I apologize to the handful of you who read this column regularly as I’m about to repeat myself.
Here goes: If you don’t know what you’re doing, stay away from moving water in Montana for the next month or so. And if you shrugged your shoulders and muttered something like, “What the heck does he know? With a dude like me on the sticks it’s perfectly safe to float right now,” that’s a good sign you don’t know what you’re doing.
I just checked the flows and both the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead are running more than 15,000 cubic feet per second. There are experienced whitewater types who can run Bonecrusher and Jaws rapids at those levels, but they know to respect the river. Me? I’ve floated the whitewater stretch more than 30 times and I’m not sure I’m ready for 15,000. I like it less than 5,000, when the whitewater is plenty big to get everyone wet, and it fishes better.
I floated the North Fork at 8,000 once. It was challenging but doable in a raft. That was also a trip marked by both lousy fishing (too cold, too high) and the folks who flipped their canoe in Fool Hen Rapids.
Which reminds me, if your river vessel of choice is a canoe, you’re either damn good with a paddle or a fool to be running whitewater. Some will disagree, and if you’ve got the paddle skills to back it up I applaud you. But for me, canoes are for still water only.
I used to sit the high water out. It was a good May-June interlude for boat building or repairs, or days wading the lovely Thompson River, which clears before the big rivers. There were also float tube excursions out to Rogers Lake. Then one day while I was sitting waist deep in Rogers, suspended by my float tube and cursing my leaky waders, I had a moment of insight. My revelation came as I watched a guide back his Clackacraft up to the water, drop it in, and row across the lake so his sports could fish near the mouth of the grayling spawning stream.
I may be slow, but do I catch on. I haven’t been in a float tube since.
While experts may be fine running the forks of the Flathead right now, there are western Montana rivers no one has any business floating this time of year. Yes, this is a shout out to my old friends in the Bitterroot. There is no challenging whitewater to speak of anywhere on the Bitterroot, but there is wood … everywhere.
At midsummer flows all that wood is great. It creates great holding water for trout and as long as you pick your way through the tricky stuff, you’ll be just fine. In the spring, however, those cottonwood root wads can be death traps. Years back I was supposed to join a friend for a Father’s Day float on the Bitterroot. Then it got hot in the days leading up to the trip and river flows jumped up. I decided to leave the boat at home and my daughters and I hiked the Blodgett Overlook Trail instead. My friend went anyway, and it ended up being his last float.
Part of the Bitterroot downstream from Corvallis is closed to floating right now because that notoriously shifty river has shifted again, sending most of its current down the east channel. That channel has one of those low-head irrigation dams that look so innocuous, until you spill going over the top and get caught in the powerful recirculating current just below the dam’s face. A young girl died there last year.
That’s the Bitterroot. From the banks it’s a fairly tame looking piece of water. But some of those root-wad graveyards scare the heck out of me. In a way, the Bitterroot scares me more than even the Middle Fork, even “Screaming Right,” the rapid that has pushed me closest to the brink more than any other.
As you read this, hopefully my drift boat will be cutting a fine wake across a glass-smooth Rogers Lake. And for now that’s all I need.
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