Impromptu adventures tend to be the finest. Case in point, last Friday afternoon I called a girlfriend to see if she’d like a reprieve from the August heat by taking a dip in Whitefish Lake. She upped the ante and offered me a spot on a raft for a twilight float on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
Already dressed for playtime on the water, I added my lifejacket to my bag and made my way to my girlfriend’s to load dogs, coolers, and prep for our whitewater float.
Our boat provider and guide, Keith, is a good telemark ski friend, summer raft guide and fifth- grade school teacher. After his first week back at school, he was itching for an evening float on the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork. Heidi and I contributed provisions and Keith met us dressed in his button-down work shirt and shorts.
The put-in for rafts to float the nine mile Class II-III section is just east of West Glacier at Moccasin Creek. It is a mere 35 minutes from my house in Whitefish and, once again, I count myself incredibly lucky to live in an area where rafting, hiking, and skiing can all be spur-of-the- moment adventures.
This summer’s theme of obscene levels of snow translates to high runoff for rivers, making late-August floats darn near perfect. Currently, the Middle Fork is running about 1700 cfs, a perfect playful stage to run its many rapids, including Tunnel, Bonecrusher and Repeater.
Our trio, plus two dogs in their own red lifejackets, put on the river at 6 p.m. The temperature was still very hot and since the river flowed easy and slow at the put-in, we jumped into the cold water and swam beside the raft, with Keith wearing a swim mask and goggles.
The Middle Fork begins deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, running 92 miles before merging with the North Fork, and then emptying into the main vein of the Flathead River. The Wild and Scenic Middle Fork provides the southern boundary for Glacier National Park.
The popular whitewater section, from Moccasin Creek to the West Glacier River Access, commonly known as the “golf course,” is well-traveled by commercial rafts and private boaters alike. However, on this Friday night, we were the only boat on the river, until we met up with three friends waiting in an eddy in their kayaks after Jaws, a good hour-and-a-half into our float.
The dogs kept a close eye on the water below, searching for fish. As the light faded behind the Belton Hills, the current picked up speed and we felt the bounce of the waves. Light flashed across the calm sections on the water and then dove behind the cliffs.
Our conversations drifted between summer hikes and the upcoming ski season, the chatter taking pause when the rapids would smack the boat, soaking us, but not the dogs.
As our flotilla managed the last rapid series, Pump House, the historic Belton Bridge was set aglow in the setting sun behind the Apgar Range.
The bridge was the original entrance in Glacier National Park from 1920 to 1938. It is now a pedestrian bridge, access point for Glacier’s Boundary trail, and a common take-out for kayakers.
On a summer day, the bridge, like the river, is normally a hotspot. There are usually a dozen or so people jumping off the bridge’s rail and into the deep, dark pools. That evening, just a few people strolled along the bridge, their silhouettes awash in the golden rays.
The three of us realized that Glacier’s tourist season was coming to an end. All was nearly quiet on the river until a raft and two kayaks moved behind a group of large boulders below the bridge. The boats were filled with little kids and two dads.
The kids all had squirt guns; we knew we were in for it. Keith rowed us out of range, as a father on the raft made a joke about being held hostage.
We floated underneath the West Glacier Entrance Bridge and I noticed movement in the cottonwood shrubs alongside the river. It was a black bear moving about the river corridor on Glacier’s side of the river.
We stopped our conversation and pointed to the shore so the kids in the boat behind us would get a glimpse of the young bear with a bright yellow tag in its left ear.
The light disappeared from the river by the time we landed at the rocky beach at the West Glacier River Access. Pulling extra clothes out of dry bags and celebratory beer from the cooler, we toasted to friends and to the magic of the mighty Middle Fork.
Maggie Neal Doherty lives and writes from Whitefish, Montana.