Flathead Rivers Alliance to Host Spring Safety Workshop

In collaboration with North Valley Search and Rescue and Glacier Raft Company, experts will educate the public about spring river-running hazards at Sacred Waters Brewing Company on May 29 at 6 p.m.

By Maggie Dresser
A kayaker in the Middle Fork near Belton Bridge in West Glacier on May 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As the rivers rise in northwest Montana amid spring runoff, the Flathead Rivers Alliance (FRA) is partnering with North Valley Search and Rescue (NVSAR) and Glacier Raft Company to host a safety workshop on May 29 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Sacred Waters Brewing Company, according to a news release.

Experts will educate the public about cold water immersion, spring hazards and safety gear along with demonstrations and search and rescue stories.

Over the last six years, there were 37 water-related call-outs, averaging six per year while there were 18 swiftwater rescue calls during the same time period, according to NVSAR officials.

“With a mission to aid as emergency arises, we’re not only invested in saving lives, but boosting awareness of safety measures before you head to the water,” Kerrie Lillie of NVSAR said in the release.

Partners aim to promote safety and prevent accidents and fatalities on the 219 miles of the Wild and Scenic three forks of the Flathead River. Experts emphasize the risks that spring conditions pose, like high flows and freezing water temperatures, that can lead to hypothermia if users are not adequately outfitted and prepared.

“With 48 years of history, Glacier Raft Company and the guiding community are the most experienced on the Forks on the Flathead,” Mike Cooney of Glacier Raft Company said in the release. “We train intensely every spring during runoff and our guides form a deep respect for the rivers and their challenges. We are always willing to discuss current conditions and assist those if needed. Safety is our top priority and are honored to share our knowledge and experience with the Flathead Valley Community. We take pride in our safety record and stewardship on the Flathead.”

Turbid snowmelt flows from Lincoln Creek into the Middle Fork on March 20, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The safety workshop is part of FRA’s education, outreach and stewardship programming, which has expanded since its official launch in 2021.

Three years ago, FRA Executive Director Sheena Pate started the River Ambassador Program to educate recreationists about safety at popular river access sites on the three forks with maps and information about rules, ethics and etiquette. Loaner life jackets are available at the stations, with permanent stations located at Glacier Rim River Access Site on the North Fork and West Glacier River Access Site on the Middle Fork. The loaner jackets are available from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

In 2022, the citizen science river recreation monitoring program was launched, where volunteers help collect data while they are recreating on the river. Volunteers document the number of recreationists they observe on the three forks and submit data into a Survey 123 mobile data collection app. They also capture wildlife and invasive species information as they float the river.

The river monitoring program is a collaboration with the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park and data is shared with partnering agencies that are working to update the river management plan, which hasn’t been updated since 1980. The plan will likely limit group sizes and institute a permit system and other restrictions on certain portions of the three forks during peak summer months to manage its increased use.

FRA was formed in 2019 in response to a spike in river recreation and the anticipated release of the multi-agency Comprehensive River Management Plan to protect the three forks of the Flathead River.

Stakeholders, including river outfitters, nonprofit leaders, river users and officials with Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park, work with FRA to provide education and outreach to the public. The partnership is designed to improve management and protect the 219 miles of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act-designated system, which includes the North, Middle, and South forks of the Flathead River.

To volunteer, contact FRA at [email protected]. For a full list of events, visit www.flatheadrivers.org.

A Flathead County Sheriff search and rescue team loads supplies onto a boat at the Tea Kettle Fishing Access on the Flathead River in Columbia Falls on June 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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