With a Few Adjustments, Raft Guides Take on High Waters

By Beacon Staff

Northwest Montana’s persistently unpredictable weather through late spring and early summer has kept the region’s river guides on their toes, adapting trips and plans as needed.

But spring runoff and heavy river flows in June are nothing new, and raft guide services on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River are staying relatively busy with customers, though with adjustments. June is a slower month in general, with July and August providing the bulk of business for river guides.

Sally Thompson, co-owner of the Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier, said the Middle Fork’s water level as of last week was typical of spring runoff, meaning it’s high but not un-navigable.

Her company is using only its most experienced guides, who monitor water levels daily, have daily safety meetings and determine how much debris is floating down the river. Like other guide services, Glacier Raft Company has age restrictions because of the high water.

“If it comes up high again we won’t do trips,” Thompson said last Wednesday. “It’s kind of a day to day thing. A lot of it is totally up to Mother Nature.”

What remains to be seen, and what will differ from most years, is how high the water will remain deep into the summer. Late snowmelt and lingering flood levels could make for an interesting summer. And maybe, for rafting, that might mean a great summer, particularly later when flows are generally meek but could be chugging along this year.

“Obviously we’re going to have good water for a lot longer,” said Randy Gayner, owner of the Montana Raft Company.

Nic Lee, owner of Great Northern Resort, has been sending out one or two raft trips per day, changing up the sections of river depending on the conditions. Lee notes that there are so many variables that alter a river’s character that it’s hard to predict what the Middle Fork will look like in a few weeks, let alone on a daily basis.

So far this summer, Great Northern Resort is keeping busy with both guided trips and classes.

“We definitely don’t discourage anybody,” Lee said. “We’ve got hundreds of miles of river.”

With flooding all over the news, Gayner said he has been fielding calls from people concerned about the river levels.

“The biggest thing is answering people’s questions,” he said. “It’s basically education. Everybody reads flooding and they say they’re not going out, but we have a lot of good water out there and we’ve been about on par with trips so far.”

But Thompson cautions against amateurs taking on the rivers in their current state. She said the water is much colder than many people expect and wet suits are necessary. Not to mention, the rivers are powerful right now.

“There are conditions you have to be knowledgeable about and be careful,” she said. “We’ve seen people out there on the river ill-equipped and they’re lucky they made it. You really have to know what you’re doing.”

Fly fishing is an entirely different story. The rivers won’t clear up for awhile. Until then, anglers need to seek out standing water like ponds and lakes.

“We’re being creative,” Thompson, whose company offers fly fishing guide services, said. “For people who want to learn to fly fish or practice, we have four stocked ponds and we have access to a couple of other ponds.”

Gayner’s company also does hiking trips in Glacier National Park. Those trips are affected by the remaining snowpack and Gayner said he’s having to “adapt a little bit.”

“Reservations for backpacking trips are up,” he said. “It’s going to be a good season, but we’ll be a little restricted early on.”

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