Packraft paradise 

For a float on the South Fork, small is beautiful

Page 3 of 3

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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