BOB MARSHALL WILDERNESS — Paddling his packraft deftly but quickly, Jared White appeared to be stuck between a rock and a hard current.
One wrong move and the full force of the South Fork of the Flathead River, which was plowing into the side of the packraft at 2,400 cubic feet per second, would flip the tiny boat forcing White to take an icy swim on a chilly July morning.
“Packrafting is the art of the sneak,” White, 34, had said only minutes earlier, noting his aversion to putting himself into difficult situations.
But now it looked like the sneak had been caught.
Luckily, he beat back the boiling rush of water pushing him into the boulder and squirted out into the deep emerald pool below. Like rubber ducklings following their mallard mother, the five other packrafters in White’s party nervously followed his lead, safely splashing through the frothing river, a few hooting in exultation, others just grinning wildly.
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The 56-mile wilderness backpacking and packrafting trip White organized in late July proved that use of the bathtub-sized boats is becoming much more popular. At the confluence of Danaher and Youngs creeks, the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead River, 10 packrafters in three separate groups inadvertently converged. The trip also proved why the toy-looking boats are so popular — paddling them is a blast.
Up and over
White’s group had hiked 12 miles over Youngs Pass two days earlier and then floated, portaged around numerous log jams and hiked another 10 miles to reach the head of the South Fork, deep in the 1 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.
Coming from a different direction, two Bozeman men — Brian Whitlock and Kelly Wiseman — had climbed up and over the iconic Chinese Wall to reach Danaher Creek and begin floating.
“Packrafting has totally reinvigorated the wilderness experience for me,” said the 47-year-old Whitlock. “I’m too old to carry 100 pounds any more. I just don’t bounce back.”
Alpacka Raft Co., based in Colorado, is recognized as the sport’s top packraft manufacturer. And according to Nancy Halls, who has worked for the company for five years, the popularity of the boats has meant a 20 percent increase in sales each year over those five years. The company has been in business for 15 years, starting out in an Alaskan mother’s basement.
Use of the boats in television series, as well as articles in national paddling and outdoor magazines and YouTube videos posted by boat owners, has helped boost business, Hall said.
“The packraft is out there and people see it, that’s our advertising,” she said.
Halls credits company founder Sheri Tingey with being “very passionate about what the boat has done for people. It makes them smile. It makes everyone feel so good.”
Packrafting has become so popular that friends formed the American Packrafting Association in 2012, dedicated to safety, education, conservation and access. The group had a gathering in July in northwest Montana. Four of its 12 directors on its board are from Montana and Wyoming. Noted Alaskan adventurer and packrafter Roman Dial has even authored a how-to and historical book on the sport.
The boats are valued for their durability, light weight and some nifty engineering that has produced light Velcro-fastening spray skirts, inflatable seat and back cushions and the ability to inflate the boats with a simple fabric bag fitted with a nozzle.
White, who has been packrafting for three years and kayaking for 12, had packrafted the South Fork of the Flathead River once before, the last time with his Labrador retriever sitting between his legs. The first time he visited the river corridor he had hiked into Danaher Creek from the Rocky Mountain Front, followed the South Fork downstream to Big Salmon Creek and from there hiked over a 6,600-foot high pass in the Swan Range to reach Holland Lake.
“The next year I did it on a parckraft and the pleasure rating was so much higher,” he said.
By leaving the South Fork at Big Salmon Creek, he missed the last 17 or so miles of the river — a stretch where the water deepens, picks up speed and twists through tight mudstone and pine-rimmed canyons.
By getting out early, he also avoided the feared-by-some and sought-by-others 4-mile-long Meadow Creek Gorge — a Class IV to V+ (advanced to expert) stretch of whitewater known for eating boats and spitting out soaked, scared and disoriented boaters.
White’s fellow Bozeman packrafter, Scott Bosse, missed the red-lettered takeout sign above the gorge on his last packrafting trip down the South Fork — the sign that reads: DANGEROUS WATER AHEAD, REMOVE BOATS HERE. After being dunked and run through the rinse cycle on a rapid, he chose to risk falling from the steep surrounding cliffs and climbed out rather than continue boating and possibly drown.
