Outside of Alaska, options for wilderness packrafting in remote areas of the United States are limited. The number of wilderness floats in excess of twenty miles are few and far between, and generally limited to America’s three largest wilderness complexes: the Bridger-Teton (Wyoming), the Frank Church (Idaho), and the Bob Marshall (Montana).
The Bob Marshall offers three large rivers in particular (the South Fork Flathead, the Middle Fork Flathead, and the Spotted Bear) that collectively provide more than one hundred wilderness miles of outstanding packraftable water. Through the years, I’ve found so many of the creeks and smaller rivers in "The Bob" provide excellent packrafting (at least in June and July) that I’m coming to realize it may be the premiere wilderness packrafting destination in the continental United States.
In addition to the South Fork, the Middle Fork, and the Spotted Bear, I’ve floated the White, Dearborn, North Fork Blackfoot, Young’s Creek, Danaher Creek, Gordon Creek, Big Salmon Creek, Shafer Creek, Strawberry Creek, the North and South Fork Sun (and the West Fork of the South Fork Sun), and portions of other creeks even smaller than these. Opportunities for wilderness packrafting treks in The Bob abound!
Finally, The Bob offers packrafting for all skill levels. From the whitewater gorges of the Middle Fork Flathead to a lazy day meandering down Danaher Creek, there is something for everyone.
Having explored The Bob with a packraft for several years, I find myself coming back to repeat a few stellar experiences: floating the rowdy Spotted Bear and Young’s Creek at the peak of runoff and floating the more tame South Fork Flathead as the water recedes. The latter, in particular, may be the finest Class I-II wilderness float in the Lower 48. It’s certainly the longest: combined with several miles of Danaher Creek or Young’s Creek (its two major headwaters), a float of the South Fork in late June through mid-July to Meadow Creek Gorge offers an incredible forty plus miles of water. This length is exciting to me, because it means that I can do a long traverse (one hundred miles or more) of The Bob with a meaningful amount of miles traveled in a packraft.
And so, this was the context for a trip in July 2009 with a few friends. We entered at Benchmark (on the South Fork Sun), exited at Silvertip (on the Spotted Bear), and had the time of our lives over a few relaxing days while making long miles in a packraft on the South Fork.
We also cheated a little. I wanted to give my pals an experience of the Wild West, so we rode horses from Benchmark to the Stadler-Hoadley divide, cutting off eighteen miles of walking. So, remarkably, by the time we reached mile sixty-five on our one-hundred-plus-mile route, we had walked a paltry eight miles – and none of it uphill! I reckon that "backpacking light" comes in all sorts of packages… pardner.
The Bob is home to big, long, and wild rivers, one of the nation’s finest cutthroat trout fisheries, and 160 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. This year (2009) is one where my intimacy with this wilderness will grow dramatically. In addition to the trek in July featured in this photo essay, I enjoyed the rhythms of living on nearby Flathead Lake for a week while at the Melita Island Boy Scout camp with my son, and I’ll return for another week of wilderness raucousness while participating in Le Parcour de Wild in October.
I hope this essay conveys my passion for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and leaves you with a positive taste for wilderness travel.