In early spring, the flowing waters of Northwest Montana lie low in their riverbeds. Warmer temperatures awaken a frozen reservoir high in the mountains, and as the mercury climbs, water drips, then pours, from the snowpack. Wild streams tumble into each other and eventually dump into the watershed’s main veins. Human inhabitants see the end result of this seasonal surge down in the valley, where hibernating winter rivers swell, rise, and quicken. Peak flows in lower rivers occur in May and June, and as spring heats up into summer, locals take to the water, floating downstream on their favorite stretches. Not sure where to begin? Start here.
Leave it to the Pros
Owning a raft is an investment. Get your feet wet by booking a half-day, full-day or overnight trip with an experienced guide from a local outfitter. All you have to do is show up. In West Glacier, choose between four family owned and operated companies.
Wild River Adventures was established in 1974 by George Mumalo, who is believed to be Glacier National Park’s first river outfitter. In 2013, Kalispell-born river guide Justin Woods, and his wife, Lexi, an Air National Guardsman, purchased the business.
A Grand Canyon daydream led to the formation of Glacier Raft Company, in 1976, by Onno Wieringa and Darwon Stoneman, who worked during winters as ski patrollers in Utah. The company is now owned by Stoneman; his wife, Terri; their daughter, Cassie; and her husband, Jeff.
In 2016, brothers Byron and Lee Beers, along with their wives Sandi and Catherine, purchased Great Northern Resort, which was established in 1977 and named in honor of the railway that put Glacier National Park on the map. The brothers, originally hailing from New Hampshire, both set down Northwest Montana roots in the 1990s.
After a harrowing experience on a raging Idaho river, Randy Gayner and Mark O’Keefe pledged to stick to solid ground. In 1983, they joined forces with their friend Denny Gignoux to guide hiking trips in Glacier National Park — and, nevertheless, the Middle Fork Flathead River wooed them. In 1987, they expanded their business into rafting, officially becoming Glacier Guides and Montana Raft.
The Big Picture
Near a place called Paradise, a 90-minute drive south from Kalispell, the lower Flathead River joins the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, and travels northwest toward the Pacific Ocean. Some of the droplets in this flow began their journey to this confluence at the trickling headwaters of the Flathead watershed, which springs from groundwater and glaciers alike, as far away as Canada and the Continental Divide. A system of streams large and small twist down the mountains and across the wide bottom of the Flathead Valley, draining this 6-million-acre, teardrop-shaped watershed, the heart of which is breathtaking Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
Serene and scenic, the North Fork Flathead River crosses over the Canadian border near the northwestern boundary of Glacier National Park. A bumpy gravel road reaches all the way up the North Fork Valley from Columbia Falls, providing numerous put-in/take-out access points for paddlers.
In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Danaher and Youngs creeks meet near Flatiron Mountain, becoming the South Fork Flathead River. Between Slideout Peak, Mt. May, and Clack Mountain, Strawberry and Bowl creeks form the remote headwaters of the Middle Fork Flathead River. To experience these forks in their wilderness setting, where motor travel is prohibited, you’ll need a lightweight packraft and backcountry savvy.
The Middle Fork exits the wilderness on U.S. Highway 2, near Essex — look downstream, closer to West Glacier, for the region’s most accessible and exciting whitewater. Below West Glacier, at the end of a popular floating segment known as “the scenic,” the Middle Fork and North Fork flow together under Blankenship Bridge.
The South Fork, meanwhile, must pass through a major impoundment, the Hungry Horse Dam, before meeting its fellow forks at the western edge of Hungry Horse. From here, the main stem Flathead meanders south to Flathead Lake. Of all Northwest Montana’s rivers, these three forks of the Flathead River, which together drain 4,464 square miles of rugged country, see the most dramatic springtime jump in average daily discharge — but recreationalists shouldn’t overlook the watershed’s other rivers.
Whitefish Lake is the source of a river bearing the same name. This flatwater river drains the mountain ranges in the northwestern portion of the watershed. The easygoing stretch of water running through town is low-hanging fruit for those with only have an afternoon of leisure time, or casual ambitions.
Flowing north through the secluded Swan Valley, the namesake river drains countless tributaries cascading down from the Swan Mountains to the east and the Mission Mountains to the west. Trace the Swan River’s origin to Gray Wolf Lake, which is shadowed by the glaciated Gray Wolf Peak, a crown jewel of the Missions. Just outside of Bigfork, where the Swan empties into Flathead Lake, the famous “Wild Mile” whitewater rapids attract daring paddlers. Upriver, there are mellower, picturesque stretches of the Swan to float.
Once water enters Flathead Lake, whether through the mouth of the Swan or main stem Flathead, it begins moving through the massive body. A single droplet will spend, approximately, just 2.2 years in the lake before emptying into the lower Flathead River, through Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam, to the Clark Fork River confluence, which is the end of its Flathead watershed journey.
The Flathead National Forest float guides to the three forks of the Flathead are available online at www.fs.usda.gov.
44 Years Young, And Wild As Ever
The Bigfork Whitewater Festival isn’t getting milder with age. In 1975, a small crew of madcap whitewater kayakers from across Montana gathered in Bigfork to test their mettle on the Swan River’s furious, ferocious springtime stretch of class IV rapids known as the Wild Mile. The event grew from a grassroots gathering to a professional-level competition, for years welcoming international athletes to Montana as a stop on the Kayaking Pro Circuit. These days, the festival is known for its family-friendly vibe, drawing spectators from near and far to watch kayakers, canoeists, paddleboarders, and rafters navigate these roiling waters.
Event is May 24-26. For more information, visit bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com.
Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the spring edition for free on newsstands across the valley, or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.