Columbia Falls resident Beau Holst said his father, Bob Holst, and friend Gary Collier had mistakenly ran the gorge in a raft in the 1970s — the same Avon raft Holst was folding up at the rocky beach takeout.
“They thought they might actually make it but hit a waterfall and he was under water more than he was above,” Holst said. “He came up puking water. Their raft was upside down and they lost everything.”
Holst said he launched the old raft on this trip just below the confluence of Youngs and Danaher creeks because he had always wanted to float the entire river at least one time. He has been visiting the wilderness area with his father since he was 5 — some 35 years.
“It was pretty cool,” he said of the float.
Holst pointed to one of his passengers, a soaking wet Darlene Sullivan, as someone who practically lives in the Bob Marshall in the summers. Her husband is a retired horse packer who used to work for Glacier National Park.
“I don’t live in here, but I almost died in here,” she joked after the same rapid that challenged White flipped her off the front seat of Holst’s raft and into his lap.
The cost of boating
Boating use of the South Fork has stayed constant in recent years, according to Deb Mucklow, Spotted Bear District ranger on the Flathead National Forest, which manages the waterway. That’s because outfitted use has dropped as packrafting use has increased.
“Depending on what day people put on, it may look more or less crowded,” Mucklow said, noting that July 15-Aug. 5 is peak season on the river. “But when we look at the picture as a whole, we’re not seeing an increase.”
River outfitting has been capped, and any increase in campsite density or social encounters could trigger consideration of a permit system, Mucklow said.
“It’s really important for us that we maintain that naturalness and wildness for all,” she said.
Until then, the difficulty and expense of reaching the river has acted as a pseudo permit process, limiting usage. A guided five-day, six-night rafting trip on the river starts at about $2,000 per person. It can cost about $2,300 to have a full-sized raft, three people and their gear packed in on horseback.
By comparison, the investment in a packraft starts at $780 for Alpacka’s smallest raft, the Alpaca, which is big enough for people 5-foot-8 tall or smaller. The boat weighs 4 pounds, 13 ounces. Adding a spray deck costs an additional $200 and adds 8 ounces. A breakdown kayak paddle costs $135 and creates 34 more ounces of weight. If you want to stay warm and dry, spend another $720 for a drysuit. So packrafting can easily set a paddler back $1,115 to $1,835. Additional requirements are a lifejacket, dry bag for your camping gear and a helmet to protect your noggin, although a bike or climbing helmet can do double duty.
Montana Packrafts in Whitefish will rent you a setup for $200 a week. Jackson Hole Packraft in Wyoming rents boats for the same weekly rate, but adds a $5 a day charge for paddle rental. For an additional $35, the packraft is shipped to your home. Daily rates start at $45.
For packrafters hiking in to the South Fork of the Flathead River or other remote waters, there’s also the requirement that the person be able to hike long distances in rugged mountains while carrying a load that may weigh anywhere from 40 to 50 pounds or more. A typical raft and paddles can add about 10 to 12 pounds to a backpacker’s load.
Yet even some teens are capable of doing it, evidenced by Bozeman Boy Scout leader Ryan Jordan’s Venturing Crew which hiked into the Bob Marshall Wilderness with packrafts on a 105-mile, 13-day expedition in early July — the route included 50 miles of paddling.
The group of 14 to 17 year olds rafted down runoff-swollen Danaher Creek, the South Fork of the Flathead River, the West Fork of the South Fork of the Sun River and the South Fork of the Sun River. Their expedition also included an off-trail traverse across the top of the Chinese Wall from Larch Hill Pass to White River Pass.
“Today was harder than any of us expected,” Jordan wrote on July 3 in his online journal about the 12-mile paddle between Big Prairie and the confluence of the White River. “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.”
Even given all of these challenges and costs, paddlers like White are looking at the variety of new routes opened up by a packraft with a renewed lust for adventure.
“When I look at a map now, I think about how I can link those blue squiggly lines together,” he said.
“It’s a different way to experience wilderness. There are a lot more places to explore now. And being on the river corridor you see a whole different place.”