A Week in the Wilderness
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
I once went seventy miles through the Bob Marshall Wilderness in five days. Forty-five of those miles I kayaked, without my spray skirt or lifejacket… They said there wasn’t any rapids, they were wrong.
Some good friends from Missoula invited me on a packrafting trip through one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower forty-eight. Of course, I said yes and being the cheapskate I am, thought it would be fine to hike in my kayak along with a week’s worth of camping gear. After all, I’ve hiked my kayak into many rivers and done multi day floats, but never one like this.
I roped my childhood friend, the best man at my wedding, into doing exactly what I was thinking of doing. We would pack our kayaks full of camping gear, then use webbing as straps to cinch the kayak around our shoulders and back them in twenty-five miles into the wilderness. “It’ll be easy, and we’ll save like two hundred bucks,” I told Peter. He agreed.
Despite the advice of my Missoula friends, I stubbornly stuck to my guns on pack in my kayak and gear. We didn’t need to get packrafts, which are designed for lightweight backpacking and roll-up to the size of a tent. After testing it out will all my gear, it weighed about ninety pounds; I cut a few things out. I asked others who’d done this trip before if there were any rapids. Mainly I was wondering if I needed to bring my lifejacket and spray skirt. The spray skirt keeps water from filling and swamping the thirty-pound plastic boat. They said it wasn’t white water, pretty flat, so I relayed the info to Peter. We packed up and left for the week, without our life-saving flotation device – which is required by law- or the one thing that would keep water from sinking our kayaks.
Reaching Missoula, Peter and I had to wait for our other three friends to pick up their packrafts. The rental shop wouldn’t allow them to collect them until five o’clock. In high spirits, we went to a pub and ordered a massive burger with a few pints of craft brew to wash them down. It’s never an outstanding idea to get an alcohol buzz going before hiking twenty-five miles with over seventy pounds of gear.
On the ride up to the trailhead, our friends reminisced about how tough the hike was the last time they did the trip. Since it was late in the afternoon, we would hike until it got dark, then camp wherever we ended up. We needed to at least get over the pass, so the trail would be downhill the next day.
Not only is the Bob Marshall Wilderness a million acres of untrammeled land, it’s the most densely populated area of grizzly bears in the lower forty-eight. It’s somewhere you should be on top of your game, not experiencing a slight hangover and ill prepared for the water to come.
When I put my webbing rigged kayak on, I instantly second guessed myself what I was about to do for the next seventy miles. Loaded down with all my gear, the foam pool noodles I was using for padding had already started tearing. As I soon found out, it didn’t take long for the webbing to cut through and dig into my skin. Peter’s set up was a little better than mine, I think. He used a backpack to house all his camping gear, then dragged the boat behind him, though it was still thirty pounds too heavy and the bow of the kayak hit him in the heels the whole way.
Our friends quickly became concerned for Peter and I as we struggled in the first few miles of the hike. The trial was steep, hot, and dry. We hiked through a burned area of the forest, which kicked up ashy dust with each step. Whenever we stopped to rest, we were covered in ash from the logs we sat on. My kayak-backpack dug into my shoulders and hips to where my skin was rubbing raw. Suffering through the pain of hiking over the pass, we continued, mind numbingly into the dark. Near mile fifteen, we found a place to camp. To cut more weight in my pack, I left my sleeping pad and tent behind. I used a hammock to sleep in. With no insolation they can get chilly, especially near eight-thousand-feet.
Putting back on the horrible pack system I had created was the last thing I wanted to do, though. Seeing where we had camped after hiking in during the dark lifted my spirits. A crown of mountain peaks wrapped the small meadow we camped in. The trees were nearly all scorched to char and the steep slopes were a mixture of green grass, brush, and wildflowers in full bloom. The stream was a trickle, and ten more miles down the trail opened up into the creek we would begin the float.
As we climbed from the meadow to the trail, we met more friends coming down the trail. They’d left later than us and hiked part way the night before. We now doubled our group to ten, Peter and I being the only two without packrafts.
