Flatwater Paddling in Montana
has 81 different rivers and at least as many types of people
who use them throughout the year. With so many rivers, there
is room for all kinds. Get out on any given river and you'll
see anglers wearing sun hats and flak jackets, bobbing in johnboats
as they cast flies at riffles; rafters stumbling over their coolers
as their bulbous rubber crafts slip over submerged rocks; kayakers
wedged into Lycra suits and plastic helmets, rolling in the foamy
These river folk are equivalent to rock climber, heli-skiers,
and sky diver, all seeking the heightened awareness and visceral
challenge of measuring one's mettle against the elements; evaluating
their character against the river's; feeling the power and the
satisfaction of meeting the river with their skill or spirit.
Then there is the altogether different kind of river rat--the
flatwater paddler sets out to relinquish the "self"
for a couple of hours, an afternoon or a few days. Flatwater
paddlers move to the rhythm of the current and the weather, with
the lofty goal of avoiding all impediments. A primary objective
is to doze, propped against a paddle, to be awakened gently when
the canoe scrapes lightly across a gravel bar.
This attitude describes a whole class of river runners: "meanderthals"
those slothful and ambitionless souls who set out with the best
intentions of getting from Point A to Point B, but remain content
to fall short of the destination if there is some distraction
along the way.
Meanderthals are among the same class of subversives as baitfishers,
honyockers, doodlebuggers, and Wobblies. Flatwater paddlers don't
like wind, rocks, rain, or spring runoff. A strong steady current
is welcome but whitewater rapids are not. The craft of choice
for most flatwater paddlers is a canoe, that poetic parenthesis
of design that requires balance and prompts an illusion of grace
and beauty, even when conveying a sunburned sack of potatoes
dressed in baseball cap and lifejacket.
As a meanderthal, I have long considered myself and my friends
the human equivalent of herons in their river society - watching
the water ouzels and ospreys bob in the spray or soar and circle
around us. We notice as they zip by or cast shadows over us,
completely focused on their hunt or quest, but we do not veer
from our own persistent focus on watching the river and what
it will reveal if we pay more attention to it than to ourselves.
We try to become a part of the river with the hope that this
will make the river a part of us. The following are a few favorite
stretches of Montana rivers for the benefit of would-be meanderthals
where flatwater paddling is most expertly practiced.
- RED ROCK
In a remote corner of Southwest
Montana, excellent flatwater canoe paddling is available on Upper
and Lower Red Rock lakes where you can paddle along, or drift
with your back to a mild breeze while watching pelicans catch
the wind and wheel around in the distance. Or, head for the marshes
as a coots flush and cloud the view from the bow.
Getting to Red Rocks Lakes is an adventure in itself. There is
one gravel road from Exit 0 near Monida south of Lima. It's the
original entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Stagecoaches
would carry tourists from Monida to the Park until modern highways
elsewhere made the approach unpractical. Traveling 28 miles to
the lakes on the washboard road, too, it's not to hard to imagine
what those bouncy coach rides must have been like. Along the
way though, the remote route offers up rare rewards. Beyond the
fenceline, skittish antelope bolt in the lavendar bloom of sage
in the open Centennial Valley. The valley has an abundance of
smaller mammals, too. You might spot a badger crossing the road
with a prairie dog between its jaws, or a fox pouncing in the
grass after a deer mouse. Otters are fond of the lakes, too.
Mountain bluebirds and hawks take flight from fenceposts along
the road. In fact, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, 14,000
acres big, is a birdwatcher's dream. At least 258 species of
birds visit or live in the refuge's more than 40,300 acres. Species
include hawks, hummingbirds, grebes, chickadees, nuthatches,
kingbirds, herons, grouse, sandhill cranes, and the rare and
beautiful trumpeter swans who nest here and dawdle in the security
of the marshes and cattails all year round.
BIG HOLE RIVER -- WISDOM TO WISE RIVER
Mountain trappers called the big flat areas between mountains
"holes" The more common name these days is valley but
hole has stuck in a few spots such as Jackson Hole and the Big
Hole southwest of Butte. (Editor's note: for some reason, the
area between the mountains near Butte is known as the Summit Valley, not the Butte
Valley and definitely not the Butte Hole.)
The Big Hole River is fed by high lakes and mountain streams.
It trickles out of the southern end of the Bitterroots and trundles
along the floor of the ancient valley before hooking south and
then north again to join with the Jefferson, Madison, Red Rock
and Beaverhead rivers at Twin Bridges to feed the headwaters
of the Missouri River.
The river is mostly flatwater for more than 50 miles until it
reaches the narrow canyon below Dewey. If you are a flatwater
paddler, or if you have any common sense, you won't float the
canyon beyond Dewey in a canoe. There, the water is forced into
a narrow channel where the trout hide behind large rocks and
fishing and navigating gets serious. Really serious. Don't go
into the canyon unless you are adept at dodging rocks. Big rocks.
JEFFERSON RIVER --- TWIN BRIDGES TO THREE FORKS
- Trips of varying
lengths can begin at the Jefferson's beginning--at Twin Bridges
at the conflunece of the Beaverhead and the Big Hole Rivers or
a few miles downriver at the bridge at Silver Star. Beavers have
worked this stretch and the biggest challenge is deciding which
of the several channels have enough water to float your boat.
A couple of diversion dams require portages, like the one at
Parsons Bridge that can be tricky in high water.
- One of the most
visually rewarding stretches (that means you ooh and ahh a lot)
comes when the river flows through the narrow canyon at Lahood
and past the hills that hide the Lewis and Clark Caverns.
