Packrafting the Smith River: Day 1

Five o’clock came awfully early this morning, but when I realized after my first cup of coffee that I’d be floating the Smith River in a packraft by nine, my grogginess was replaced by anticipation.

After a grab-and-go breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, and toasted bagels, we piled into the van and began the 100 mile road trip to Camp Baker.

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Riding Montana back roads as the sun rises has a therapeutic effect that helps you transition from “there” to “here” just a little bit better. Watching the light change from blue-gray at Clyde Park to gray-orange at Wilsall to a cheery golden-brown at White Sulphur Springs helps alter rhythm from something unnatural left behind to something that feels more like normal up ahead.

Within an hour of arriving at Camp Baker we had packrafts inflated and loaded, permit logistics sorted out, and a customary bankside group photo taken.

We dipped our paddles into the Smith River at 9:03 AM.

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The Smith River was named by Lewis and Clark on Monday, July 15, 1805, after then-Secretary of the Navy Mr. Robert Smith. Clark observed that “the river (had) verry Crooked bottoms…and Passes thro’ a butifull valley between 2 mts.”

The Smith originates in the Little Belt and Castle Mountains of Southwest Montana, before carving its way through its deep limestone canyon north of Mount Baker.

This limestone canyon, of course, is our objective. The canyon’s walls, sometimes up to a thousand feet tall, frame more than forty miles of the river on the 60-mile roadless stretch that we began today.

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Within a half hour of leaving Baker, we were escorted downriver by dozens of enthusiastically mooing cows who followed us to their downstream fence barrier, several bald eagles (one of which flew so close above my head from behind me that I heard the powerful beating of its wings before I saw its shadow pass over my packraft), and a mule deer family (a buck, a doe, and two fawns) drinking in the river and curiously watching us bob by.

Fall foliage is turning colors. Bankside vegetation comes in the form of bright red and yellow clusters of willows and other bushes, while yellow deciduous trees provide contrast to the rich brown bark and green needles of the giant ponderosa pines.

The river is flowing strong – about 200 cfs – and clear enough to see bottom in most places. Trout are sipping tiny mayflies on the foam lines, redheads gather in large gaggles in the eddies, and the huge stonefly shucks from June are floating in the current, victims of the bank washing that came with the recent increase in river flow over the past few weeks.

Tiny creeks enter the main current here and there. We pass a waterfall. Our packraft flotilla quietly moves downstream.

There’s no one else here.

It doesn’t take long for us to stop looking at our watches.

We’re on river time now.

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The morning was cool and overcast, and after becoming chilled from the first four and a half miles, I put on my raingear.

Two miles later pastureland and the occasional vacation dwelling gave way to the Wild Smith – giant pines and limestone rock walls.

I ended up taking my raingear off again at river mile nine, when the sun came out and warmed the canyon.

By the time we arrived at our first camp, I was cold again. Such is the fickle nature of a Montana river.

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We paddled about 15 miles today and are camped at Syringa, a beautiful shoreline camp on Montana State Trust Land. We are surrounded by mule deer … and large brown trout…

We used the evening to fish, repair gear, make coffee, eat curried rice, and build a warm fire.

Darkness is coming earlier, it’s been a long day, and we are tired. Some of us will consume ibuprofen and / or acetaminophen tonight for dessert, a prophylactic treatment to ward off trapezius / deltoid / pectoral pain in the morning – the probable muscular hangover that comes from new packrafters spending the day paddling into a headwind.

Godspeed,
RJ

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