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Packrafting the South Fork of the Flathead

A Trip report from the summer of 2018 by Down Wind Sports Employee Matt Abbotts

As great as the fishing is in the U.P., sometimes it feels really good to get a change of scenery. So in late July of 2018, Arni and I headed west for a bit of an epic.

The plan was to drive to Denver for the annual Outdoor Retailer trade show and then head north to Montana. I had the brilliant idea of going on a packrafting and fly fishing adventure on the South Fork of the Flathead River. We had a few beers, did some scheming and dreaming, and that’s pretty much where our planning stopped. What could go wrong?

We got our rental car and made the 22 hour drive to Denver in one push to get to work at the trade show. It went well and left us pretty much exhausted, so we ducked out a few hours early for what we thought would be a quick jaunt up to Bozeman to meet some friends. It turns out Bozeman is a long way from Denver, but we made it and got provisioned for a week on the water. After a restless night in a motel we made our way further north toward Kalispell and the river we’d been dreaming about for countless hours in the car.

The South Fork of the Flathead runs for over 100 miles through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the largest roadless area in the lower 48. It’s a place of beauty and the romance of the wild. It’s also really big and hard to get around in. Rivers have a great habit of starting in one place and ending somewhere completely different, which is really cool unless you need to get back to where you started and only have one car. We brainstormed, called some contacts and came up with no way to get from the end back to the beginning, so we decided to wing it.

Nebraska sunrise

We parked at the trailhead for Pyramid Pass, loaded our packs with our packrafts and fishing gear, and headed out. The river lay over the pass 12 miles away, or at least that’s what I told Arni. During our brief planning session he’d expressed a serious lack of excitement for hiking more than 15 miles, so I lied to him. The river was really more like 20 miles away, but what’s a few extra miles between friends. We slept at the top of the pass and woke up to a beautiful mountain morning and a downhill hike to the river. After a few hours of hiking through the desolation of past forest fires, Arni started to get wise to my trick. By the time we actually reached the river he was pretty tired and getting a bit surly. We ate a quick dinner and he settled in to rest. I couldn’t wait and grabbed my fly rod to test my luck. After a few minutes of casting I made my way back to camp to excitedly get Arni on the water. The fishing was too good to rest. After catching some nice cutthroat trout in just a few casts, Arni’s mood brightened and we were having the time of our lives.

The next morning the raft part of our packrafting adventure started. This is probably where I should tell you that Arni and I had never even inflated a packraft, let alone paddled one. We’re both competent paddlers, but this was a completely new one for us. After struggling for a few minutes to get the small, ultralight boats, blown up, we tentatively hit the waters of Young’s Creek, the tributary that would take us to the South Fork. We cruised along testing our new crafts and gaining a bit of confidence. These things were kind of fun. After more than a mile of white water in Young’s Creek Gorge, we didn’t think they they were fun anymore, we knew it was the best thing we’d done in years!

For the next 4 days we meandered down the South Fork and caught more cutthroats than we could count. The scenery was spectacular, the paddling fun, and wildness of the place felt absolute. We lost ourselves in the adventure, but at the back of our minds we couldn’t escape that the end of the river came with the uncertainty of how we’d get back to our car.

Hiking to the South Fork of the Flathead with amazing Montana views
Arni in his happy place after a longer than expected hike
Showing off a cutthroat trout from a packraft in the Bob Marshall Wilderness
A cutthroat trout with a fly in his lip underwater
Arni in his happy place after a longer than expected hike
Showing off a cutthroat trout from a packraft in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

We deflated the boats and hiked around the notoriously sketchy rapids of the Meadow Creek Gorge and then blew them back up for the final stretch. Our destination was a campground where we hoped we’d be able to catch a ride into town. We came up with the idea of maybe renting a car and driving the 3 hours the three hours back to the start. That might work. When we hit the beach at the campground the weight of what we had to do started to really hit. Maybe we made a mistake. A few paddlers drifted by and Arni had the brilliant idea to ask where they were headed. They said “Our truck…” and the tentatively asked if we needed a ride. What followed can only be described as the best of luck. The father and son had a vacation home in the area and were rushing back to dinner after a day on the water. They agreed to drop us in town on their way home. The road to town was several hours of dusty washboard with little traffic so we were more than thankful to not be standing out there with our thumbs in the air. Along the way we discovered a shared connection in the Keweenaw (small world) and as we neared our drop off he looked back and asked, “Are you guys honest?” How do you answer a question like that? After assuring him we were honest, he proposed the most amazing idea. He suggested we take his brand new truck, drive down to our car, and just drop the truck off at his house on the way back. Arni and I were dumbstruck. Arni managed to stammer out, “Uhhh, are you sure?” He was. We drove his fancy truck 6 hours round trip and got our car like it was no big deal. Like we had planed it all along. It could not have possibly been better.

As we cruised across the prairies of the Dakotas on our way home, we couldn’t help laugh about the whole thing. It was a perfect trip. Great adventure, great paddling, great fishing, Everything you could want, and some amazing luck thrown in to make it one we’ll never forget.

Take out at Meadow Creek Gorge
Arni Ronis in a packraft
Arni hiking past the Bob Marshall Wilderness exit sign