POLEBRIDGE — It doesn’t have to be an “official” wilderness for your destination to provide a wild Montana experience.
Federally designated wild and scenic rivers run alongside many wilderness areas. The Flathead drainage provides three such waterways.
The Flathead River’s branches include 219 miles of wild, scenic or recreational passage. The Middle and South forks originate in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Hungry Horse Reservoir drowned almost half of the South Fork, but its upper reaches still qualify for wild and scenic designation. The Middle Fork has some of northwest Montana’s fiercest whitewater.
The North Fork is generally considered the main stem of the Flathead, and originates in British Columbia. Its entire 58-mile length along Glacier National Park’s western border has wild and scenic designation. While Fool Hen Rapids just north of Columbia Falls flips plenty of inexperienced boaters, only two other Class II rapids complicate the waters farther north.
The river’s west bank passes a mix of private and U.S. Forest Service land. Glacier Park manages the whole east bank, and requires backcountry permits to camp there. The passes cost $5 per person, and require users to bring a bear-resistant cooler, fire pan and personal waste removal system.
The Forest Service has several popular stopping points, including the Ford Campground that features a rentable cabin, as well as tent sites. Campers must set up below the high-water line along private property, and must have bear-resistant containers for all food or risk a hefty fine.
The U.S.-Canadian border to Ford makes a leisurely 14-mile day float. Polebridge sits another 11 miles downstream, with more campgrounds and hostels surrounding the popular Polebridge Mercantile. After that, Big Creek Campground waits just above Fool Hen Rapids, and anyone getting past that can float right into Columbia Falls.
The float features views of Glacier’s infrequently seen and rarely visited northwest Livingston Range. The river also wanders through several sections of old forest-fire scars, with thickets of skeleton trees filling the view. And it holds lots of small but gullible cutthroat trout.
The toughest part of a North Fork Flathead float may be the shuttle ride up the unpaved North Fork Road. Don’t plan on making up lost time on this road, or you’ll need an alignment-suspension repair job that will kill most of the joy this river valley offers.