Glacier National Park: Whitewater Rafting on the Middle Fork Flathead River

Sixth in a series about Glacier National Park

On Sunday, August 17, 2014, my then-girlfriend Rachel and I arrived in Kalispell, Montana.  I enjoy the challenge of trip planning, which is perfect, because Rachel likes letting me plan.  Monday and Tuesday were committed to driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road and hiking in the Many Glacier region (later narrowed down to Iceberg Lake).  I’d decided that I’d ask her to marry me on Wednesday at one of my favorite spots in the world, Avalanche Lake.

Avalanche Lake is a short hike from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007
Avalanche Lake, the picturesque location that I did NOT propose at. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

There’s an old Yiddish proverb: “Men plan and God laughs.”  So, naturally, this was the one time Rachel requested a l make a last minute change of itinerary.  We’d stopped for trail food at a grocery store in Kalispell.  On the way out, we passed a display of pamphlets advertising activities in and around Glacier.  Rachel examined the rack and announced that she wanted to go whitewater rafting!  As a member of Cornell Crew back in college, she was partial to boating-related activities, but she’d never been whitewater rafting before.  Monday and Tuesday, we were going to be on the wrong side of the park.  That left…Wednesday.  So much for Avalanche Lake.

At our hotel in Kalispell, I grudgingly went online using Rachel’s laptop to look for rafting trips that were still available at the last minute.  One of the pamphlets at the store was from Glacier Guides/Montana Raft Company.  From my previous research in booking the Glacier Guides Lodge, I knew that Glacier Guides/Montana Raft had good reviews on TripAdvisor for their adventure activities as well as the lodge.

“Yay,” Rachel celebrated after we booked a Half Day Whitewater Raft Trip for Wednesday afternoon.

“If by ‘yay’ you mean, ‘We’re going to die’,” I grumbled, or something to that effect.   Now I needed a Plan B on the proposal.  I didn’t stay cranky long.  As it turned out, I simply exchanged one picturesque lake/cirque combo for another when I decided to propose at Iceberg Lake instead.  (Any fantasies I may have had about proposing in mid-river were set aside when I considered the likelihood of the ring going overboard.)

Middle Fork Flathead River seen from the shoulder of US-2. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014
Rapids on the Middle Fork Flathead River seen from the shoulder of US-2. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

On Wednesday, August 20, we returned from Many Glacier on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and exited the park at West Glacier.  Glacier Guides/Montana Raft Co. is located off of US-2 just west of town.  As you might imagine, it’s best to arrive a little early.  We probably should have allowed more time, since we had to hurry to change into our bathing suits and collect wetsuits and life jackets.  The wetsuits are shaped a little like overalls and the staff recommended wearing raincoats over them.  Early in the season, the wetsuits are mandatory; later in the summer, they’re optional.

You might wonder why you need a wetsuit in the height of summer.  As it turns out, the local rivers are quite cold, probably since they’re fed by snowmelt.  Our guide Demi, later told us that the river was now the warmest it had been all year: a balmy 60°F (15.6°C).  That’s not too bad as an air temperature, but spending a couple of hours in a raft being splashed by water that cold would be uncomfortable; spending a while submerged in water that cold could cause hypothermia.

We clambered onto the blue Montana Raft buses for the eight or nine mile drive east on US-2 to our launch spot.  Rachel was excited during the ride.  Let’s try to get seats in the bow, she said.  Sure, I grumbled.  If we were going to be dashed on the rocks, we might as well be first and get it over with.  We arrived at a parking lot adjacent to US-2 that provided access to Moccasin Creek.

A guide launching a raft in the Moccasin.
A guide launching a raft in the Moccasin.

We grabbled paddles (not oars!) as we exited the bus.  One by one, the guides launched the rafts into the Moccasin.  This creek is quite calm and shallow, not more than ankle deep in places.  Our raft was the last launched.  Our guide, Demi, asked for volunteers to sit up front and I reluctantly volunteered us.  The rest of our motley crew filtered in behind us, including a girl about eight years old.  (She initially sat in the middle, but got to paddle through one of the easier rapids towards the end of the trip.)  Demi sat at the stern to steer and give directions.  We slowly paddled into the main river, the Middle Fork Flathead.  This river marks Glacier National Park’s southwest boundary.  Some of Glacier’s smaller mountains were visible to the right, while the Great Bear Wilderness and Flathead National Forest lay to the left.

