A kayaker slips through glassy water leaving a silvery trail behind on the quiet lake. Over on the “Wild Mile,” another kayaker bounces down the Swan River, disappearing in a white froth before the river spits him back out of the boiling, roiling whitewater. Out on Flathead Lake, a couple launches their canoe for an extended paddle and camp-out along the Flathead Marine Trail. The lake lies quiet on a morning cloaked in an ethereal mist, but by afternoon it might be churning with whitecaps. So much water and so many ways to experience it.
Northwest Montana is sprinkled with hundreds of lakes, ponds and reservoirs with dozens of them offering public access for paddling adventures. Miles of rivers weave through the mountain valleys from smooth flowing to raging whitewater. Traveling by water offers a unique perspective and connection to the extraordinarily beautiful and inspiring natural world.
Even though all waterways are filled with the same basic compound of two hydrogen atoms linked by a single chemical bond to an oxygen atom, they can act quite differently depending on what landform they flow along with seasonal and climatic conditions. Water on a quiet lake is like a snoozing grandpa while water tumbling down a steep river is more like a crazy toddler.
For some, the magic of paddling is the sensation of floating and the ability to lolly-gag on the surface of a peaceful lake or quiet stretch of river. The lack of motor noise allows you to hear the chortle of a merganser or the wail of a loon and the sound of gentle waves stroking the bow of your boat. Hop on a paddleboard to see what lies beneath – a gleaming trout or a glimpse of some lost or abandoned objects like an old dock or a rusty can. Flatwater offers the chance to drift along with plenty of time to take in the views and to spot wildlife that lives in the water and along the waterfront.
Those looking for a more adrenalized outing can enjoy the challenge and thrill of the extraordinary energy of a rushing river, but it is imperative you have the skill and information needed for a safe trip. Obstacles such as logjams are common in some rivers and can trap or capsize a boat. River flow is normally highest between mid-May and mid-June and the water remains cold well into the summer, posing a danger of hypothermia if you end up in it.
Early spring is the perfect time to start thinking about summer paddling although too early for most paddling outings. Many of the smaller lakes are still frozen on the first day of spring. Use this time to prepare for fun on the water before tours are booked and boat inventory is depleted. Start doing your homework so you can figure out – as the saying goes – “what floats your boat.”
If you are new to paddling, start by learning about your options and some of the best places and ways to use your boat. Three of the most popular are canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard, also known as a “SUP.” All of these boats are fairly easy to transport and depending on the waterway, easy to use. Local sporting goods shops in the area can help guide you through the process of buying the right device and can recommend places to paddle. Some popular online stores also have sections devoted to tips for buying and enjoying your new boat.
There are numerous boat rental places in the Flathead Valley and some of them offer boat delivery to an area lake or a guided tour. Many sporting goods stores offer rentals and some rentals are available right at the lake. Renting a boat or taking a guided outing is a great way to get your paddle wet!
There are a variety of styles of kayaks available including sit-on-top, recreational, touring, fishing and whitewater. Two great boats for beginners are the sit-on-top and recreational because they offer more stability and lower pricing.
The sit-on-top is easy to load and unload because of its open cockpit but is suited more to a warm, summery day because of the likelihood of getting wet. They are a great boat for kids playing on the lake serving as a swimming platform that is easily loaded and unloaded. Scupper holes make them self-draining.
The recreational kayak is a sit-in, shorter, wider boat that allows a longer season with the option of adding a spray skirt to seal up the boat from paddle drips and splash. They are best suited for flatwater and slow-moving rivers.
Some kayaks have a large enough cockpit to accommodate a dog or small child while you paddle. A tandem kayak is another great option for two paddlers. Child-size kayaks are a great introduction to paddling for the younger members of the family.
Touring kayaks are longer and narrower making them more efficient for longer paddles. They also track better and have more storage. They are generally more expensive than recreational boats.
Whitewater kayaking requires skill, experience and a high level of concentration because of the intense environment of fast-moving water. The boats are short, designed for quick turning and are constructed of hard plastic to take the beating of going downriver.
Standup paddleboard (SUP)
Even though a SUP appears to be simple in design, there are actually many types of boards that vary by hull and fin design, materials, width, length and thickness. These design elements are applied according to the type used – recreational, touring, racing and surfing. A recreational board is a good choice for beginners and for touring or doing yoga because of its stability. Racing and surfing boards are characterized by a streamlined design to cut through the water efficiently.
The canoe is a classic boat that is stable with lots of room for gear, kids and the family dog. The recreational canoe is steady, maneuverable and easy to control, making it a good choice for those learning the sport. Other more specialized canoes include wilderness, expedition, whitewater, racing and fishing.
There are also inflatable kayaks, SUPs and canoes, which are usually available at a lower cost and can simplify storage and transport.
Places to go
Flathead Lake is nearly 30 miles long and has a surface area of nearly 200 square miles, earning it the distinction of being the largest natural freshwater lake (by surface area) west of the Mississippi. Views of this spectacular lake rimmed by mountains are breathtaking and give you a perspective of the magnitude of this lake. Flathead Lake can be ocean-like with five-foot waves recorded – making it important to do a weather check before you set out for an outing.
There are numerous access points to the 161.4 miles of shoreline with six state parks and nine fishing accesses. A conceptual marine trail offers a variety of routes that can be customized to different skill and interest levels from long stretches of open water to paddles along the shoreline. Campsites designated for marine trail paddlers can be reserved at five state parks along the trail. There are also commercial accommodations along the lake.
There are numerous smaller lakes that are less exposed and less susceptible to windy and wavy conditions for those who want a more serene experience. The Swan Valley is speckled with smaller lakes, which lend themselves to paddling including Swan, Salmon, Alva, Lindbergh and Seeley Lakes. There are also several lakes less than an hour from Kalispell including Whitefish Lake, Talley Lake, Ashley Lake, Foys Lake, the Thompson Lake Chain and Lake Mary Ronan.
There are several amazing paddling lakes in Glacier National Park including Lake McDonald, Two Medicine Lake, and Bowman Lake. Some of the lakes also offer boat rentals. In the Flathead National Forest, Hungry Horse Reservoir is a larger body of water 34 miles long with over a dozen campgrounds on its shore.
Rivers are generally best left to skilled and experienced paddlers unless it is a confirmed stretch of flat, slow water. River current increases as the snow melts and can also surge with heavy rainfall. The Clark Fork, Blackfoot, Kootenai and Flathead Rivers all have exciting stretches of river for paddlers, but generally require a higher level of skill and experience.
The Clearwater Canoe Trail in the Swan Valley is a slow meandering section of the river that offers a mellow float and paddle for families and beginners. The trail begins at the north of the town of Seeley Lake and ends and the USFS Ranger Station at the north end of Seeley Lake.
Where to launch
The USFS website includes a list of non-motorized boat launch sites: www.fs.usda.gov/flathead
The FWP encourages boaters to use these resources to prepare for boating outings: fwp.mt.gov/activities/boating/education
Free online Paddlesports safety course: www.boaterexam.com/paddling/
If you travel with your boat you are required to stop at all watercraft inspection stations to keep Montana waterways free of aquatic invasive species. After a day on the water practice the three steps of Clean, Drain, and Dry to help keep Montana waterways pristine.
• Boat of your choice
• Means to transport boat
• Additional items recommended for an outing:
• Hat with brim
• Protective clothing for cold and sun (which might include a wetsuit or dry suit)
• Dry bags to protect phone or anything else you want to keep dry – a wide-mouthed water bottle can be used for smaller items
• Baling sponge
• Headlamp and whistle for safety
• Water and snacks when on a longer paddle