Middle Fork of the Flathead

This past weekend, with three others solicited from this forum, I paddled what might be the premier 2-3 (or more) day packrafting trip in the lower 48. In Montana’s Great Bear Wilderness we hiked Morrison Creek in to a point just west of Schaeffer Meadows, then packrafted out to Essex. The first day was spent hiking, with a little floating. The next two days involved 8+ hours of paddling each. River levels dropped from 1300 to around 1100 cfs over the course of the trip, at the West Glacier gauge.

I call it perhaps the premier trip because it offers tremendous scenery, extraordinary, varied floating, world class trout fishing, and relative solitude, all with modest effort and fairly simple logistics. The drive from the Essex boat ramp to the TH is 30-40 minutes, on highway and good dirt roads. The hike in is a good horse trail, and almost entirely a gentle downhill.

The initial few miles below Schaeffer are meandering and flat, with good campsites and fishing holes. When the river turns north and the Three Forks section begins life is about to become more interesting. It took us around 3 hours to paddle the ~4-5 miles from camp to Lodgepole Creek. There are some honest rapids in those miles, which involved technical boulder dodging and slot threading at our water level. Everything was runnable, and while the crux rapids involved (for us) scouting and direct attention, the current was gentle and forgiving. More noteworthy is the steep gradient of the whole section, which when combined with the low water explains our extremely slow progress. We stayed in our boats the whole time, save one or two occasions which mandated dragging, but the steep rock dodging, pirouetting, and scooting were impressively sustained and continuous. These sections weren’t gravel bar riffles in the classic MT river fashion, but straight line, river wide steep and shallow rock (rather than boulder) gardens. While our slow pace was worrisome, I enjoyed the unique, strenuous and entertaining paddling.

Below Lodgepole Creek the flow increased and became more consistently channeled, and this combined with a slacker gradient and a more classic pool and drop character provided much faster floating (2.5 - 3 mph). The scenery was stunning, with 90 degree bends, big limestone cliffs, hanging gardens, deep pools, crystalline water, huge fish, and a tight canyon being the rule of the day. For me, the stretch from Lodgepole to Granite Creek might have been the best of all, and worthy of a shorter loop all it’s own. Good gravel bar camping abounds.

The rest of the river to Essex maintains much the same character, with plenty of burly riffles between gentle stretches to capture your attention. The exception is the Spruce Park section, which forms the second and in most respects harder crux of the run. The section begins with a short, steep boulder rapid, with the water being concentrated enough to look pushy and demanding. We all portaged this save Justin, who made a very clean and stylish run. For the next ~1 mile the river stays in an intermittent, narrow bedrock canyon, with numerous pool drop rapids. The channel is quite narrow throughout, and the contrast in style between this section and Three Forks is at low water quite drastic. Several of the rapids were worthy of careful attention, and we found one pushy boulder slot with enough barely covered toothy conglomerate rocks that we all portaged. Our pace through Spruce slowed at the 1 mph range or slower, due to frequent scouting.

It should be noted that the river rocks all appear to be coated in trout slime, and that scouting and portaging might be just as harazdous as running the harder rapids.

Spruce Park ends rather obviously as the immediate banks widen, and soon thereafter we began to see day-tripping fly fishers on the bank. The rest of the run down to Essex is an excellent winding down for a superlative trip.

Highly recommended.

Ideal time for this trip? Late summer->mid fall?

Probably mid August in a typical year. I.e. 2000-1500 cfs.

Skied in a few weeks and ran Lodgepole to Bear Creek with a portage around the whole Spruce Park section. ~2200 cfs. A great trip and a good level for floating. Taking out at the cabin and putting in at Dirtyface Creek is a painless, if long, way to skip Spruce and turns this trip (at low water) into a fairly mellow whitewater outing. In summer this would be an easy two day trip.

What gauge should I be looking at for the MF Flathead. The one that I found is really high (which could just be run-off), I want to make sure that I am looking at the correct gauge. Thinking about doing this trip end of June/Beginning on July and could make it a 7-10 trip. Any suggestions on how to make the trip longer? (How far upstream is runnable, dependent on flows, of course)

There is only one Middle Fork gauge of which I’m aware; at West Glacier. All levels cited by me above are from that one.

In a normal year early July would probably have flows too high for my taste, at least if you hope to run the harder sections. Better boaters might think otherwise. Cabin Creek rapid had (as of my April run this year) a river-wide logjam which would be problematic at higher flows. In April I was able to just paddle under it with ease.

On the other hand, higher flows will make the paddling upstream from Schaffer more expedient/possible. Forrest McCarthy did a trip from Strawberry Creek down in 2010 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dGy4SwZ68U). I’ve not been that far up myself, and am thus not sure how much flow is needed to make it doable.

Did Strawberry to Schafer this weekend with flows around 10,000 cfs (@West G). A good level, with only one or two rapids I’d call class III. There are several very large, very recent log jams a few miles below Gooseberry. They rate a mandatory but easy portage. On water pace of around 4 mph. Scenery is absolutely A+.

Generally, it seems that it would be challenging to find a water level which would make this upper half not very slow, while keeping the lower half from being pushy.

Great info, thanks Dave. What would be the low end of cfs you would float the Schaefer to Essex section? We are planning a trip down the S.fork and hiking over to the middle out to W.Glacier in late August.

You can make 1100 cfs work, but 3 Forks down to Granite Creek is very bony and slow. Granite to Essex at 1100 is no problem.

Awesome, thanks. Hopefully the water stays up enough that we can float from Schaefer. Sounds like good fun.

Just completed a low water trip on the middle fork with flows at about 1200 cfs at West Glacier. 6 of us hiked down Morrison Creek to just the above the confluence with the middle fork. We avoided the upper tough stretch of rapids from Schaefer to Morrison by starting here, and floated down to just above Spruce Park portaging around that to where the logan dirty face trail hits the river. This was a great trip for the skill level of the group that included a 12 year old and a 13 year old. If you do it this way, the two most challenging sections are the boulder garden just above 25 mile creek and a big rock in the Lunch Creek section of rapids. Be sure to go right on the latter. I didn’t.

As several people have pointed out, this is a great 3 -4 day trip.

Question: maybe I am blind and missing it in here somewhere…but for hiking, what trailhead do you start at to get to Schaffer Meadows? It does not appear immediately obvious, or maybe I am just trying too hard :slight_smile: Thanks all! And thanks for an excellent trip report, Dave!

Most people who start at Schafer fly-in by plane. Most people who want to hike-in start just down stream at Granite or further down.