Rachel “Washboard Abs” Pulverman enthusiastic about starting the adventure. After getting soaked by the first stretch of rapids, she put on her jacket like the rest of us!

I had my old waterproof Canon PowerShot D10 camera with me on the adventure.  I secured its lanyard to my life vest’s straps with a girth hitch and tucked it into my vest when I wasn’t using it.  The D10’s image quality isn’t great compared to my DSLR and it only has a pitiful 3x zoom range, but it was the only camera I have that’s appropriate for rafting.  (One of these days I’ll have to get a GoPro if Rachel keeps pushing me to do adventurous stuff!)  I’m afraid the photos won’t win any awards.  Naturally, the only time I could use it was when Demi told us to take a break from paddling and just let the current take the raft.  We paddled through all the rapids, so I couldn’t take any photos at the really dramatic points.  Good thing they have a photographer on the shore at one of the rapids!

The initial section of the Middle Fork Flathead River was quite calm…perfect for getting acclimated to the raft.  As Demi spoke, I learned a few things that surprised me.  Contrary to what I would have thought, sitting on the outside edge of the raft is safer than being smack dab in the middle, since you can secure yourself by hooking your foot under the lip running along the inside of the hull.  In that sense, the bow is the best spot since not only is the view good, but you can secure your inside leg as well.  The water temperature is not the only thing that changes about the river over the course of a season.  The rapids, it seems, change too.  Higher flows, which occur early in the season due to snowmelt, may intensify the rapids.  On the other hand, a higher water level may also make traveling the rapids easier in some cases when obstructions are submerged at a greater depth.

The calm early section of the journey
The calm early section of the journey

Demi explained that the ten sections of rapids during the course of our journey would be Class II or Class III (out of six on the International Scale of River Difficulty).  These rapids are relatively forgiving for novice paddlers, but Class III could be rather intense for the uninitiated.  If we got hung up on a rock, she told us, we might have to bounce up and down in our seats to free the raft.  She told us an anecdote about a raft that got caught on the rocks.  Supposedly, when the guide told everyone to jump – meaning to hop up and down – all of them abandoned ship and dove into the river instead!

During the slow approach to the first set of rapids, Demi had us go around the raft, telling our names and where we were from.  Behind me sat Tex, who naturally was from Texas West Virginia.  Huh?  I made the mistake of asking him how he got the name.

“I was conceived in Texas right before my daddy shipped out to W.W. 2,” he replied dryly in a way that suggested he was tired of getting asked that question (he actually said W-W, not World War, by the way).  Thanks anyway for sharing, Tex!

The BNSF tunnel that gives the Tunnel Rapids their name
The BNSF tunnel that gives the Tunnel Rapids their name

The rapids along our route all have nicknames ranging from the mundane (Tunnel, Pumphouse, The Notch) to the teeth-rattling (Bonecrusher, Big Squeeze, and Jaws).  The first section of rapids is Tunnel, named after its proximity to a railroad tunnel on the BNSF line adjacent to the river.  My toes curled as we approached the rapids.  I half expected us to capsize, but it was actually pretty exhilarating as we splashed through the white water.  Then we were through.  I flashed Rachel a grin.   To think I’d been scared!

Approaching the Tunnel Rapids
Approaching the Tunnel Rapids

As a former rower, Rachel wanted to whip the rest of the crew into shape.  Even though Demi told everyone to paddle at the same time – following the lead of Rachel and I in the bow – everyone sort of did their own thing.  Our paddles kept smacking those belonging to the guys behind us.

Rachel might also have enjoyed herself more if she wasn’t such a (self-admitted) control freak.  At one point, Demi told my side to go forward and Rachel’s to reverse in order to turn the raft (it may half been the other way around…such details escape me after nearly a year). You’re paddling the wrong way, Rachel scolded me.  Actually, I was following Demi’s instructions and Rachel was the one paddling incorrectly.  I told her to worry about her side and I would take care of mine!  (I still tease her about this incident sometimes, since it’s a landmark event when I’m right and she’s wrong.  In fact, I think it’s only happened once in the ten months since then, and that was an exceedingly small victory about the correct definition of the word “seafood”)  Still, Rachel must have made a good impression with her paddling prowess, since Demi announced that we’d be going through some rapids named Washboard…like Rachel’s abs must be, she quipped.

