Story by Eric Hanson, Photos by Jacob Moon
Packrafting opened up a world of adventure for me. Being from the desert, the idea of hauling a raft deep into the wilderness was fairly novel. But when photographer Jacob Moon and his wife Natasha invited me to go packrafting on the South Fork of the Flathead, one of the world’s premier rivers, I couldn’t say no.
The South Fork of the Flathead runs through the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, just south of Glacier National Park. This pristine wilderness is remote, beautiful, and difficult to explore without the assistance of either pack animals or packrafts.
Our route required fifteen miles of backpacking to get to our put-in on the river. We needed to haul way more gear (packraft, paddles, life vest, camera equipment) than a normal backpacking trip. It was imperative I find ways to cut weight and bulk. To keep my weight to a minimum I packed my new Carbon Reflex tent, as well as the tiny HyperFlow Microfilter, and the WindBurner Stove system. I considered the classic PocketRocket 2 stove to get my pack weight even lighter, but I have fallen in love with the WindBurner for its efficient fuel consumption and packability. It’s the perfect stove for cooking for one or two people.
We left the trailhead with a few clouds overhead. With fifteen miles ahead of us, we would be hiking all day. By mid-afternoon, the few clouds turned into a downpour. We hiked the last five miles under a steady rain. By the time we arrived at our camp, we were thoroughly exhausted, a little cranky, and very wet. I made a quick, hot meal, set up my tent and crawled into bed for the night. The rain persisted the whole night, only letting up the following morning.
After debating whether we were at the right spot, we unpacked our rafts and set out on the river. If we put in too early, we might find ourselves plunging over a series of waterfalls or caught in one of the many logjams in the early portion of the river. Luckily we encountered no waterfalls. But the logjams were a different story. Every twenty minutes we had to pull to the side of the creek and portage around strainers and massive piles of fallen trees barricading the river.
I was a ball of nerves when we first put in to the river. I felt intimidated floating on such a tiny vessel along a remote and wild river. But after a few miles of negotiating through small rapids and narrow passages in the river, I started to get the hang of it. As the miles floated by, I couldn’t believe how amazing the experience was. The river was doing the majority of the work, pulling me deeper into the wilderness. I would paddle a little, then let the river carry me along.
When evening came, we pulled off to the side of the river and made camp. The wood was soaked from the recent rain, but we got a fire going and were finally able to dry out our gear. Jacob fished for trout and successfully landed a few beauties. He kept one, and released the rest. That night, we ate the most delicious trout I’ve ever had in my life.
The following days, more drainages fed the creek and the volume of river grew significantly. We bumped our way through a section of a narrow gorge with several miles of rapids. The rapids were big enough to dump you and your tiny craft if you weren’t careful. It was intimidating at first. But it was also a hell of a lot of fun.
Our fourth night on the river, we pulled off on a rocky beach and made camp right next to the river. Here, the views were wide open and beautiful. We made a fire and watched the sun go down, the four of us sitting in silence next to the crackling fire. The days had turned into a rhythm; get up, make breakfast, drink coffee, float the river, make camp, make fire, eat dinner, stargaze, go to sleep.
That night, I crawled into my tent. It was the first night the weather really cooperated, so I didn’t put a fly on. I left it by my side in case a storm rolled in during the night. But no storm came. I stared through the mesh of the tent and watched the stars pass overhead. I felt thankful and blessed to be in such a beautiful and untouched landscape. With no roads for miles around, anyone within fifty miles of me was there because they had worked for it. This was a landscape that didn’t allow people to pass through easily.
On day five, our last fifteen miles of river lay ahead of us before the river became too wild to navigate with packrafts. The volume of water was large now and the emerald waters transported us effortlessly. I didn’t want the adventure to end.
I heard a roar of whitewater as we rounded the bend. This was our take out. If I missed the pullout and went into the rapids, I would be cast passed the point of no return, hurled into an exit-less gorge with a series of challenging whitewater rapids that was well beyond my skill to navigate. I paddled hard to the bank, and made it with a sigh of relief, just above the rapids.
Fifteen miles of hiking and 55 miles of river lay behind me now. We packed up our gear on the sunny river bank, letting everything dry out as much as possible before hauling it out the last three miles to our car.
Sometimes a preoccupation with gear can get in the way of adventure. Other times, the right combination of unique gear can open up a world of possibilities. Here in Montana, as I hiked the last few miles of our adventure, I couldn’t help but feel how this wouldn’t be possible without the right gear. It was a brand new experience for me. And this desert rat was loving every minute of it.
Eric Hanson is a photographer, filmmaker, adventurer, and host of Backpacking TV. His documentary, Rock of Refuge: Climbing and Canyoneering in Zion National Park, is available now. Eric lives in Utah, but is currently trekking the Andes indefinitely. His beard is red. Ginger is an offensive word.