Plying the water’s surface with the blade of a paddle induces an instant catharsis, purging tension with an efficacy evidenced every summer by the ubiquitous flotillas of rafts, kayaks, standup paddleboards, and all other manner of water-worthy vessel, which bob and drift along the Flathead Valley’s myriad water bodies.
Whether you’re a marathon canoeist cranking along at a paddle-stroke per second, a casual kayaker out for a cruise on a lazy river or a swimmer trying to beat the heat, the Flathead’s glut of watery wilderness will have you floating in no time.
North Fork Flathead River
The North Fork is one of only four Wild and Scenic Rivers in Montana. It forms the western border of Glacier National Park and offers paddlers some of the most spectacular vistas in the Northern Rockies, crystalline blue-green water and the chance to see grizzlies from your boat.
The river maintains a steady pace through Class I and II riffles, with an occasional rapid that may approach class III. There is lots of wood in the river, mostly in large logjams, requiring some technical paddling skills.
There are also a number of braided channels that can dead end, particularly below Polebridge, requiring some deliberate decision-making.
In general though, this reach is a mellow float through beautiful country.
Camping is unregulated, and many people float the entire streatch as a two-or-three day trip.
No trip down the North Fork is complete without a stop at the Northern Lights Saloon for a beer and hot meal, and the Polebridge Mercantile for some amazing baked goods and coffee.
One popular float is between Big Creek and Glacier Rim, a run of about 13 miles. Another longer float is between Polebridge and Big Creek.
Excellent boats for a float down the North Fork include inflatable kayaks, catamarans, canoes and rafts rafts.
North Fork Flathead River Mile Markers: Canadian Border: 58.3;?Kintla Creek: 49;?Ford: 44;?Polebridge: 33;?Camas Bridge: 17.4;?Big Creek: 15.1;?Great Northern Flats: 12;?Glacier Rim: 4;?Blankenship Bridge: 0.
The placid waters of Lake McDonald are among the most inviting and accessible features of Glacier National Park, and gliding across its silver-smooth surface on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, a mirror of mountains shimmering in your wake, will make stress vanish like spring snow.
The lake is 10 miles long and 472 feet deep and because there is a speed limit you won’t be disturbed by wakeboard boating or jet skis. The best time to paddle is in the early morning or late evening.
Lake McDonald is a high mountain lake, so wind and storms can come on quickly.
Rent a paddleboard at Glacier Outfitters, located next door to the backcountry permit office in Apgar Village. The shop rents out paddleboards for $10 an hour, or $80 for 24 hours, as well as bear spray for $5 per day, and cruiser bikes for $5 an hour or $20 a day.
Whitefish residents have enjoyed a renewed sense of ownership of the Whitefish River that flows through the heart of town since completion of a 2013 cleanup project by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, carried out in response to an administrative order by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The river bottom and stream bank sediments were remediated due to contamination by petroleum products, like bunker and diesel fuels, and have since been restored.
With the cleanup complete, floaters and swimmers have taken to the river in droves.
Meanwhile, the city is seeking restricted motorized access along the popular recreational artery near the river’s confluence at Whitefish Lake to the trestle bridge at JP Road.
The proposal, adopted by the city council, would amend the current no-wake regulation and restrict the three-mile stretch of river to manually powered vessels like kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, or boats with electric motors.
Tamarack Ski Shop offers watersport rentals and sales at two locations, a seasonal rental shop on Whitefish Lake and at its year-round store on Wisconsin Avenue. For more information, visit them online at tamarackskishop.com.
Wayfarers State Park
Hundreds of paddlers flocked to Wayfarers State Park last week, hitting the water on stand-up paddleboards and kayaks during the annual Northern Rockies Paddlefest at Wayfarers State Park.
But the park remains a popular launching pad and scenic hangout all summer long. Tucked off Highway 35 only minutes from downtown Bigfork, Wayfarers is a 67-acre park that hugs the lake’s northeast shore and features almost every outdoor opportunity imaginable.
There are 30 campsites available to tents and motorhomes with public restrooms, showers, water and an RV dump station.
For boaters, there’s a smooth launch area. Swimmers have a designated section to safely recreate and fishermen have a rocky shoreline to cast from.
It’s also an ideal picnic setting, with grills, fire rings and tables.
A park manager is on duty. For more information visit stateparks.mt.gov or call 752-5501.
Getting there: Drive half a mile south of Bigfork on Montana Highway 35 and look for signage that leads right into Wayfarers State Park.
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