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.

We hoped the joke wasn't on us. The ranger at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station had told us a few days earlier that the South Fork normally ran at about 1,200 cubic feet per second in early August. Due to the snow-laden winter and delayed spring runoff, it was now cruising at three times that flow, she'd told us. She couldn't offer specific information about Youngs Creek except to say, "Just be careful, and be sure to scout all the rapids."

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

But Youngs Creek turned out to be friendly. Thanks to an introductory stretch of flat water, we gained coordination and confidence with every paddle stroke—which soon came in handy. A friend had told me we'd see an impressive limestone wall and a bottleneck where the river sped up a bit, and he wasn't kidding. The towering cliffs made a formidable entrance to a gorge.

We pulled out at the top of the wave train and carefully walked the riverbank to scope out our approach. Doug and I, filled with excitement, plotted what we thought would be the safest path through the rapids. But as I was visualizing my line, I looked behind me and noticed Megan wasn't with us. I scrambled over the rocks back to our boats to find her sitting on the bank, terrified. With tears forming in her eyes she said, "I think I'm going to pack my boat and bushwhack to the trail. I'll just meet you guys below this canyon."

I'd like to say I was a comforting and understanding husband, but that's not exactly what came out. "Are you crazy? I'm not going to let you go by yourself. You can totally do this. Just follow my boat, and we'll get you through."

After further coaxing, Megan was ready—or perhaps resigned—to drop in behind me. This was only a Class II rapid, but when you're sitting on crashing water in a tiny one-man inflatable, about 20 miles from the nearest help, with no means of communication and sharp rock walls squeezing in on either side, the rating doesn't mean much.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

It turned out to be a thrilling ride. We bounced safely through the first set of waves and pulled aside to scout the next. Megan had a big smile of accomplishment on her face. "That was actually kind of fun," she beamed.

We ran each set of rapids, carefully scouting each one, until we were out of the canyon. And then it was smooth water down to the convergence with Danaher Creek, where the South Fork begins.

The wide riverbanks welcomed our waterlogged boats. It was just past noon, and the sunshine let us dry off and tie on our first dry fly. Doug and I fished while Megan basked in her triumph over the rapids.

With every fish rise we forgot the suffering of the day before. We each landed five or six nice cutthroats before dinner, comforted that the trout we'd hiked all this way to catch were hungry for almost every type of fly.

Breaking camp over the next few days was simple: We packed our gear into dry bags and loaded up the Alpackas, which continued to impress me with their kayak-like dexterity. We encountered a shocking amount of downfall from the spring's tumultuous runoff. Three logjams were so massive we had to portage around or over them. But the boats maneuvered the rest of the obstacles with ease.

On day three we reached the remarkable White River, with its pale pastel rocks that give it a distinctly ghost-like look. We set up camp, and Doug and I decided to fish while Megan read a book by the bank. "We'll be back in a little while," I shouted as Doug and I made our way upstream, knowing that if there were fish, we'd be much longer than a little while.

"I'm gonna try this little hole over here," Doug said, pointing at what I thought was an unimpressive pool. I'd walked only a little farther upstream when I heard him shout, "Damn! I just missed the biggest fish of the trip."

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

The cutthroats in the White had more muted colors than their South Fork relatives. We pulled eight out of the water before heading back to camp.

At this point it was tempting to take an extra day to hike a few miles up the White River toward the Chinese Wall and float back down. But our friends and relatives would probably call search-and-rescue if we didn't return on schedule, so we reluctantly headed downriver the next morning.

The scenery changed. It was still beautiful here, but we had more company. We paddled past outfitter camps and some enormous rafts with guides who chauffeured clients to fishing holes by day and deluxe camps with catered dinners by night. One guide told me his guests spent $40,000 for the week.

Another paddler couldn't believe we'd spent nothing on boat hauling. "You mean to tell me I paid $1,000 to have my kayak packed in and you guys just hiked your boats in here in one day?" he said. "I gotta get me one of those!"

We camped our last night across the river from the Black Bear Ranger Station; the next day we'd reach the take-out at Mid Creek, with a few potential trouble spots along the way.

The river map showed a big wave train at mile 63—we could portage around it, if need be. And there'd be one last "big squeeze" just past a section where Mid Creek enters the South Fork, less than a mile from the take-out. I remembered the ranger at Spotted Bear mentioning this feature, but I couldn't remember exactly what she'd said.

Early the next morning, we easily navigated the wave train by taking a side channel. The only remaining question was the big squeeze.

Soon enough we got the answer. The walls of the bank shot up in rocky cliffs 35 feet high, creating a 20-foot gap of rolling water. There was no easy way to portage. But we were confident. We had 64 miles of successful travel under our belts.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

"Doug, you want to go first, or me?" I asked. The three of us sized up the situation from an upstream eddy.

"Doesn't matter, I don't think it'll be too bad," Doug said, and casually paddled into the waves. A moment later all I could see was his blue boat bouncing upside down in the tumbling water. Megan held my boat and I grabbed the throw rope and scrambled up the cliff, only to see Doug helplessly chasing his paddle downstream, one hand still clutching his Alpacka.

When I returned to Megan I expected to see the same face she'd had at the top of the limestone gorge on Youngs Creek.

"I think we can avoid that big wave that tossed him if we slide around this first rock and paddle through the back current. I'll go first," she said.

Thrilled to see the transformation in my wife's confidence over a few days, I dug in hard after her, and we sailed through without a hitch.

We caught up to Doug five minutes later: He'd managed to drag his boat and most of his stuff to shore, but he'd lost a fly rod, sleeping pad, and paddle.

"It gives me an excuse to buy myself a new rod," he told us. "That was a helluva ride!"

I towed Doug the last three-quarters of a mile to the take-out. We deflated the boats and hiked the three miles back to our car, something that felt like a stroll.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

We'd caught dozens of cutties, watched an osprey feed its young in a nest above the river, and found fresh bear tracks at one of our fishing holes. We'd taken a swim in a trout-filled eddy and awakened one morning to find wolf tracks running through camp. So many incredible details made the trip extraordinary.

"We should do this again sometime," Megan told me when we reached the parking lot. I was way ahead of her.

"You should see the plans I've got drawn up for next summer, babe."

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