June 01, 2020
Adventure Report: Two Forks on the Flathead
The Flathead River begins at the Blankenship Bridge between West Glacier and the Teakettle mountains in northwest Montana. It is created by the North Fork and Middle Fork confluence just above the bridge and is joined by the South Fork a few miles downriver. In my opinion, these two forks are some of the best rivers to stand up paddleboard.
The Flathead offers year-round flows that are accessible and don't freeze up. This fact plus great views of mountain ranges in Glacier National Park, superb fishing, bright blue water, and wildlife watching makes it excellent for recreating. Oh, and the whitewater is pretty sweet, too.
The North Fork is Glacier National Park's western border and runs for 58 miles until you reach the bridge. At peak flows around Memorial Day it can be done in one (very long) day. Personally, I'd wait until the snow melts, the mud settles, and things slow down.
The North Fork can be accessed about every 11-14 miles through forest service sites. There are pit toilets and primitive camping at these sites. Camping is also allowed along river right but not on the park side without a permit. Most of the river is Class I with some Class II up until the big creek campground.
Be aware of log jam potential in the coal banks area below Polebridge.
You won't find much for rapids on the Flathead, but the views are stunning. You might see some big critters on the shore in the early season (or maybe find a massive elk skull along the way). Perhaps a moose will swim the river right in front of you. It's happened.
You'll find the most splash from the big creek access to Glacier rim. During an average July flow, it's mostly class II to class III. There is a rapid a mile above Glacier Rim that you will need to watch for. Please ensure you are wearing a PFD and are not intoxicated. This rapid can be easily avoided by staying river left. I've run this river from 20,000 CFS down to 400 CFS on my Hala Rado SUP and it never disappoints.
As the water drops and crowds die down, more rocks pop out – leaving more options to play with.
The Middle Fork of the Flathead s the other gem. This one begins in the Bob Marshall Wilderness at the confluence of Strawberry and Bowl Creek. The Middle Fork is Glacier Park's southern border and travels for 90 miles until it meets the North Fork.
The first 44 miles can be accessed by horse, foot, or plane (which is why you need an inflatable paddleboard you can travel with!). A relatively inexpensive flight out of Kalispell gets you on an airstrip 15 miles below the headwaters. From here, you will find a series of class IV rapids at high flows and III at lower levels: Three Forks, Twenty-Five Mile, and Lunch Creek rapids.
The most challenging section on this run is a 3-mile canyon called Spruce Park. It's rated class V at high flows and IV at low flows. I would have to recommend doing this at around 1200-1400 CFS on an inflatable SUP. Once the flow is down to about 700-800 CFS, you'll be dragging a bit in the first 6 miles and some of the rapids won't allow a board to fit between the narrowly spaced boulders.
Most rafters tend to stay out below 2000 CFS, so it gets pretty quiet after the big runoff is done.
The recreation section (hey! that rhymes!) begins with Bear Creek access. From here to Moccasin Creek it's mostly class II with the occasional class III. The water is incredibly clear with beautiful rock formations.
The commercial whitewater section is run from Moccasin Creek to West Glacier. There's a 3 mile stretch with consistent class II and III rapids. One of them – Jaws –is rated IV at high flows. It's about a 35' gradient drop per mile and an easy shuttle set up for a SUP. This is my go-to whitewater spot once the gauge is reading 4' at West Glacier.
From West Glacier down to the bridge is a nice casual half-day float. There is one class II rapid before a deep water canyon that is perfect for cliff jumping, swimming, and fishing.
These two forks are where I discovered my passion for paddleboarding. I feel fortunate to live in such a place of natural beauty and ease of access. If you're looking for a day trip or something a wee bit longer, I highly recommend the Flathead forks. Come out and play.
Jimmy Reed is an ambassador for Hala Gear. Photo credit Paul Clark.