Day 4: Rapids!

Day 4

If yesterday was defined by wood then today shall be defined by whitewater.

Running a river with a large group (we have 9) requires the presence of eddies that are able to accommodate the entire group if we are to “boat scout” the river (the process of river running where scouting is done from real time in the boat). This is how rivers are run quickly. We don’t have that luxury for a number of reasons – crew size, the presence of less experienced paddlers, flooded riverbanks, and the need to teach paddling skills when opportunity arises.

We are running two boat groups. The front group is led by either myself or Eric. The front group has two additional youth and one trailing adult. We run the river pretty much in single file with spacing of about 10 to 30 yards between boats. This is the scouting group … the decision-makers … the guinea pigs.

The rear group (adult lead and cleanup, with three youth in the middle) trail the front group by 50 yards or more, typically.

So that’s sort of how we roll.

Today, we paddled 12+ miles of the S Fk Flathead to its confluence with the White River, where we are camped at Murphy Flat (or…what’s left of it…more on that later).

The characteristic feature of the day: whitewater! With high flows, the rapids complex between the Big Prairie pack bridge and Burnt Prairie change character, so some of what we might normally boat scout at low water we scout more cautiously on foot from the river banks at these flows.

We ran all the rapids. Most of them were Class II+ and we snuck through another that would go III- on many boater’s scales.

It was a load of fun and we got really wet, frequently dumping water from our boats.

That said, the S Fk Flathead is almost entirely runnable between the Big Prairie logjam(s!) and the White River.

I said almost.

During my trip in 2009, the only problematic feature between Burnt Prairie and The White was a sweeper/partial logjam river right just upstream of the confluence. Now, things have changed. The river has carved an entirely new channel above the confluence (we didn’t go down that one due to its flooded banks and blind corners, but I have a feeling that it’s the new main channel…) and the river left channel (the old channel) is blocked by single sweeper pinned between two logjams. We took that channel, and portaged.

Upon reaching White River Park, drama of past and current flooding reveals itself in the form of a new main river channel, and braided side channels filled with new islands carved from old mainland. This is ponderosa pine country, so the re-reouting of the river evicts some of these massive forest citizens (some who have fallen there only a few weeks ago) and they lie prone in the river. Paddling between these dying denizens in a fast moving side channel is a bit spooky.

After scouting for a campsite at White River Park, we decided to move on and scout river left at Murphy Park. My memory of a plush outfitter camp where I stayed five years ago had been displaced by a maze of mud, side channels, and wood. After only one sweeper portage, we finally worked our way down to a streamside camp in sparse ponderosas that we were happy to call home for the night.

The photo shows a view from our campfire area, looking out to grass and trees – with river infiltrating them.

Today was harder than any of us expected. We had to stay on our toes and approach every blind bend with caution. High flows and first tracks after a big snow year have their price, I suppose.

This was another day that reinforces the idea for these teenagers (and us!) that we are on a big expedition in a Wild Place.

We have now traveled about 40 miles and have another 65 to 70 remaining.

We hope to make it to the Black Bear Pack Bridge tomorrow night, where we’ll end our run on the South Fork Flathead and begin a 4 to 5 trekking leg up to and along the Continental Divide.

Godspeed – RJ

Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this expedition online at and receive updates from Twitter via @bigskyry (

Five Stars at Big Prairie

Day 3

Early this morning we received a sat message confirming a downward trend in flows on the S Fk Flathead. Very exciting! We are wondering if we are the first crew of boaters here this season.

We dropped our boats into Danaher Creek just below its confluence with Camp Creek late this morning and proceeded to enjoy what May have been my favorite Danaher float yet. With only 3 portages (one very long one!), lots of water, and plenty of splash and technical maneuvering made it both interesting and delightful.

We reached the confluence of Danaher and Young’s Creek (Mile 0 of the S Fk Flathead) with the intention of camping there. After deciding that this was sort of a Motel 6 of wilderness campsites (tucked in a tiny tree stand amongst a giant burn) we opted instead to continue down the S Fk Flathead to Big Prairie for something a bit more upscale, in spite of the fact that late afternoon was rapidly transitioning into evening. But weather was good and we were confident, so we paddled on. With the S Fk clipping along at 5+ miles an hour we’d be at the Waldorf soon.

Then came logjam. After logjam. After logjam. And more. All those came with portages through thick willow, mud, and flooded grassland. The well known logjam that protects the entrance to upper Big Prairie has been transformed into multiple river channels choked with wood at high water. Discouragement turned quickly to an intentional focus on our daily mission and we began to appreciate the character of each portage and exit eddy.

So more than two hours later as the sun began to set behind the western ridges protecting the S Fk, we arrived at a five star camp where we enjoyed an outrageously good chicken fajita meal from Mountain House, and a big fire to keep the skeeters at bay while watching the alpenglow on Flatiron Mountain in hi-def (photo). We are camped in a stream side meadow with 180 degree views framed by the Wild and Scenic South Fork of the Flathead River.

Our Crew of Venturing Scouts is proving themselves expedition worthy. The 27 miles that we’ve traveled to reach this point have been hard earned, and they’re rapidly entering that glorious cooperative characterized by what we call “Expedition Behavior”.