I tried to block the pain from my mind and focus on the beauty of the scenery as we hiked through the scorching July day. With no trees for cover and the ashy burn kicking up dust to dry our throats, it wasn’t as enjoyable as it should’ve been. The highlight of the second day’s hike was the Morel Mushrooms. Since the area had recently burned, they were all along the trail. We picked and ate them as we went, keeping plenty for the meals in the days to come.
Slogging our way to the put in, Peter and I were a few miles behind the others. Near the end, I could feel that my face was probably pale, and I was more than ready to get my boots off and start the float. Near late afternoon, we finally reached the put in. Youngs Creek was now large enough to safely float. I was so relieved to have the kayak off of me.
For floating, I had brought a dry bag to hold my gear and use the lashing straps to tie it down to my boat. With my fly-fishing rod broken during the hike, I used the bottom half as best I could. That first few miles were not bad at all. The creek was flat, just like they said it would be with no rapids. I sat with my legs out of my kayak’s cockpit and reclined on my dry bag as a backrest while fishing on the lazy water. After catching a few fish for dinner and portaging several log jams. We set up camp near a ranger station. At the time, Peter and I were pretty happy with our decision not to drop the extra money for a packraft, though they looked quite a bit more comfortable than our boats. The next day, that changed.
After fishing flats of Youngs Creek, we came to a gorge. The water steepened, and the rapids came. There were rapids, after all. The packrafters were not as experienced with white water as Peter and I, but with our not having lifejackets or spray skirts, we were in a similar weary mind state. I led Peter, keeping as close to the bank as possible. Our boats filled up with water after a few splashes and we were desperately paddling swamped kayaks heavy with gear to the side. At one point there was a second we couldn’t skirt around, we had to run it. The water swamped and Peter and I narrowly avoided getting stuck on a rock sticking up in the middle of the rapid. Seeing the packrafters glide through these with minor issue, I was really kicking myself that we didn’t at least bring our skirts. No life jacks was the worst idea of all. We were still in the top section of the river where it was narrow. The water continued to get bigger and deeper. I tried not to think about it and take them one farcansee at a time. A farcansee is how far one can see from the point they are on the river. As in, the next rapid is two farcansees from the last.
Peter and I quickly dismissed hiking alongside the river. After the pain from the webbing cutting into my shoulders and hips, I would rather swamp my kayak in every riffle and take the time to get out and drain it, then pack it again. After the gorge, the creek flattened out again. We hit the confluence with Danaher Creek, where they form to become the Southfork of the Flathead River. Making it into the deeper water, I led Peter around the wave trains and splashy water to our next camp. With plenty of fish to catch and all the whiskey we packed in, we were pretty content that night. I continued to ask how much bigger the water got than the gorge. The answer was a slight pause, then much bigger.
The next day started how the last ended, moving around riffles and small wave trains as we went. After passing another ranger station, the water got bigger and the rapids picked up again. Since Peter and I didn’t have our lifejackets, the plan for if we swamped in a rapid was, stay in the boat. The boat is subsurface, but still floats. Unless we were pinned, getting out of the kayak is a good way to sink in the fast-moving water. Swimming in a river is not the same as a lake or pool. The current easily drags you under.
The fifteen-mile stretch held plenty of small Class II rapids. Mostly, the shallow sides were calm enough to slide along the rocky bank and avoid the splashing water all together. There were a few spots that this wasn’t possible, and again we were swamping our kayaks. You should know that this water is cold, snowmelt water. Although it was July and hot weather, the water was still in the fifties and with swift moving current could cause hypothermia in about a half hour or less, depending on how many layers you’re wearing. We were wearing shorts and lightweight shirts. Peter passed me in one rapid, getting hit with a sizable wave that instantly filled his boat. He sank under the surface. The next thing I knew, he was out of his kayak and swimming without a lifejacket. The current he was in swirled and I saw him go under the water twice as he struggled to swim. Avoiding the wave as best I could, I swung into the eddy and alongside Peter. He grabbed hold of the back of my boat and I paddled him to shore. He was shivering and a bit shocked from the power of the water. Quickly, I helped retrieve his swamped kayak and reminded him to stay in the boat if that happened again.
