Monday, November 3, 2008

Kayaking Montanta Rivers

Heading out from WI.

Montana Water: Blackfoot, Clark Fork and Middle Fork Flathead Rivers

Blackfoot River
This series of stories is the water adventure part of a 2006 trip to Montana, Glacier Park and the Canadian Rockies. I kayaked the Blackfoot River one afternoon as a warm-up to some better water to come on the Clark Fork River west of Missoula.

The Blackfoot was a gentle float with some small drops. The water level was good and moving well. Of possible interest, where I put-in was a sign that stated signs of Meriwether Lewis’s trip east from the Pacific could still be seen near the river. I never did see any of the "signs" but I didn't spend much time looking either, so will have to take their word for it.
As for the river, it was moving very nicely due to some decent rains the past few days. The section I kayaked did not have much for rapids, a few Class I's and maybe one that could be considered a Class II. Was a really nice relaxing float.

Alberton Gorge

A couple days later I got on the Clark Fork and specifically the Alberton Gorge section, which contains up to a Class IV rapids. I decided to take the rafting trip in the morning to scout the rapids. I got to talk to the raft guide regarding each rapids and how to approach them and what to watch out for. He was very helpful. As we talked, I learned that he too was from WI and grew up in a town about 15 miles from where I was currently living. We talked about me tagging along with the next rafting trip and having them kind of watch out for me. The guide was somewhat hesitant to do this as of course they have paying customers in the raft that are their first priority and they don’t want to commit themselves into doing something they can’t really do. They are also concerned about the ability of the kayaker. If they agree to help someone who really doesn’t know what they’re doing it could be a bad deal for everyone. But, and this was planned, not only did I want to scout the rapids rafting, but I felt it would a lot easier to get buy in on them helping me if actually took the rafting trip with them, as well. It was decided I’d start down the rive to see how it went for the first couple miles and before I got to the bigger rapids talk to the guides at a resting spot and decide at that point what to do.

My plan became to take my mountain bike to the take out at Tarkio FAS (Forest Access Site) in the hopes of kayaking the full length of the Gorge, about 11 miles, then ride it back to get my Jeep then go back and get the kayak. A bit of messing around and back and forth, but I wanted the bike ride and I like being as independent as possible, as well.

I put in about 30 minutes before the next rafting group at Cyr FAS and kayaked to Ledge Rapids. Things went well but I hadn't gone through anything too difficult, yet either. I felt my skill level would allow me to continue on assuming I could get a little commitment out of the guide to save me if I got into it too deep and it was life and death. After talking to the guide about this, we decided that he’d help me out as best he could. I was ok with that.

We started out. Well, it was a great float for me. The biggest water I ever was in. The guide would give me instructions well before the rapids and then I stayed back about 75-100 yards from the raft and just followed him through. We’d meet up and talk through the next one if we had a chance, otherwise I just tried to watch how he took the raft went through and mirrored his approach.

We came up to Tumbleweed, considered to be the toughest rapid in the stretch by most. I hit it hard and fast, keeping my paddle in the water as much as possible. This does a number of things. It gives the kayaker another point of contact and control. One has thigh braces just inside the cockpit and these combined with foot pegs and your actual seat make up what most would consider the tools to stabilize the boat. But, having that paddle in the water and using it as a fulcrum point, or brace as is called in the sport, a few feet from the boat comprises what I feel is the best way to stay upright. So I tried to maintain a strong steady stroke into the teeth of the biggest water. Some folks freeze and just try to ride it out, paddle not in the water, and to me that is not good. Also, consider that forward motion, as with riding a bike, greatly improves balance, so decent speed helps. Speed also helps in maneuvering the kayak because if you're going the same speed as the water, maneuvering is not possible. Sometimes back stroking, to go slower than the water is what is needed and this works as good or better even than forward motion to steer the boat.

