South Fork Flathead TR

On July 18-21, 2019, two of us backpacked from Lodgepole TH into Youngs Creek, then packrafted the South Fork of the Flathead River.
Expect two hours of remote dirt road driving from the pavement to the Lodgepole TH. Even more on the drive out, if you have your car shuttled to the Meadow Creek TH. We had our vehicle shuttled by Tommy at Four Rivers Shuttle out of Missoula. Got his number from other users here, and definitely recommend. He’s reliable and knowledgable. Left our hood open to avoid packrats chewing up the wiring, filled us up with gas, and flexible on timing.
The walk from Lodgepole TH is a four mile uphill, then all downhill until wherever you put in on Youngs or the South Fork. Unfortunately, the entire walk for the first 15 miles was completely burnt forest. Fires of varying ages, but little regrowth as yet. Pretty depressing, although once on Youngs views were open.
It was windy all day. After we got over the pass and down to Youngs, around 4P gusts started picking up, maybe to 35-40 mph. We started hearing loud explosions on the hillside – I assumed it was falling rock, only thing I’d heard make that sound before. It wasn’t, it was dead burnt trees blowing over and taking neighbors with them. Confirmed this when it started happening all around us. I’ve not seen anything like it before, very dangerous as each lodgepole that blew over was big enough to kill you, plus usually took down some other trees and created a bunch of tree “shrapnel”. We were lucky enough to be near a clearing, which we quickly evacuated to. Must have seen 20-30 trees blow down within couple hundred foot radius of where we were. The clearing we were in wasn’t big enough to be 100% safe, but we could gauge the wind direction and position ourselves within it to be pretty secure. Much safer than continuing to walk anyway. Unfortunately, pitching a shelter in 40mph gusts in a clearing is not ideal, but we made it work. Used Zpacks Duplex, very reliable in wind provided you can anchor it.
Next day continued our hike down Youngs. We encountered two or three groups, all planning to packraft the South Fork. Youngs at Hahn looks floatable, and we encountered first time packrafters who had blown up at this spot. They didn’t know about the upcoming canyon section, though. We decided we’d walk past this section. Looking down at it from the trail, it looked pretty hairy in spots. Definitely a committed canyon in lower Youngs.
We walked until a half mile above the confluence where there is an obvious put-in. Easy floating from there to campsite on South Fork a few miles past the confluence. We stopped reasonably early to ensure having a wind protected site given the dangers from blowdowns the prior day.
July 20 was a full day on the river – we covered about 23 miles over 8 hours. Flows were just over 1000 cfs per the Twin Creek gauge. The first 4-5 miles were slow, but minimal dragging. One mandatory and established portage due to full river log jam – more of a log mountain. We encountered several fishing parties in this area who had horsepacked in. After bridge at Big Prairie, good easy floating. No substantial rapids or bothersome sweepers. Quality of the floating and of the landscape was phenomenal. Definitely closest I’ve found to an Alaskan river packraft in the lower 48. Enjoyable for beginners and experienced alike, fishing or not, too many excellent horse or backpacking loop options to count.
We began seeing lots of packrafters from this point on. Didn’t know this many people even knew what packrafting is! Probably a good thing for the sport.
Second day on river was increasingly fast, but not especially challenging. Flows were 950-980 cfs. Sign at packbridge past Hungry Creek/Black Bear Cabin says dangerous canyon approaching, which is a little alarming, but at these levels nothing remotely dangerous - pretty spectacular canyon without rapids and blue-green water.
The real rapids begin after Mid Creek. We had a flip, and group behind us did too. Not a bad place for a swim, with a forgiving pool after the rapids, but there is a constriction where although not fast moving water, the swimmer generally swam to shore prior to the constriction but the boat floated through. Easy enough to jump back in as water is so forgiving.
The Mid Creek takeout is actually a mile past Mid Creek, river right. It’s obvious, with two options – one prior to a meaningful rapid, with long walk over boulders to trail. One after the rapid (the true takeout), but less forgiving because if you flip you could easily find yourself or your boat past the takeout and into some apparently fast moving rapids in the Meadow Creek Gorge.