Tenkara Fly Fishing and Packrafting on Montana’s West Fork Bitterroot River and Rock Creek

Brian and I have been friends, and fly fishing partners, for a long time. We’ve spent a fair bit of time logging trail miles and floating together, always searching for streams off the beaten path that hold big trout.

We like to spend our Spring Breaks in Western Montana. Sure, the beaches are a bit snowy and we can’t wear Speedos and Reefs, but we do float some beautiful water and tie into some fantastic trout fishing for big, wild Montana rainbows and cutthroats.

I have fished Tenkara exclusively on our last two spring break trips, and mostly with soft hackle nymph patterns that mimic the soon-to-erupt skwala stoneflies. Occasionally, we get to cast to tiny midges which start hatching profusely this time of year.

Ryan Jordan is a licensed fishing guide in the state of Montana and one of the only guides in the USA to focus exclusively on teaching and guiding traditional Japanese tenkara methods. Learn more about tenkara and catching large, wild Montana trout by visiting Ryan’s tenkara page.

Lake Chain Packrafting

Slow paddling through mountain lake chains offers a unique type of solitude and an entirely different way of seeing “routes”.

In recent years, it’s become one of my favorite ways to travel through the mountains.

The Martin Lake Chain in the Beartooth Range is a case in point.

A traverse of this basin by foot, which is arguably one of, if not the most, scenic short trek in the Beartooth Range, takes only a day from what most people consider as the “top lake” (Rachel Lake, 9864′) to what most people consider as the bottom lake (Estelle Lake, 9182′), because it’s only 2.4 miles and is an easy enough day hike from a base camp at Martin or Wright Lake.

In fact, most people skip Estelle, and few go “up” to Rachel, so their day trek becomes less than a mile from the outlet of Martin to the inlet of Whitcomb, and they get to see four lakes in the chain (Martin-Wright-Spogen-Whitcomb).

Granted, the Rachel-to-Estelle chain is full of scenic awesomeness at every turn but it’s only a little piece of the pie, and can’t be appreciated fully in one day trip.

I knew that on my first Rachel-to-Estelle traverse in 2001, I had to come back and spend some time.

So in 2002, I came back and caught a fish in each lake, which required me to spend at least 10 minutes along each shoreline. I was done in a couple of hours.

So in 2003, I came back and spent 3 days camping in the chain at various locations, and knew that I was starting to appreciate its intimacy.

But it wasn’t until much later, while peering at the maps, that I realized that there might be stuff higher than Rachel and lower than Estelle that were worth visiting.

In fact, I went to the headwaters. The highest lake in the chain is actually Silver Tarn, at 10,846′, just SW of Grasshopper Glacier, and way, way off trail. I reached it via an ardurous off trail traverse that started in the Lake Fork of Rock Creek, and then climbed through dense brush, talus, and blowdowns to Black Canyon Lake. Six miles and seven hours after leaving the car, we bivied on a windy pass overlooking the lake.

After descending to and then paddling (via packraft) across the mile-long Black Canyon Lake (thus avoiding talus and cliffs), we reached the Grasshopper Moraine and more pain until we crested the hydrologic divide of the Beartooths just above Grasshopper Glacier wearing Kahtoolas and breathing a sigh of relief because we didn’t have to arrest with packraft paddles equipped with lashed picks of granite shards on the ends. We reached the crest at midday on Day 2 and enjoyed knowing that it was to be all downhill from here, with a view of Silver Tarn glistening below us.

A short descent down the glacier brought us to the tarn, where we bivied for the night on a big, sloping granite slab.

From here, we inflated our packrafts and kept them inflated for the rest of the trip (with a few notable exceptions), strapping them to our packs for the interim treks between the lakes that included a lot of talus hopping, scree sliding, blowdown limbo-ing, and bushwhacking.

We rafted from the inlet to outlet of every lake in the chain: Silver Tarn (10868′), Two Bits (10211′), Triskele (10190′), North Cloverleaf (10130′), West Cloverleaf (10110′), Rachel (9864′), Martin (9658′), Wright (9630′), Spogen (9583′), Whitcomb (9542′), Estelle (9182′), Granite (8630′), and lots of wide spots, and fast spots, in the wild outlet creek of Granite Lake down to its confluence with Highway 212.

The final route was only 25 miles (with five miles on trail at the beginning and less than a mile of “faint paths” en route), with immense – and I mean immense – on the ground routefinding challenges. I mean, how hard can it be, right? You’re just following a stream — all the way! If not for the faint trail sections here and there created by hardy fishermen, bear, and elk, we might still be trying to find our way out of there.

But that’s not the important or dramatic part.

The best part of this trek was using packrafts to navigate lakes along a natural route corridor. I think this is one of the most spectacular and gratifying means of wilderness travel style: you really do become one with the drainage.

From the ice fringed shores of Silver Tarn to the cliff-rimmed waters of Rachel Lake to our thunderstorm-trapped bivy on the island at Martin Lake to the waterfall at Spogen Lake to dramatic scenic beauty at Whitcomb Lake to the West Wall of Estelle Lake to the exciting paddle of Lake Creek as it fed into Granite Lake to the camp in a bay of Granite Lake that we were convinced had never been visited by man to the 3.5 mile paddle through Granite Lake and its outlet creek and lakes, to the almost-accidental-drop over waterfalls on Lake Creek to trout-infested waters deep in the low country to the hand over hand descent of waterfall chains near the end, to the horrified looks of tourists in a passing Eurovan as we emerged from trees onto Highway 212 with torn up packrafts, dried blood on our clothes, and shoes with half soles…

Packrafting the Beartooths can sort of be like that.

