The Sick Line

How wretched can you be when you're paddling the Flathead? Sometimes you've got to find out.

| June 01, 2010

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It's another rough ride from Polebridge to the border toilet. On several trips we've camped not far from that box-topped hole in the ground, off to the southern side of a narrow, shaved boundary-marking swath that runs like a shot through the forest, climbing the horizon on both sides of the river. One night a scrawny fox sniffed around our site looking for scraps while we sat around a fire and watched it. It was very polite. Probably a Canadian.

In the mornings—or afternoons, those years we've arrived early enough to launch without camping—we put our canoes in the water there, driving down a dip and across a shallow side-channel onto a rock bar in the river to unload the truck and pack the boats. Then we climb in, a little jittery from being too long away, and point the boats downstream.

The North Fork of the Flathead melts out of British Columbia, about 31 miles north of the border. Under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, it's federally designated and partially protected from the Canadian border to its confluence with the Middle Fork, which doglegs in from the south, 58 miles downstream. Then the South Fork release from Hungry Horse Dam joins in before the snugged braid spills into Flathead Lake.

Above the Canadian border, the river, there called the Southern Flathead, was until recently unprotected, and it remains remote in the extreme. Long-contemplated mountaintop-removal coal mining and coal-bed methane proposals near its headwaters earned the North Fork the number five spot on the American Rivers organization's 2009 list of the most threatened watersheds in the United States. In February of this year, officials in British Columbia announced a moratorium, in partnership with Montana, on mining and energy development in the Flathead Valley. The deal included a promise from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to buy out energy and mining interests on the state's side of the border.

The North Fork is too cold to be a top-notch fishery, and it's got nothing like the Middle Fork's raft-friendly whitewater or the South Fork's mule-pack remoteness, but it's a recreational canoeist's dream, at least come summer, when the water is dropping and the sweepers don't sneak up so fast. The water looks like jade-green ink spilled in a turquoise dish of skim milk. The ostrich-egg-sized rocks beneath it shine like they're submerged in glycerine. The water moves purposefully, especially in the narrower upstream reaches, necessitating a reasonably deft paddle, with all the attention and pleasure that demand delivers. There aren't many places to just sit and drift if you don't want to end up broadside in a shoal or bow-butting a bank. "It keeps coming at you," Matt likes to say.

The weather in July is usually within a tolerable window. I've been cold there at night, but nothing a fire and a bit of fleece couldn't cure. Last year's trip was my first after the Forest Service implemented 2008 regulations requiring the use of fire pans on the river. A big round baking pan works just fine. (The new regs, implemented in response to an upswing in usage, also require leakproof portable toilet systems for packing human waste out.)

On other trips in early July it's been so blazing hot on the water that swimming has started to seem viable. It's really not. I can stay in for about as long as it takes me to get back out.

The river's western bank is Flathead National Forest, and the east bank is Glacier National Park, the boundary of which runs the river's middle. Bald eagle sightings are frequent. We've seen several deer swimming the river. Moose are not uncommon, but hard to see. I've never seen a bear, though they're there, and the mere possibility of a grizzly effects a clarifying force on the mind. It's a good idea to hang your food, or at least seal it well and stash it away from camp. We've seen plenty of beavers and, less frequently, marmots.

Or people. Certain stretches of the North Fork feel so otherworldly that it seems impossible you could be sharing the watershed with other humans. In fact, the North Fork Road shadows the river for most of its length, though you rarely notice its presence. There are houses along the river, mostly on the western shore, but it's rare to see any sign of habitation. Occasionally you will pass or be passed by locals out for a day trip, or rafting fishermen or, increasingly, fellow canoeists. At a right-bank meadow access just above the Kintla II rapids, sometimes called the Wurtz airstrip, about 10 river miles from the border, you'll probably cross paths with some kayakers putting in for a short run.

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