Ryan Jordan

Packrafting the South Fork Flathead River Drainage

On my recent trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, we floated about 40 miles of the South Fork Flathead Drainage. Here's a video I a put together as part of a GoPro Wide Helmet Camera review for Backpacking Light that will be published next week.

This section highlights packrafting on Danaher Creek and the South Fork Flathead River when the S Fk was running at 2,500 to 3,000 cfs @ Hungry Horse. Class I-II / PR 1-3. Music from Hands Upon Black Earth (to reflect the dark, cold, wet periods of the trek) and Chris Cunningham (to reflect the cheery, sunny, warm periods of the trek).

Details: Several miles of both Danaher and Youngs Creek (the two main tributaries that form the South Fork Flathead at their confluence) can be floated. These creeks are best when the S Fk is flowing > 2,000 cfs at Hungry Horse Reservoir. Expect more logjam portages on Danaher than on Youngs, and consider not putting in on Danaher until below Cabin Creek (Camp Creek on some maps), it's pretty woody above there. Youngs is more robust and offers a few pushy corners at high flows, but neither creek offers any significant technical challenges.

The 40 miles of the S Fork below the confluence to Meadow Gorge is generally a Class I river for the entire length at normal summer flows. At 2,000 – 4,000 cfs, there are a few sections that could be called Class II, and above 4,000 cfs, the river provides a spectacular Class II+ whitewater adventure for packrafters, with big wave trains. It's more interesting at flows in the 2,000 to 4,000 cfs range, and requires a little more maneuvering, but it's still not a technical river.

The S Fork can be floated in 3 days at flows > 2,000 cfs, starting at Benchmark and hiking 16 miles to Cabin Creek (a tributary of Danaher Creek) on the first day*, down to White River on the 2nd day (a 21 mile float), and out Meadow Gorge on the third day (a 20 mile float). Once the river drops to 1,200 cfs or lower, expect a relaxing, but sometimes laborious float and add at least one extra day. And if you're a fly fisherman, all bets are off. You could get stuck out there for a long time, so bring some dill and pepper.

* Other good first day options, that require less shuttle logistics, include the Monture Creek approach from the south to Young's Creek (put in at Marshall Creek during high water and Babcock or below as the river clears), or Babcock Creek from the west to Young's Creek. My favorite approach is still from Benchmark, it gives you the feeling of a big traverse, and you'll spy other packraftable creeks en route that you'll want to come back and tag someday!

In addition to Danaher and Young's, the lower stretches of Gordon and both the Big and Little Salmon offer interesting side floats, and the White River below the South Fork White River is spectacular when the S Fk Flathead is running higher than 2,000 cfs. Above the S Fk White, there is very good technical boating in June, but watch out for wood.

So, if you have a vacation week, try this for a late June or early July itinerary:

Day 1 – Benchmark to Cabin (Camp) Creek via the Stadler-Hoadley divide, or come in from the west or south to the headwaters of Young's Creek. Pack light, this is a long day!

Day 2 – Float Danaher Creek to the Confluence with Young's, fish the rest of the day here.

Day 3 – Hike up Young's til noon, then float the S Fk to Gordon Creek. Camp at the mouth and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening hiking up Gordon Creek, then floating and fishing your way back down to camp.

Day 4 – Float and fish the S Fk to White River Park.

Day 5 – Side trip as far up the White as you can go, packraft back down to camp.

Day 6 – Float to the mouth of Black Bear Creek and play in the rapids above the Black Bear Gorge.

Day 7 – Float to Meadow Creek (take out above the gorge!).

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