After plying the crystalline water of the South Fork Flathead River from atop a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) for seven days, plucking dozens of gorgeous cutthroat from its pools and eddies along the way, a token moment finally arrived when river preservationist Gabriel Gray believed he’d made a difference.
To be fair, it was one of many such revelatory moments, but this one captured a sum-of-the-parts assessment of the trip’s purpose that perfectly articulated the sense of mission-driven exploration that Gray is trying to impress on future generations.
It came while loading his team’s gear onboard a tiny plane at the Spotted Bear backcountry airstrip, preparing to return to the trappings of civilization after an epic 52-mile journey down the South Fork, penetrating the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and never encountering another human being.
Just as the adrenaline shot that follows a successful expedition had started to recede and the transitional doldrums were sinking in, a boy who was working at the airstrip began excitedly asking Gray about the trip, peppering him with questions while in turn regaling the paddlers about his own recent youthful outing in the wilderness, hunting elk in the remote backcountry with his father.
“I could just see the love and the drive for the wilderness and outdoors in his eyes, and that is what we need, for our youth to get involved and be passionate, because they are who will take care of our wild places when you and I are gone,” Gray said. “As we flew out, this post-trip depression came over me, but talking to that kid, it was a moment on the trip that really touched me.”
Through the years, there have been scores of symbolic moments that have led Gray to his current perch as a professional, conservation-minded paddleboarder, along a path that has included such varied professions as bull rider and fulltime firefighter.
He still fights fires in the summer, and he and his wife own a stand-up paddleboard shop in Panama City Beach, Florida, called Walkin’ On Water Paddleboards, which offers lessons and eco-tours.
But expedition SUP paddling has dominated his time and passion since 2011, and exploring the backcountry of North Florida’s river systems fostered an interest in pursuing and promoting other remote American rivers that are largely untouched by development, but still may face ongoing threats.
An early advocate of furnishing environmental protections on the oceans, Gray said inland streams and rivers are the “earth’s veins and arteries.”
To that end, he launched the project Fight to SOAR (Save Our American Rivers) to help raise awareness for National Rivers through SUP expeditions, while organizing trash cleanups, appearing in classes, hosting films, showing photography, and more.
Fight To SOAR’s South Fork Flathead Expedition was designed to showcase the importance of the U.S. Wild and Scenic River Designation Act and the need to protect the nation’s water resources. It was sponsored by American Fishing Tackle Company, Garmin and Optrix, and was also made possible by Sonny and Kim Schierl of Paddlefish Sports in Whitefish.
Previous SOAR expeditions include Florida’s Apalachicola River, Biscayne Bay, St. Johns River, Kissimmee River, Everglades Wilderness Trail, and Big Bend, as well as the Flint River in Georgia and the Buffalo River in Arkansas.
Gray said the expedition down the Buffalo was among the most epic yet.
In 1972, the Buffalo River was the first river designated a National Wild and Scenic River, and it flows freely for 150 miles as one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower-48. Today, it is threatened by pollution from factory farming on adjacent lands, and Gray’s unsupported journey through the Ozarks showcased its beauty.
Gray’s 52-mile self-supported SUP expedition on the South Fork Flathead River began Oct. 2 and wrapped up Oct. 10, requiring at the outset a 30-mile horseback ride before putting in at the South Fork.
The South Fork of the Flathead begins deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness at the confluence of Danaher Creek and Young’s Creek. It gains volume with the contributions of the White River, Big and Little Salmon creeks, Black Bear Creek, and other small tributaries. Overall, the South Fork flows more than 60 miles through designated wilderness and National Forest lands before emptying into the Hungry Horse Reservoir.
Gray hopes not only to bring awareness to the rising threats to the river system, but also shine a greater appeal on the wild and scenic river corridor to inspire future adventurers and ambassadors.
“For our youth to get captivated in this and for them to actually get started caring, you have to grab their attention with the adventure side of things,” Gray explained. “So when I grab attention through adventure, then I sprinkle in the conservation side of things.”
Joining Gray on the South Fork expedition were photographer Jackson Berger and Casey Shedd, of American Fishing Tackle Co., one of Fight to SOAR’s sponsors.
While Berger has accompanied Gray on numerous expeditions, Shedd was less experienced.
This, says Gray, was by design.
“If I go out there by myself then I am just another paddler,” Gray said. “So I like to take someone along who has never done that style of paddling before, and it changes their life. For me it’s not only about bringing attention to the rivers but it’s also about bringing attention to the outdoors and it’s cool to watch their demeanor and lifestyle change.”
Collectively, Gray said he and his teammates assembled a fount of memories, filling a reservoir with inside jokes and experiences that ranged from the silly to the profound.
To learn more about Fight to SOAR, visit www.grayoutdoors.com or check out his photos on Instagram @grayoutdoors.