State 8 of 50 Idaho: Kootenai River

The mighty Kootenay makes a detour south of the border.  Never seen so many fish…
Date Paddled:  August 28, 2016
Nearest City:  Bonners Ferry, Idaho
Put-In:  Yaak River Campground (Troy, Montana)  10:30 am
Take-Out:  Twin Rivers Resort (Moyie Springs, ID) 4:30 pm
Duration:  6 hours
River Miles:  16
Shuttle:  $40 from Rex at Twin Rivers Resort
Weather:  mostly sunny 80 degrees, some wind;
                        water 60 deg. very clear
Difficulty:  Class I, quickwater; some tricky currents
                         and huge eddy pools
Cfs:  7000

The Kootenay River (Canadian spelling) begins high in the mountains of Kootenay National Park in Canada and heads south, barely missing a meeting with its future suitor, the Columbia, near that river’s headwaters at Columbia Lake in British Columbia.  Having averted this premature conclusion, the Kootenay crosses the 49th parallel, replacing its final “y” with an “i” for a brief trip through Montana and Idaho before returning to Canada (and it’s original spelling) and entering vast and amazing Kootenay Lake.

Emerging from Lake Koocanusa and the Libby Dam, the American Kootenai is a big river with steady, cold flow, as it passes the run-down town of Libby, Montana and tumbles over the falls just before Troy.  Our put-in, just past Troy, starts us out on a relatively calm but fast-slowing river set in a steep valley between heavily forested hills and rocky bluffs/cliffs.  Though the rapids are mild and easy to negotiate, the current never really lets up – even in the “calm” waters below the frequent rapids and riffles. We are conveyed along smoothly but swiftly at 3 or 4 miles per hour, but accelerated to more than twice as fast in the rapids. Quite exhilarating!dscn2742The most notable features of this ride, however, were the clear water, that made the rocks and fish dramatically visible.   The colorful rocks, rushing by just a foot or two below our kayaks, enhanced the sense of gliding motion, like riding on a magic carpet, especially going into the rapids.  And, amidst the medium to large cobbles that lie under much of the river, just below our boats, were thousands of easily visible fish, from tiny fry and fingerlings, to 8 to 16 inch adult trout.  It seemed as if you could just reach down into the cold water and grab one!dscn2700Another notable feature of this paddle is that it started in Montana and ended in Idaho, so it was that about mile 7 that we came to the only structure spanning the river in this section – the abandoned highway bridge at Leonia – that happens to mark the state line, and so we paddled into Idaho for the first time.  dscn2712The copious fish in the river naturally drew many osprey, two kingfishers and a small number of mergansers as well as deer coming to the river for a afternoon drink.  The size and depth of the Kootenai in this section make navigation by powerboats possible, and several folks fishing and playing with their noisy machines in just one small section.  However, aside from this and the occasional freight train on the adjoining tracks we were hardly bothered by the trappings of  civilization  for many hours until we arrived at our take out at the confluence with the Moyie.dscn2688Here we were delighted to see Vincent, who had been shuttled back from the put in site by the kind folks at Twin Rivers Resort.  The Resort, in Moyie Springs is on land owned by the Kootenai Indian Tribe. They’ve recently built a fish hatchery next door to the resort at the confluence of the Kootenai and Moyie Rivers.  The fishery is being run by Rex and his family in a cooperative relationship with the tribe.  We hope to be able to return to comfortable campground and this amazing river!dscn2691





State 7 of 50 Montana (second paddle): Flathead River – North Fork

A gorgeous, fast-moving river with wonderful scenery and wildlife in a truly wild and hard-to-reach setting
Date Paddled:  August 25 & 26, 2016
Nearest City:  Columbia Falls, MT
Put-In (first day):  Polebridge (GNP boundary)
Take-Out (first day):  Coal Creek access
Take-Out (second day):  Big Creek campground
Duration:  about 3 hours each day
River Miles:  18 miles total (9 each day)
Shuttle: paid shuttle from Polebridge (first day); hitchhiked second 
Weather:  cool (low 70s) and partly cloudy
Difficulty:  most rapids all class I+, a few class II, but snags and sharp turns make for challenging maneuvering and require intermediate paddling skill
Cfs:  1000

Our journey on the Flathead River was preceeded the previous day by a drive through Glacier National Park, a landscape dramatically shaped by glaciers. Long hours of gazing at various maps of Montana and the park tucked up near Canada, didn’t prepare Diana for the jaw-dropping vistas. The Going to the Sun road was just as frightening as the mountains were spectacular with hairpin turns, few guardrails, and a variety of vehicles. This is certainly one of the most spectacular drives in any of our National Parks.dscn2601The Flathead River flows down from Canada between the Livingston Range in Glacier Park and the Whitefish Mountains in neighboring Flathead National Forest, in a broad and remote valley with limited access. We spent half an hour on a washboard afflicted road getting to the put in at Polebridge, a town of one store! We dropped the kayaks at the bridge across the North Fork of the Flathead that leads into a remote corner of Glacier National Park, then completed the dusty shuttle to Coal Creek, an un-signed access point nine miles downstream.dscn2611The put-in was at a spot where the river was picking up speed and sweeping away from the near bank. We had to launch into a strong current and negotiate a class I+ rapid before we were even warmed up on this 48 degree morning. As the current moved us swiftly along, we soon noticed a dark-brown hump in the water. Squinting downstream as we made for the farther shore, a black bear emerged from the water onto an island made of stream cobbles and then disappeared into the berry patch.bear-2

