I don’t have a prosperous relationship with the West Fork of the South Fork of the Sun River.
Over the years, I’ve lost trophy trout in its submerged trees, slipped and swam in its slippery fords, and portaged its countless logjams with my packraft.
But the West Fork has an allure that is hard to resist. Deep green pools that harbor trout of untold size, beautiful and expansive mountain views that reward the persistent floater, and of course, good whitewater at high water.
This year I had the opportunity to share its beauty and misery with our Venturing Crew.
We left our camp on the West Fork this morning, paddling our packrafts with the expectation of a reprieve from the utter exhaustion we experienced on the Chinese Wall a few days ago. (We have still not recovered fully from our Wall traverse!)
I kept telling myself that this was not the West Fork and that we’d have an easy day.
Within minutes of taking our first strokes we reached our first portage. Within the first hour we had portaged more times than we had all day on Danaher Creek 8 days ago.
Then we came to the Reef Gorge, a fun series of Class 2+/3- rapids when the gauge on the S Fork Sun is reading more than about 600 cfs. After scouting the gorge, I knew we were close to missing the window but it still looked runnable.
I ran the entrance rapid first, which drops you several feet into a sharp bend followed by a fun series of maneuvers before the next drop into a longer series of whitewater.
I eddied out above the second drop while Andrew and Chase followed behind. The second boat group (Justin, Aiden, Walker, and Nik) came through seemingly without incident but when Nik arrived in the eddy, his packraft was filled with 10 inches of water.
That’s not normal, even on splashy rapids.
Upon further inspection, Nik’s boat had a foot long gash in its floor, terminating perilously close to the tube (the thing that actually holds the air – immensely useful). Andrew too came through the rapid with lesser damage, a floor gash of about four inches.
We opted to get out of the river and proceed to a camp on foot, where we could repair the boats properly so we could have a proper packrafting exit from the wilderness.
We repacked our gear into hiking mode and proceeded our way down the West Fork trail. After lamenting a bit about not being able to run the entire length of the West Fork, noticing the massive logjams at seemingly every river bend reminded me that perhaps our ripped up boats were a blessing in disguise.
We arrived at Pretty Prairie on the South Fork of the Sun River this evening to crowds of horse packers and their dudes occupying nearly every established campsite. After debating a bit about whether to simply pitch camp on the forested edge of the Prairie (far from the river) or continue on, we decided to try to find our camp from last year, in a hidden grove of pines on the river bank.
It’s a secluded, quiet, remote camp that is easier to find while floating than while hiking. Nevertheless, 40 minutes of traipsing through meadow, brush, swamp, side channels, and blowdowns led us to the firepit where we all shared bratwurst last year.
Upon arrival to camp, we repaired the packrafts by sewing the gashes closed with a tapestry needle and Glide dental floss (peppermint), then urethane-sealing the seam and covering both sides with cloth duct tape. The wounds will cure overnight and we are confident the boats will get us to Gibson Reservoir – our exit in two days.
We have a nice warm fire going here tonight, and we are sharing a bit about our experiences on this expedition – the physical, mental, and emotional challenges – and reflecting on both the highs and lows. It’s clear that this trek has had transformative impact on all of us. We are looking forward to the finish, but also know that it will be bittersweet.
We have completed about 91 miles and have about 14 to go.
Tomorrow we hope to camp somewhere on the lower South Fork of the Sun River, perhaps in the vicinity of the lower gorge…
Godspeed – RJ
PS: No photo today, we have poor sat reception at our camp.