A Wild and Scenic Adventure on the South Fork of the Flathead River
When required to carry 50+ pounds in a backpack for more than 20 miles, it really makes one reevaluate the contents of the pack that were previously considered “crucial.” At least this is what was going through my head as I joined 11 other friends and colleagues on a journey down the South Fork of the Flathead River (one of the few federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Montana).
Although we called it a “river trip,” it wasn’t until day three that we actually greeted the water. The voyage required an initial two day, 23-mile hike to the confluence of Young’s Creek and Danaher Creek, where the South Fork of the Flathead River begins. Here we met the mules carrying the remainder of the gear we couldn’t carry on our own backs: rafts, kayaks, some food and supplies.
Despite the arduous start, it didn’t take long to forget the foot travel required to access the majestic river hidden deep in the wilderness. It also wasn’t surprising to see why this outstanding section of river has been afforded the highest level of protection possible under federal legislation. Within moments I was catching 14-inch native cutthroat trout from my inflatable kayak. I watched from the banks as one of my travel companions wrestled and lost a bull trout that had grabbed a cutthroat that was hooked on his line.
My journey by water continued for five more spectacular days, with stops each night at different campsites. Past wildfires had opened up the river-side vegetation, giving way to breathtaking views into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Bald eagles soared overhead competing with us for their next meal. It was an experience unrivaled by any other so far in my life, and I often found myself wondering how it was possible such a place existed and how I was lucky enough to be experiencing it.
As a new employee of American Rivers, this trip meant something extra special, offering additional purpose and inspiration as I advocate for the protection of similarly remarkable rivers across Montana. Despite the fact that Montana boasts some of the most pristine waterways in the country, we have just four wild and scenic rivers here totaling 368 miles. This means that less than half of one percent of Montana’s stream miles is permanently protected, the last designation occurring in 1976.
While floating over deep, clear blue-green pools; navigating white water through rocky limestone canyons; and for a short time sharing the habitat of rare and threatened species like grizzlies and bull trout, I began to fully appreciate the importance and timeliness of wild and scenic river designation. As a Montanan I am rich in high quality rivers, and know first hand how essential they are to our quality of life. In an age where clean, free-flowing rivers are few and far between, we need to do everything we can to protect the ones that are still intact.