After continuing until late afternoon, we found a beautiful meadow with enormous Ponderosa trees evenly spaced to camp in. Peter and I dried our gear in the remaining hours of daylight. We fished more, one of our friends caught a bull trout that was just shy of three feet long, and we warmed ourselves with whiskey and the heat of the fire. I remember standing at the edge of the river and thinking about how we had two more days of this and the water would more than double. I was pretty nervous and really regretting my choice to not bring a packraft.
That night we were sitting around the fire when we heard a growling noise. Several of us perked up, shining our headlights into the darkness. We heard the noise again, a growl that sounded now like it was coming from a different direction than before. Some of our friends said it was bear. We got our bear spray at the ready and tried to locate the source of the noise. We hadn’t seen a bear yet, but where we were camped, it wouldn’t be surprising to see one. The growling came again, several times as we scanned our surroundings. I have had a lot of bear encounters and I’ve never seen a bear walking in the woods growling at random. They grunt, sniff, snort, but don’t growl unless threatened. At least that seems to be the case in my experience. I told this to my friends, saying, “Bears don’t just walk around growling at night. And the noise is coming from different directions. Sometimes it’s across the river, sometimes it’s behind the camp.” About half agreed and about half were still in the opinion that it was a bear. We sat back down around the fire, ignoring the noise. I noticed there was some kind of night hawk dive-bombing our fire, eating bugs the light was attracting. I watched it, hearing the growl each time it dove. I pointed it out, and we soon confirmed that the hawk’s wings were making a vibrating noise, that sounded like a growl, when it dove.
That night sleeping in the hammock was the coldest so far. I constantly woke, shivering and waiting for the sun to warm us up again. In the middle of the night, I wrapped my rain fly around my sleeping bag to trap more heat, but it didn’t make much of a difference. When dawn came, I was eager to sit out in the sunlight.
The water continued to rise the further down river we went, though the next stretch of river was much less splashy as the last. We went a dozen or more miles before camping next to a ranger station. I was grateful that we’d made it this far in the float without a nasty accident. The next day’s section of water was the biggest yet and held the large rapids. During the last night of the trip, we ate all the food we had, drank all the alcohol that was left, and built up a sizable fire. With the previous night’s chill, both Peter and I slept next to the warmth of the fire. As I had been woken up by two grizzlies the summer before while sleeping next to a fire in a similar area of the state, I opted to have my bear spray within reach. Luckily, I didn’t need it. The night was chilly, but continually stoking it with logs kept us warm. The rocky ground wasn’t the most comfortable, but I’ve slept in worse places.
That morning, I looked at the sizable river we’d come into, wondering if we could handle the Class II + and Class III rapids ahead. I’ve kayaked a Class III run without a skirt before, but I knew the lines on the rapids, had a lifejacket, and wasn’t packing camping gear. Peter and I used our raincoats as splash skirts, Strapping them as best we could around the cockpit of the kayak. It did a marvellous job at keeping small waves from sinking us, but it was the large ones we were worried about. Luckily, almost all the rapids had a shallow gravel bar along the bank that we could bump our way down. At the end, the river came into a deep gorge, surrounded by cliff walls and no way around the rapids. The swirly current in the gorge was much stronger than any so far. Getting out of the kayak would really be an awful idea. We picked our way through the last of the rapids with no further issues. At the takeout, I was so thankful that we had made it. Now there was only a four-mile hike out.
I shouldered my kayak instead of using the webbing straps. We had to stop and switch shoulders several times, but both Peter and I made it out alive. The trip was amazing, great fishing, fun times with friends, and high adrenaline because of my idiotic decision to try to save some money. After reaching the truck parked at the trailhead, I told myself that if I did that trip again, I would pack in a packraft and a lifejacket.
I’m writing this story this month because yesterday I just returned home from my second trip. This time, I carried in my tent, sleeping pad, packraft, and lifejacket. The trip was a thousand times more comfortable, though the hike in was still pretty miserable with an eighty-pound pack. This time around, I could enjoy the scenery much more. We caught lots of fish, saw deer, bears, and lots of birds. A moose walked through camp one night and we witnessed a waterspout form from a random gust of wind. The mini tornado-like swirl of wind touched down just behind where I was floating with my fishing rod in hand. All in all, the second trip was more enjoyable. But the first will be one that I never forget.