They’ll need it for next 80 or so miles remaining.

We hope to camp at the White River confluence tomorrow.

Godspeed – RJ

(No significant injuries or maladies to report today, our team is strong.)

Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this expedition online at and receive updates from Twitter via @bigskyry (

Day 2: “We are at a river!”

For a packrafter carrying a 50+ lb pack, the exclamation that “we are at a river!” is welcome news.

We received that news this afternoon as we arrived at the confluence of Camp Creek with the imminently packraftable Danaher Creek. We have trekked about 16 miles from Benchmark to our camp here.

Yesterday, after a ranch breakfast of French toast and sausage, we began an 11+ hour march over the snowyContinental Divide and through downfall not yet cleared by Uncle Sam to a serene camp in a little meadow near Basin Creek full of of Mariposa lilies at the edge of a forest of pine and grand fir. We ended the day with a traditional dinner enjoyed by Rocky Mountain packrafters: fire-roasted sausages.

Our crew is in good condition in spite of minor ailments: one swollen ankle, a strained groin muscle, one blister, and a (so far) incidence of the Big D. I have also been battling a cold for the last several days and was not enthused to start the trip with a malady. A few days ago it was accompanied by a low fever and chest congestion. Yesterday’s march was thus something less than pleasant for me and ended with me sleeping (save for a dinner break and helping our crew hang more than 200 pounds of food to protect it from bearthievery). Thankfully, the fever broke last night and I woke up a new man. Although not 100%, my excitement for wilderness travel has increased dramatically.

This morning we woke up to the sound of “Bob Marshall Howler Monkeys” – the gigantic pileated woodpeckers – jackhammers of the forest. It was quite a treat to see them live.

A 10-hour sleep, relaxing morning, and easy hike was a welcome reprieve from yesterday’s march. This afternoon was spent napping, relaxing, and tenkara fly fishing for Danaher Creek’s hungry cutthroat.

The cold front has been replaced by an enormously pleasant high pressure system that has graces us with sunny skies, warm temperatures, and rapidly dropping river flows. The afternoon flows on the South Fork of the Flathead have dropped from more than 9,000 cfs to less than 7,800 cfs in the past 48 hours. That of course bodes well for us. With early season conditions (cold water and high flows), the record high temperatures expected tomorrow will be a pure gift as we get in our boats tomorrow.

Danaher Creek is flowing high and we are expecting some new wood in the creek after this year’s high runoff. We plan to pick our way down slowly and carefully tomorrow, and we hope to make it to The confluence of Danaher with Young’s creek and the beginning of the mighty South Fork of the Flathead River, a.k.a. Wilderness Packrafting Nirvana.

Godspeed – RJ

PS: Thank you @bigskysteph for the Wx and CFS updates! @bigskychase is pretty proud that his mom can read USGS water tables.

PSS: Lots ursa sign but no encounters with live fuzz yet.

Staging at Benchmark

After an early morning start from Bozeman we find ourselves transitioned into something … different … than what we left.

Today we are at Benchmark, one of the major points of entry into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and a common respply point for CDT (Continental Divide Trail) thru-hikers. We are staying with Darwin Heckman and his family at the Benchmark Wilderness Ranch where one will not find electricity, running water, or cell phone reception.

The cold front lingers and more rain came today. My body is not yet acclimated to the backcountry and I found myself shivering in the cold winds up here. I’m looking forward to this interminable cold front being replaced by next week’a high pressure system by the time we have to float the cold waters of the South Fork Flathead drainage in a few days.

Today we are staging. A comprehensive final gear check combined with the creativity that goes into packing two weeks worth of food and gear into our packs has comprised the bulk of our afternoon. That was supplemented by a lively discussion of expedition leadership principles and styles, going over our route and itinerary, and discussing some of the hazards and challenges we will face on this expedition – high water, a resilient snowpack, and travel through recent burn areas.

Nevertheless our energy levels are high and we are ready to walk and paddle! We hit the trail first thing in the morning.


Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this expedition online at and receive updates from Twitter via @bigskyry (

MOHAB 2014: Expedition Introduction

We are in the final days of preparing for a packrafting expedition through the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Montana BSA Venturing Crew One ( of Bozeman, Montana. We hit the trail on June 29.

We’re attempting a circumnavigation-style trip that will include five bodies of water and an off-trail traverse of the crest of the Chinese Wall, over the course of a couple of weeks, and without resupply. The participants are 15 to 17 years old.

This will be the first two-week, 100+ mile multi-sport, human-powered high adventure expedition attempted by youth out of the new Montana BSA High Adventure Base (MOHAB |, where I’ve had the privilege of participating in its program development efforts over the past few years. I’m confident that MOHAB will rapidly grow into one of the nation’s premiere BSA High Adventure Bases based on its unique remoteness, wilderness character, and packrafting opportunities. Please join in as these ambitious Venturing Scouts attempt a wilderness expedition on a scale that is foreign to most Scouts today, and one that will surely by seared into their memory and change their lives.

Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this expedition online at and receive updates from Twitter via @bigskyry (