The headwaters of the Flathead River drain the SE corner of British Columbia in Canada. This is a special area that conservationists have been trying for many years to get incorporated into a National Park.
Because the international border between Canada and the U.S is now closed at this location, the only option is to start on the U.S side, literally right on the cut-line that divides the two countries.
We camped at the put-in while the Dads completed our shuttle. The kids had tonnes of fun exploring, playing camouflage and hanging out with their friends who were joining us for the trip.
The next morning after breaking camp, we launched our three canoes into the cold, clear water; a stunning azure blue and running with a swiftness that didn’t let up for the duration of the journey southward.
We were expecting riffles and rapids up to grade 2 in difficulty. The scenery was amazing right from the beginning. It was everything you would expect from a river designated as Wild and Scenic, and running along the eastern boundary of the famous Glacier National Park in Montana. We scouted a couple of rapids from shore, but could easily boat scout most, looking to miss the occasional rock or choose the least splashy line to avoid swamping.
We were on the lookout for the Kintla rapids as they were both marked as grade 2. It was very easy to skirt the white-water of Upper Kintla (Mile 48.5). At Lower Kintla (Mile 47.5) we pulled over river left and scouted from shore. It was a class 3 with no chicken chute, and we opted to portage, lining the canoes down river left.
A couple of rapids below Kintla, there is a drop with a decent wave train that we were looking to avoid.
Our friends boat didn’t quite make their line and they had a roller-coaster good time! They did a super job of paddling their swamped boat to shore.
Home for the night was just upstream of Sondreson Meadow (Mile 40). The kids had fun playing and swimming in the side channel, and we were grateful for plentiful wood for a fire.
The brilliant weather continued for our 2nd day on the water. We had glorious views of the mountains in Glacier, and the white-water was straight forward and fun.
At mile 26, the gradient eases, and the channels braid. In a couple of places, the main channel was completely blocked by log jams. Our only choice was to paddle the narrower side channels. Thankfully it was clear of wood, but caution and skill was needed.
The un-designated camping was a little difficult to find, because river left is off bounds unless you have secured a backcountry permit for Glacier National Park prior to departure. In addition, quite large chunks of land are private property on river right. We didn’t want to camp in vehicle accessible sites so other options weren’t very numerous. We did find great spots to camp though, and our general motto is to land a campsite early in the day. That way, the kids have plenty of time to play and hang out, and therefore not feel like we are just pounding out miles on the river.
Canada Day didn’t go un-celebrated!
On the 3rd day, there were more route choices to be made with the river braiding again, and then the landscape became broader as we neared Camas Bridge.
We pulled in at Big Creek to re-assess our plan. We had shuttled a vehicle to Glacier Rim, 11 miles further downstream. Between Big River and Glacier Rim, we knew there were grade 3 rapids. We were going to see how our trip went, then make a choice about if/who, would paddle that section.
The executive decision was made not to go on, and we settled into camp at the Big Creek Day area. The campground host had generously let us use it to overnight camp, so we didn’t have to haul our gear into the actual campground. The Dad’s also needed to hitch hike to retrieve our vehicle at Glacier Rim. We had lots of time to lounge around on the stony beach or in the hammocks, swim, and play.
This trip was such a great way to kick off our summer. Our kids really enjoy being on the river, and it was so fun to see how each of their skills are improving. Our 11 year old daughter was my bow-person and she did fabulous. And hubby had the other 4 kids, with our 13 year old daughter as his bow-person. It is a river we would happily do again!
DISCLAIMER: The North Fork of the Flathead is not a typical choice for a family canoe trip. The water is very cold, and there are plenty of hazards (mainly logjams) for the unaware and inexperienced.
Why did we do this trip with our kids you might ask? My hubby and I have both been certified white-water kayak & canoe instructors, and white-water raft guides. We have extensive training and knowledge in risk and crisis management, river rescue techniques, group leadership and are experienced in extended wilderness travel with clients of all ages. In short, our kids replace what we have done with clients for many years. I just wanted to be clear up-front. This is not your average family trip and I don’t recommend it unless you can personally and safely canoe grade 3 and self rescue.
DISTANCES: The North Fork of the Flathead from the Canadian/U.S Border to Blankenship Bridge is 58 miles. We completed 43 miles from the Border to Big Creek.
DURATION: We spent 3 days on the river. We camped at the put-in and take-out, so we took 5 days and 5 nights overall. Our river trip from June 29th – July 3rd were the last days before the river gets busy for the main summer season.
RIVER FLOW/DIFFICULTY: 6400cfs when we started. 5000cfs when we finished. You can check flows here. A lower flow would make the overall trip easier. Many things I read prior to the trip said it was grade 2. At the above flows it was class 2+ with Lower Kintla flowing at class 3.
PERMITS: No permits are required to float the river. If you want to camp on river left in Glacier National Park you will need to get a backcountry permit, available from the Backcountry Permit Centre in Agpar.
REGULATIONS: If you plan to have a fire, a metal fire pan is required. All solid waste (poo) must be carried off the river.
LEAVE NO TRACE: It is an extremely popular river, with people floating it with various motivations, and often not with the respect and care that this river needs. Please do your part so further enforcement (more rules, mandatory permits etc.) don’t become necessary. It is so important that we leave no trace. Take out your poo and your garbage. Protect the water quality by keeping all soap and food out of the river. Disperse grey water on land.
WILDLIFE: This is prime grizzly bear habitat. Secure your food and scented items overnight. Take bear spray.
MAPS: We used this map and guide, in conjunction with our National Geographic Map for Glacier National Park.
SHUTTLE: We were two families, with 2 vehicles, so we did our own shuttle. It took 3 hours to complete, each direction. There are companies that will do the shuttle for you. Glacier Raft Company is one I found.
RAFTING: Most of the parties on the river were rafting. This is a great family option if you have rafting skills.