Our group tackling the Bonecrusher. Photo courtesy Glacier Guides and Montana Raft Co.
Our group tackling the Bonecrusher. This photo and the next courtesy of Glacier Guides and Montana Raft.

The good thing about these novice- and intermediate-level rapids was that they were rather forgiving of our overall lack of paddling skill.  Indeed, the current seemed to do a lot of the work (unless Demi was better at steering than I gave her credit for).  This caused a pretty neat effect sometimes.  Since the current tended to keep us towards the center of the channel, at times we’d appear to be heading straight for a rock only to curve away at the last moment as if pulled by an invisible hand.

WW9 Group 3

At one point, we did get hung up on a rock.  People on other rafts laughed at us as we bounced up and down in our seats  and eventually got free.  After passing through the most intense rapids, we paddled under an old bridge.  Demi told us this was the bridge which originally served as the west entrance to Glacier National Park.  After the bridge was damaged by a flood in the 1960s, the entrance was moved and the bridge reopened restricted to foot traffic.

What a bald eagle looks like when your camera only has the equivalent of a 105mm zoom...
What a bald eagle looks like when your camera only has the equivalent of a 105mm zoom…Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

Although we’d launched last, we passed most of the chumps in the other rafts during the trip.  In the smooth river after the last rapids, we challenged another raft to a race.  I forget who won.  Not long before the end of the journey, we spotted a bald eagle high in a tree on the Glacier National Park side of the river.  I would have gotten a really good picture if I’d had a camera with a bit more telephoto capability, but I don’t think they’ve invented a waterproof superzoom yet.

End of the paddle
End of the paddle.  Wish the light had been this good the entire trip!

Ahead, we could see the blue buses parked on a wide section of riverbank.  We hauled out of the water and got back on the buses.  We’d been on the river about 2.5 hours.  It had been an exhilarating adventure and of course I had to admit to Rachel that I was glad she’d convinced me to try rafting.

On the short ride back, one of the guide’s tongue-in-cheek tour of West Glacier had us laughing.  He pointed out that there isn’t a whole lot of originality in the business names…West Glacier Mercantile, West Glacier Gifts, West Glacier Restaurant, ect.  He recommended a roach coach parked off of US-2 near Glacier Guides HQ.  He promised that the Wandering Gringo had burritos as big as a man’s face.  (We stopped afterwards.  He was right.  Ironically, the roach coach was the only restaurant we ate at in Montana that had an A+ health department rating displayed!)

The Wandering Gringo, the perfect way to refuel after paddling a few miles down the river
The Wandering Gringo, the perfect way to refuel after paddling a few miles down the river

We purchased a CD with three of the photos taken of our group tackling the Bonecrusher.  I was pleased that the files were full resolution and suitable for printing 8″ x 10″ or larger, unlike the low resolution images you sometimes get from amusement parks.

We were lucky that we got off the water when we did.  A thunderstorm arrived as we were getting our burritos from the Wandering Gringo.  We drove to the nearby Glacier Guides Lodge, where we were staying the night, to clean up and relax.

If You Go…

Glacier Guides and Montana Raft Company
11970 Hwy 2 East (not to be confused with Glacier Guides Lodge, located on a road across US-2 from the Amtrak station)
West Glacier, Montana
Glacier Guides offers many different types of adventures ranging from rafting to horseback riding to hiking.  Adventures of various lengths and combinations of several different types of adventures are available.  This post describes the Half Day Whitewater Raft Trip.  2015 prices are $54/adult and $44/child plus 7% river use fee and any gratuity to your guide that you deem appropriate to thank them for not letting you capsize or drown.
Special thanks to Corrie Holloway for providing the nicknames for the rapids.  In case you’re curious, here’s the list, from the southeast (near Moccasin) to northwest (near West Glacier):
  1. Tunnel
  2. Bonecrusher
  3. Washboard
  4. Big Sqeeze
  5. Jaws
  6. Pin Ball
  7. Repeater
  8. The Notch
  9. CBT
  10. Pumphouse

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