bear-4More so than anywhere else we’ve paddled, the Flathead shows its true character as a glacial stream in many ways.  The classic broad U-shape of the valley and the stark austerity of the distant peaks reminded us that glaciers had filled this valley only a few tens-of-thousands of years ago.  The river’s water, having tumbled directly and swiftly down rocky stream beds from the lofty glaciers and snowfields in the park,  picks up some fine glacial sediments but little in the way of organic materials, so it’s crystal clear, but lacking in nutrients.  Thus it cannot support much of a fishery, though a modest number of human anglers were trying their luck from shore or in drift boats.dscn2605The ospreys love this river, however, as the clear water gives them a great look at their future meals.  A bald eagle rode the thermals and a family of twenty mergansers bobbed along in the quickwater. The shores were tightly packed with fir, spruce, and cottonwoods with many cobble-bars filled with willows.  The tint of the water ranged from gin-clear to intense green-blue in the deeper areas where the effects of the glacial sediments was stronger.  Below the sections where sandy cliffs had produced white sand bottoms, often eight or ten feet down below the surface, the sunlight was refracted back to the surface to produce the most amazing shades of emerald and turquoise.  Elsewhere the river bottom was carpeted with small stones and cobbles worn smooth and round by the action of the water.  The rocks exhibited every tint and shade of the rugged mountains in the park just to our east from whence they came – pinks and purples as well as grays and browns.
dscn2660-2We were expecting a rather tame experience on the river given that none of the rapids could truly be called a class II, however we found this paddle challenging almost every minute. The water was on the low side so we were often evaluating the best route over an area of quickwater/cobble garden. The temperature of the water was easily in the low-60s (if not colder) and the morning temperature was a weak 48 degrees under cloudy skies, so we were alert to minimizing splashing from the rapids, often challenging in the many wave trains.  The rapids themselves, while not particularly challenging required some thought as there were many places with undercut banks, downed trees, and shallow water.dscn2654At about mile four, we thought we had paddled into a different river! It narrowed down to about a third of its previous size, and the water picked up speed. There were tight meanders one after another with tall pines very close to the water. Bleached trees were piled up on every outside turn with current trying to sweep us into the fray.  It took vigilance and quick maneuvering to stay in a safe channel and avoid then snags.

The first day ended at the Coal Creek access location, where our next day would begin, as we continued on down the Flathead for another 9 miles.  This next section was similar to the first, with perhaps a half a degree less challenge, as the river is generally wider here and not quite so bendy.  Class I to I+ rapids continued to be interspersed between sections of smoother water that nonetheless chugged along at a fast pace over a wide, rocky bottom.  Where the current was particularly strong, such as in the rapids and riffles, the river stones were free of any accumulated sediments or algae, and showed an amazing palette of pastel colors ranging from tans and blue-grays to pinks and purples.  It was an amazing sensation to whisk silently but rapidly a foot or so over this colorful rock garden.

dscn2668As the second day progressed, the banks receded and there was evidence of recent fires, which gave us increasingly open views of the surrounding landscape, including the craggy peaks of Glacier National Park twenty or so miles distant.  dscn4001For the last few miles of our paddle, the Flathead jogged to the west, leaving the flatter valley and GNP boundary and heading between steep mountain slopes toward its eventual confluence with the Middle and South forks and Flathead Lake.  We pulled into the boat ramp area at Big Creek with plenty of time left in the day, and as Diana hitchhiked back north to fetch Vincent, I combed the rocky beach looking for colorful stones, while a bald eagle soared overhead.dscn4005

State 7 of 50 Montana: Missouri River

Swift water, eroded cliffs, big open sky
Date Paddled:  August 22, 2016
Nearest City: Craig (?), MT
Put-In: Dearborn
Take-Out: 7 miles downstream on Recreation Road
Duration: 2.5 hours
River Miles: ~8
Shuttle: 7 miles paved
Weather: partly cloudy with high cirrus clouds, windy
Difficulty: quickwater, class I, one class II
Cfs: 4050

The Missouri calls to us as we meandered north toward Great Falls. We followed it along a variety of landscapes, but when we saw a cliff/canyon-y section with road-side access – off came the kayaks.dscn3675Peter had a hard time of fighting the wind on the bike shuttle back to the put in, but made it in reasonably good humor! The current was strong, the water clear or tinged with green in the deeper pools, with occasional class I rapids. Sweeping across to a far meander was a popular move on this river.  River plants growing in the cold, oxygenated waters ranging in color from the palest green to dark emerald drew our recurring admiration.


Our interest was also captured by the cliffs that were heavily eroded creating niches for hardy pines.dscn2530


The traffic noise somewhat impeded our pleasure, but the cliffs, pines, water vegetation, all made this paddle wonderful!