The Versatility of the Pyramid as an Ultralight Shelter


Bench Pitch

A Buttercup Yellow Silnylon Pyramid in the Shadow of the Walling Reef,
Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (Sigma DP2s)

The pyramid geometry is the most versatile shelter design for the wilderness trekker.

A center pole means there is nothing to break unless you don’t pay attention under the heaviest snow loads, and with cheap and thin carbon poles.

A center pole means it has lots of headroom, and a really easy and fast pitch.

A full perimeter means you’re protected from winds, rain, and with not much extra effort, spindrift.

No floor means that you don’t really care if you open the door in the rain.

If you get the shelter in silnylon, and size it for two, like the 8’3″-er in the photo above, it’s light enough (18 oz) for solo use, big enough that two people don’t kill each other, there’s room left over for all the gear, and the dog, and you can crank it down tight to huge stakes and a bunch of guylines without worrying about it, like you do with Cuben Fiber.

If you add a short noseeum perimeter, like the one in the photo above, you keep out the bugs simply by stashing gear all around it.

If you get it in Buttercup Yellow like the one above, it matches the flowers and makes for pretty photos and Martha Stewart will even be impressed at your ability to decorate the wilds with good color matching.

If you get it in silnylon grey, you’ll blend in better and suffer an identity crisis because there are a lot of these out there in grey.

And if you go from a poncho, or a little Cuben Fiber tarp, or a Moment, or a (the?) One, or a Unishelter, or a Firstlight, or a Lunar Solo, or just about anything else that costs more or weighs more or wears out sooner, you just might think you died and gone to heaven and give yourself a good smack on the forehead for not buying into the pyramid cult earlier.

If I could only keep ONE shelter, it would be a Buttercup Yellow Silnylon Pyramid, because I could do everything on just about any trail in the world during the three tempered seasons, and most of what I’d want to do in the fourth season, and the color makes me cheery on stormy days.

My Favorite Treks: The Trident Traverse from Cody, WY

Trident, Northern Massif from Mountain Creek, Yellowstone National Park

Sigma DP1, ISO 100, f/11, 1/30 sec. Click for a little bit bigger.

In addition to flanking the remotest spot in the CONUS, the Trident (the mass of peaks and ridges making up the Trident Peak Massif) may be YNP’s coolest peak, due its sheer size (volume) and complexity. The photo above shows only about 15% of its total ridgeline. There are four other main ridges you can’t see, behind, and to the left.

The massif itself is rugged, and a traverse of it is not for the faint of heart, or inexperienced, or acrophobes, but successful completion of one will rank high in your list of all time best wilderness experiences ever.

If you don’t have rock scrambling experience, this would qualify as a Hard Walk. If you can handle Class 3 scrambling on rotten stuff and serious mosquitoes, and are willing to carry a Tenkara fly rod and a packraft, and have some tolerance for suffering, you’ll have a Pretty Good Time with this.

I’ve made a few traverses of the Trident, but my favorite is what I think is the proper one, because of its elegance and the level of engagement required to complete it, and the fact that it’s nice to have both an ice axe and a packraft.

It starts and ends with non-simple transportation logistics, but if you don’t have a car, you can start and end in Cody, WY with a little creativity that makes for good stories.

From Cody, hitchhike up to Deer Creek, then walk into the headwaters of the Thorofare River. Packraft for a day or two (depending on how good the fishing is) until you’re about at the foot of the Trident’s SW ridge, near campsite 6T1 in Yellowstone. Here’s the view from there in a carelessly shot and poorly processed hand held panorama but it shows you the S side of the massif, and what the Thorofare River looks like when the packrafting is good, and what sort of low-el bush you might have to deal with.


The Trident from 6T1. Sigma DP2. Click for bigger.

Then, bushwhack, nav through matchsticks remaining from the Big Fire, then gain the ridge and enjoy the scramble to the plateau. Traverse the plateau, making sure to find a nice camp (I recommend two) up there on the grassiest benches on the E flanks, where there’s lots of waterfalls below you and pretty cliffs above you, and really neat sunrises. Then, drop down into Mountain Creek if you’ve had enough, or continue NE to Overlook Mountain, which is Hard but really inspiring, and descend into Glacier Basin, where there is whitewater and good packrafting on Fishhawk Creek when the water is high, and lots of dangerous wood regardless of water levels. But you’ll feel like a hardman for doing it, or you’ll get fed up with stress and walk the trail (you’ll boast about it later, so it will be worth any time you do spend in the water). Fishhawk takes you to all the way to the North Fork Shoshone where it’s a cruise (except at high water, when there are serious holes to deal with) to Cody and good food, and rodeo.

Give yourself about 7 days if you are going to be intense about this, and 10 days if you want to enjoy yourself a bit.

If you do this in October – and you can (“trust me” comes with wide latitude, FYI) – be sure to take a dry suit and ice climbing gear to play on the waterfalls on the E face of the Trident, and maybe an extra hat. There is nothing quite like it anywhere, and the mosquitoes are gone. But your pack will be heavy, and you’ll be real cold sometimes, and you might even be able to bum a steak at an outfitter camp.

Dreaming of Favorite Places

South Fork Flathead River, Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex – a favorite place.
(Photo: Sigma DP2)

I got a message this morning from a PR agency in San Francisco that I started my day off with a good laugh:

“Now that the weather has finally warmed up for good, it’s time to head outdoors!”

I had to laugh because the view out my window today was awfully … white.

Spring snow always gives me a chuckle because of the irony it brings to the landscape. Yesterday, Stephanie and I took our first spring walk in the Bridger Mountains and found arrowleaf balsamroot and shooting stars in bloom.

Today, those same flowers are buried.

But as much as the spring flowers yesterday offered hope of a new hiking season, so too did today’s snow remind me that accessing my favorite places by foot and packraft is still a ways off.