doug Casey and I were setting out on a 65-mile packraft adventure through the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, including a 10-mile paddle down Youngs Creek and a spectacular grand finale: a 38-mile float down the South Fork of the Flathead River.

But it was the first part of the journey—a 17-mile trek over Pyramid Pass—that had me worried. The three of us had carried some pretty decent loads on past wilderness trips, but we'd never tackled 1,800 vertical feet with paddles, fly rods, PFDs, throw ropes, five days of food and clothing, 15 pounds of camera gear, and three inflatable 5-pound Alpacka rafts.

It was a new experience all around. I'd never actually sat in the boat before, unless you counted floating in it at Whitefish City Beach a few days earlier, just to practice inflating it and to make sure it held air. None of us had ever spent this much time in the Bob, or been in this particular area. None of us had seen (let alone rafted) Youngs Creek, a main tributary to the South Fork and a passage we couldn't do without.

Our friends were worried, too. "Why don't you try a warm-up trip before this?" they'd said.

But Megan is game for whatever adventure I cook up and Doug, our compatriot, is one of the biggest fly-fishing addicts I know, so as soon as I said "South Fork" he was in. There was no doubt in my mind this would be the greatest trip ever. Until, well, now.

"Ready to go?" Megan asked.

"Yep," I lied.

There was good news about Pyramid Pass: It was the only climb in the trip. Once we conquered it and hiked down to the put-in at Youngs Creek, Megan and I could throw off 60-pound packs—Doug's was 80 pounds, from the looks of it—and start the real joys of packrafting.

For now, though, we were stuck with sweating and dodging mule turds.

The Pyramid Pass Trail is a major thruway, chewed up by mule trains and horses carrying outfitters, boats, gear, and clients to the South Fork. Unfortunately in our case, we were the mules.

The pack straps carved into our shoulders, a misery multiplied by the intense heat and hungry mosquitoes. After slogging for more than an hour, Megan turned to me and asked between gasps, "How much vert do we have left?" She almost seemed afraid to ask.

I checked the altimeter on my watch and saw we'd only climbed about a third of the way. "You don't even want to know," I told her.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

For my part, I fought the misery by focusing on things I'd read. Google "packraft" and you'll see dozens of trip reports describing amazing wilderness adventures that would be unappealing or unimaginable without the lightweight watercraft, which carry heavy loads, deftly maneuver in whitewater and pack down to the size of a small tent. (Full disclosure: I've also taken promotional photos for Alpacka, so I'd seen the products up close.)

The minute I heard about the rafts I knew I wanted to try them for a trip on the South Fork, a river with some of the best fly fishing in Montana, surrounded by roadless wilderness.

It took about three hours to reach the top of the pass and tramp downhill. At dusk we finally crashed at a dusty, well-used campsite about 1.5 miles from the confluence of Babcock Creek and Youngs Creek, where we'd put in the next day. The flocks of mosquitoes that had chased us for miles and the blisters forming on our heels didn't prevent us from enjoying some bean burritos by the campfire, along with one of Doug's best contributions to the trip, some strategically packed Jim Beam.

The short stretch to Youngs Creek went quickly the next morning, and we were elated to take off our packs. In short order we inflated our rafts with ultra-light pumps and lashed our packs to the bows.

"I guess there's no turning back now, huh?" Megan joked.

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