Flathead’s Backcountry Blowdown Blues

By Beacon Staff

After Mother Nature raked her fingers across the landscape last winter with floods and high winds, more than a few places show scratches from her nails.

“The winds played havoc,” sums up Deb Mucklow, Spotted Bear District Ranger. “Our roads are drivable, but trails have some very big plugs.”

She describes rough, washed out roads and trees toppled onto trails around Spotted Bear. Her comments echo throughout Flathead National Forest and parts of Kootenai National Forest.

While Glacier National Park saw the brunt of flooding with Going-to-the-Sun Road damage, backcountry bridges swept away, and washouts on trails, both Flathead and Kootenai National Forests suffered, too. Visitors may have to contend with ravaged trails and roads well after this summer – especially with budget cuts chipping away at Forest Service crews.

A primary Bob Marshall Wilderness access, the east side of Hungry Horse Reservoir road to Spotted Bear, received enough rains to whittle away its size. Although drivable, Mucklow reports that the roadbed has narrowed considerably in several places. In the Spotted Bear backcountry, major bridges survived, but high winds dropped numerous trees onto trails.

While trail crews plugged away on main line trails early this month – the South Fork, Morrison Creek, and Spotted Bear River – the fewer crew numbers impede progress. “When I looked out at our training session, we’re starting with 20 fewer people helping us than last year,” Mucklow says. “We may not get to the less traveled trails this year. We’re scraping for every bit of funding we can get.”

Colter Pence, Flathead National Forest wilderness and trails manager, confirms the same for Glacier View and Hungry Horse districts. “We’re encountering more blowdown than typically expected due to the intense rainstorms and winds from last winter,” she says.

Despite the damage, crews have already cleared popular Great Bear Wilderness trails such as Stanton, Skiumah, and Marion Lakes. But Pence advises checking trail status for stock. While hikers can crawl through tree mazes, downfall labyrinths can stop horses in their tracks.

In the Swan Mountain Range, smaller washouts, deeper rutting, and debris mark the roads, but they are passable. Recreation ranger Andrew Johnson says, “Public Forest Service roads are only minimally maintained anyway, rather bumpy and rocky. They’re not for passenger comfort.” But the Swan’s roads fared better than the trails. With saturated soils from November’s rains, the ensuing high winds tumbled trees over as if they were toothpicks. “Our fears were confirmed,” says Johnson. “The trail system took a pounding.” The five-person crew has already battled significant blowdown on Six Mile and Bond Creek trails and plans to hit the large numbers of trees down in the south Swan. “We have pretty limited resources,” Johnson says, “so we’ll only get to main line trails this summer.”

The tune is the same in the Cabinet Mountains. John Jeresak of the Kootenai National Forest says, “Trail crews are encountering pretty significant numbers and sizes of trees on the Cabinet fronts. They’ll be a serious impediment to stock users until we get the trails cleared.” Nonetheless, the small crew plans to clear downed timbers from most trails by July 4.

In the Whitefish Range, flooding washed out chunks of the main artery between Highway 93 and the North Fork, leaving Graves Creek-Trail Creek road (#114) and Therriault Lakes road (#319) with an impassable sliver four to five feet wide and water running down the road at Blue Sky Creek. While repairs are scheduled for July on the Graves Creek-Trail Creek road to allow for high clearance vehicles, the Therriault Lakes road may not see repairs until next summer.

Without road access into Ten Lakes Scenic Area of Kootenai National Forest, Fortine District Ranger Betty Holder says, “We just don’t know about some of the trail conditions further up Graves Creek, but we’re expecting a lot of blowdown.” Hikers can still access Deep Mountain and Krinklehorn trails as well as Ten Lakes via accesses such as Gibralter Ridge (#335), Glenn Creek (#88), and Therriault Pass (#87).

Because Forest Service districts have seen their federal dollars carved away and trail crews cut, many welcome volunteers to help with annual trail clearing and maintenance. You can volunteer directly with some ranger stations, like the Swan Ranger District. In the Fortine District, you can even adopt a campground or trail. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation also runs volunteer trail programs in Flathead National Forest.

All ranger districts agree: Call for conditions before you head for the woods this summer. “Prepare to encounter downed trees and washouts,” Johnson notes. “And take a map so you can find the trail if it’s buried.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.