So, I hit Tumbleweed and the first big wave slaps my face and washes over my head. No time to get the cold water out of my eyes as I keep the paddle moving and pulling me forward. The force of the water as it rolls over on its self creating a standing wave tries to stall my forward motion so I dig deeper and pull stronger, trying not to let it grab me. If it would have succeeded, I probably would have been washed sideways in the hydraulic and rolled over.

This is where the guide company takes pictures and the 4 posted show my progress through Tumbleweed.

As I busted through the last wave everyone in the raft cheered and even the guide had big smile on his face. We then headed down the last couple of rapids, confident that I have good chance of acing the river.

As we came up on Fang, which was the last rapid, the raft that’s now about 50 yards in front of me disappears. It no more than drops into a huge hole than it gets shot out the other side and into the waiting roller. In the time it takes for me to witness this, I’m dropping over the edge into the same hole. I’m stroking hard and as I come back up and hit the roller and I pull free of its hold. I made it!

Suddenly, I’m being lifted straight up in the water. As I’m lifted up, in what I call the river "breathing", I start to go over. I had stopped paddling because I thought I was through Fang so I lost all my forward momentum as compared to the river speed. I learned later this rapid, in it’s attempt to force it's self through this narrow, canyon, raises and lowers due to it’s tight and constricted location between the high walls of the canyon. The water backs up, slows, then surges forward. I hit it as it was backing up, or breathing, which stopped my forward momentum. I reached out to the side that I was falling to to try to hit the water with the flat of my paddle, to brace, keep myself upright to keep from tipping.  The water was so oxygenated my paddle could not get enough purchase of solid water and over I went. I fought my way out of the kayak (I didn't and still don't know how to roll!) and started to swim to the surface when a wave forced me to toward the bottom. I remember trying to push off the bottom but I never touched. As I was rolled and tumbled I wasn’t sure if I pushed myself toward the river bottom or the surface in my efforts. I opened my eyes and looked around and started swimming toward daylight. As soon as I popped to the surface the guide from WI was there. He had brought a different group down the river on riverboards in front of the raft that I had followed down and they were all waiting on the downriver side of Fang for the last raft and me to come through. He directed me to grab him and we swam to the edge of the canyon walls and climbed up on the rocks. Other folks had snagged my kayak and they were ferrying it over for me.

I finished out the float lazily paddling down to the take out, the rafters playing far behind me, jumping off the sides of the raft and swimming in the river before being pulled back in by fellow rafters. Once I got to my bike I took off. The guides had offered to throw my kayak on the back of their trailer but the trailer was full, so I drove back with my Jeep, grabbed the yak and headed for the nearest liquor store. I picked up a couple cases of brew and dropped it off at the ranch the guides were all staying at. I had a beer with them, thanked them for their help and slipped them a decent tip.

It was as great day!

Middle Fork Flathead River

By now my wife had flown out to Missoula and we had made our way to Glacier Park and our impending motorcycle ride through Glacier and up to Canada. But we wanted to spend some time on the water. We rafted together on the Middle Fork of the Flathead, which is the west boundary of Glacier Park. I studied it similar to what I did in the Alberton Gorge. This river was not nearly as big nor are the rapids as Clark Fork, but they still deserved one’s attention.

After we rafted the river, we took off on the motorcycle for 9 days and finished that part of our vacation. After my wife flew home from Edmonton, I came back to Whitefish, where the Jeep and kayak were left, and headed out to kayak the Flathead and then head home myself. Again, I talked to a local rafting company, the same one my wife and I used, and as they were having a slow day, they had no problem assigning a guide to me that was taking a couple of folks out.

A raft on the Flathead.

We had a nice float down the river. My confidence level was high as the river was just the right size to do a little playing but still very challenging and the views of the mountains in the distance were great. As we drifted down the river the guide, his clients and I had the opportunity to talk and share a few stories. At one point, the guide actually asked me to go down rapids first and hang out in the eddy as he wanted to try a maneuver at a certain spot and wanted me to be his safety valve in case something went awry. I felt I had somewhat arrived with that request!
Leaving Glacier Park

Recommend reading:
A Falcon Guide: Paddling Montana by Hank and Carol Fisher

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