FLATHEAD RIVER -- RONAN TO DIXON
quiet stretch of river below Flathead Lake has wonderfully aromatic
mint plants growing on the riverbanks there solely for your enjoyment
when you step on them putting in or taking a canoe from the river.
The current here is calm unless dam operators upriver decide
to adjust the amount of water being released; the river can rise
dramataically at these times. Canoes left carelessly tended on
the river's edge have been known to disappear downriver as the
rising river dislodges them and carry them away.
This stretch of river can take two to three days depending on
how much you paddle and how much you let the slow current do
the work. Meanwhile, watch for ospreys, coyotes, and at least
one heron rookery along the way.
RIVER -- STEVENSVILLE TO TRAVELER'S REST
- The Bitterroot
River crisscrosses the narrow valley between the Sapphire and
Bitterroot mountain ranges south of Missoula, flowing through
the birder's heaven of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.
It also flows through a curious stretch of river known locally
as Tin Can Alley.
In an era of hands-on management in the 1950s that resulted from
a lot of dams and levees around the country, the Burlington Northern
Railroad acted to deter the river from changing direction near
one of its bridges. They lined the river banks with junked cars.
Stacks of old cars were scavanged from junkyards and lashed together
with thick steel cables from the copper mines in Butte. Today,
rusted, pancake-flat automobile carcasses line the banks as riprap.
In some places, the old cars line the bottom of the river as
well. The riprap has actually done its job well, holding the
banks in place against erosion and floods. And a mini-ecosystem
has evolved around the old cars, providing shade and shelter
fro lunker trout who in turn feed a variety of lurking birds.
RIVER -- SOUTH MADISON VALLEY TO ENNIS
- Somewhere along
the road north of Hebgen Lake, unload your canoe, pile in the
supplies and put in for a two to three day float through the
The Madison has several good camp spots along the shore along
the way to Ennis. The river can be crowded during the day with
guided floaters and anglers in johnboats, but the nights are
for canoe campers. By the campfire you can listen to coyotes
bounce yips off the moon and watch the outline of the Sphinx
illuminated in the night sky in the Madison range to the east.
- Canoe camping
offers the opportunity to pack in the whole kitchen if you want:
iron skillets, eggs, and all. Only mule or llama packing--where
you can haul the kitchen table, couch (and Serta mattress if
you like) to a mountaintop without breaking a sweat--offers more
potential for overindulging your appetites.
RIVER -- PRAY TO LIVINGSTON
- The Upper Yellowstone
is one of the last rivers unfettered by dams and if there is
a water god out there it will remain that way. Flowing north
and then east, the Yellowstone carries water from its origins
in Yellowstone National Park through Montana and into North Dakota
before joining the Missouri River on its travels to the Gulf
of Mexico. Downriver and upstate the river is famous for providing
habitat for Montana's exotic game fish: paddlefish, shovelnose
sturgeon, walleye pike, catfish and sauger. In the upper part
of the river, the name of the game fish is trout: browns, rainbows,
and cutthroat. This mostly calm stretch downriver from rapids
and upriver from Livingston's city bridges is also prime trout
The river flows through the Paradise Valley at the base of the
Absaroka Mountains. Unfortunately, a lot of folks have found
paradise here and the river gets a lot of fishing and floating
pressure in the summer. The river is also a draw for famous and
nearly-so so don't be surprised if you encounter a box-office
star in sunglasses and hip waders. Ultimately, there is more
glamour here in the soft pink light that bathes Emigrant Peak
at dusk and the soft honking of Canada geese than in all of Hollywood.
RIVER -- VIRGELLE FERRY TO McCLELLAND FERRY
redeeming one's soul, recharging one's batteries, and retreating
long enough to regroup to fend off life's next banzai charge
against your sensibilities, there is no comparison to the Mighty
Although it has its drawbacks, such as low-flying military jets
and more cattle along the shore than some cowboys see in their
dreams, the Missouri River still retains the power and the glory
of one of the planet's greatest, most epic waterways. Miles and
miles flow through pristine country that would still be familiar
to members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
This particular part of the Missouri River is designated as a
part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. The
only other river in Montana with this designation is the Flathead
River--portions of the North, Middle and South Forks of that
river system are also protected as wild and scenic rivers.
In one of the most glorious stretches of any river, the Missouri
River flows gently through a tall canyon of tall sandstone bluffs
the color of white chocolate. The bluffs have been shaved and
shaped by centuries of weather.
While this part is ideal for propping against a paddle and letting
the current do the heavy lifting,some flatwater paddlers prefer
the less strenuous approach: they tie a tarp to a paddle and
sail the canoe downriver. Either way, about the biggest worry
on the Missouri is bumping into a napping pelican.
the shuttles can be almost as big an adventure as the float;
the shuttle is often a major part of the planning forany river
trip. Flatwater paddling requires as much attention to roads
as to rivers. pay attention to what is paved and what local humorists
call paved. Avoid gumbo and gravel when you can, but accept the
fact that usually you can't.
To study any of Montana's rivers before a river trip, guidebooks
are available that can head off a few surprises. Overall, my
favorite is Floating and Recreation on Montana's Rivers,
by Curt Thompson. Hank Fischer has put together a good one too
-- The Floater's Guide to Montana.
- For information
about specific rivers try Montana's Yellowstone River,
by Bill Schneider and Montana's Missouri River
by R.C. Gildart.
For the Big Hole River and the valley and people around it, try
Last Best River: The Big Hole and its People, by Pat Munday.
For information about the health and well-being of Montana's
rivers and rivers around the country from a national perspective,