Friday, August 23, 2013

North Fork of the Flathead River

Rachel Wigglesworth, North Fork Flathead River

I recently had the pleasure of accompanying a group of friends on a packrafting trip down the North Fork of the Flathead River in Northern Montana. From the Canadian Border to its confluence with the Middle Fork the mostly wild and highly scenic North Fork forms the boarder of Glacier National Park. Descending it is a wonderful and relaxing journey through a remote and undeveloped mountain valley.

Reaching the put-in near the Canadian border was part of the adventure. Fortunately we had use of a privately owned Beachcraft King Air that cut our travel time down by about 8 hours and provided fantastic views of the Teton Range. 

One of the benefits of packrafts is found while traveling. Switching planes in Kalispell, we were able to pack all the boats, food, and camping equipment for seven people and five days in one Cessna 206.

Red Meadow Creek Landing Strip

We had intended to land just south of the Canadian Border at the Moose City Airstrip. Unfortunately, Moose City is a private airstrip and therefore had a change of plans. Instead we landed at the Red Meadow Creek Airstrip.

Colleen Grady, Julie Kling, and Rachel Wigglesworth

Not surprisingly, we had no trouble finding a ride to the Ford Boat Launch that was only 14 miles below Moose City. 

Ford Boat Launch

The USGS North Fork Gage near Columbia Falls reported 1,300 cfs. This proved more than adequate and created a leisurely trip perfect for kids and novice packrafters.

Packrafting the North Fork of the Flathead River

The North Fork originates in Canada’s Clark Range and flows south draining the west side of the Continental Divide through a broad glacial valley that extends into Montana. In 1975 the United States Congress designated the North Fork a National Wild and Scenic River.

Packrafting Glacier National Park's Western Boundary

Water flowing from the 31-mile Canadian headwaters remains relatively pure as there are no permanent residents, livestock, or mining.  Proposed mining activities recently threatened the North Fork’s natural character, but fortunately in 2011 the British Columbian Parliament passed legislation to protect its headwaters from all forms of mining and oil and gas drilling. More recently conservation groups succeeded in buying out existing mining rights.

Camp 2

Camping on the river's east bank requires a backcountry camping permit from Glacier National Park. However, Flathead National Forest adjoins much of the river's west bank where no permit is required.

Matthew, Kai, and Ridge

With an average gradient of 18-feet per mile the North Fork is mostly Class 1 and 2 with several Class 3 rapids at higher flows. The main hazards include the occasional log jam or strainer. It's an appropriate run for beginners and children. The three nine-year-old boys I was with (who have been paddling since they were six) confidently piloted their own boats down 50 miles of this wild river without incident.

Unidentified bird tracks pointing the way

The North Fork Valley is rich with wildlife. In addition to many sightings of eagle, osprey, and great blue herons the sandbars were covered with tracks of deer, elk, and wolf.

Colleen Grady, North Fork of the Flathead River

Fantastic views of the Livingston Range


Polebridge Mercantile has been the social and business hub of the North Fork Valley since it opened in 1907.  It moved to its current location in 1914. The store is a must-stop on any journey down the North Fork. Serving a variety of fresh baked goods, its huckleberry bear claws are highly recommended.

Lunch Break

Rachel Wigglesworth, North Fork Flathead River

Located primarily in Glacier National Park, the Livingston Range provided a scenic backdrop. Thirty-six miles long and 28 miles wide, the ranges rugged 10,000 ft peaks host glaciers and tower 6,000 feet over the North Fork Valley.

Colleen fishing for supper

The North Fork lacks the nutrients that create the Blue Ribbon fisheries of the Flathead's Middle and South forks. Regardless, both cutthroat and rainbow trout inhabit the rivers many eddies.

A healthy backcountry dinner

Did you know that Fritos Corn Chips only contain three simple ingredients: corn, oil and salt?

The North Fork

Climax forests of spruce and fir often dominated one side of the river while pioneer forests of broad leaf cottonwood occupied the other.

Emerging Explorers

Matthew rigging his self-bailing Feathercraft Baylee

Paddling near the confluence with Camas Creek

We used a variety of boats rented form Jackson Hole Packraft Rentals Anywhere and Rendezvous River Sports.  While the Alpackas performed well, the self-bailing Feathercraft Baylee was the most popular. Even loaded with coolers, the nine-year-old boys had no difficulties piloting the highly stable yet nimble Baylees.

Camp 3

Numerous sand and gravel bars with abundant firewood and majestic views provide delightful camping.

Colleen "sends" the crux rapid

Below the confluence with Big Creek alpine vitas are replaced by limestone gorges and stretches of moderate and super fun Class 2+ (Class 3 at higher flows) whitewater. 

“There is no rushing a river. When you go there, you go at the pace of the water and that pace ties you into a flow that is older than life on this planet. Acceptance of that pace, even for a day, changes us, reminds us of other rhythms beyond the sound of our own heartbeats.” - Jeff Rennicke

North Fork of the Flathead River


  1. Nice one. Looks like you guys had a bit better flows then we did last weekend on the Middle Fork.

    ps. I second the Huckleberry Bear Claw recommendation. One time I downed 6 in a 12hr period. So freakin good.

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