Sufferfest on the South Fork Flathead River


tryin' not to get too comfortable
On the afternoon of the second day of a planned seven-day trip, things were looking grim. Ron and I were in stage 1 hypothermia, and needed to find a camp. Soon. I pulled into a likely looking spot, and climbed out of the boat. I was stiff and sore from the 28-mile horseback ride the day before, and sitting in a boatful of cold water didn’t seem too helpful. The temperature was in the low 40s, and it had been rainy and windy all day. The mountains around us, just a few thousand feet higher, held fresh snow.

It wasn’t a good site. No tarp trees for the fire pit, not much cover, kind of a beat-up horse camp. I walked back down to the river as Ron was pulling in. When I told Ron it was no good, I could see his disappointment. We were both soaked to the bone, shivering, and bonking from the past five hours on the river. Powering through the wave trains that swamped our fully-loaded Alpackas. Getting out and pulling the pigs over the broad shallow sections. Threading our way through rock gardens and wading along the edges to avoid sweepers and strainers on sharp corners. It was a lot like hard work, and we were beat. We dumped the water out of our boats, ate some food and drank some water. I thought about pulling out the stove to make a hot brew, but it was buried in the dry bag, and I didn’t think we were that bad. Yet. Instead, I pulled the map out of my waist pack. I knew we must be close to White River, and a good camp I had used last year. I looked at Ron, and neither one of us had anything to say. We set our jaws against the chattering of our teeth, climbed back into the boats, and pushed off. My internal survival monkey was starting to scream, and I knew we had to find a place to get warm and dry before we started making bad decisions. I kept thinking “Man, this is a lot different from last year”.

Every year I go back to the farm to help Dad get the place ready for winter. Cutting firewood, fixing fences, sweeping the chimney, putting up storm windows, etc. I usually also take a few days to backpack/explore/fish familiar areas. We moved to Bigfork when I was in high school, and I stayed there in the summers when I was attending MSU. I learned how to backpack and fish, ski, and enjoy the backcountry in Jewel Basin and Glacier Park during that time, but had never been into the Bob Marshall or the South Fork of the Flathead River. In 2009, after researching it, I decided to float the S. Fork in my alpacka. Ron couldn’t get that much time off, but he still wanted to go camping for a few days. Amie and I drove over from Seattle, and met up with Ron and Melissa (who had driven from Spokane), up at Meadow Creek. We car camped for a few days, floated and fished the lower S. Fork (from Cedar Flats down to Spotted Bear), hiked upstream from Meadow Creek to fish, and had a good time. I left my rig at Meadow Creek, and we all drove back to my Dad’s place in Ron’s truck. The next day, Ron and Melissa and Amie drove back to Spokane (Amie caught a flight from Spokane to Seattle to get home), and I stayed an extra week. Early the next morning, Dad and Jean drove me to Holland Lake to meet the packer. He loaded the gear onto the pack-horse, and I settled into the saddle for the 9-hour ride over Gordon Pass. I got dropped off at the confluence of Gordon Creek, and spent the next six days floating, camping and fishing. The weather was good, the fishing was outstanding, and it turned out to be a really great trip. So good, in fact, that I vowed to repeat it in 2010. And I wanted Ron to go along, because it’s just the kind of adventurous and memorable trip we try to do every year. It turned out to be memorable, all right. Primarily due to the suffering……

I couldn’t feel the paddle, even though my eyes could see that I held it. It was like two battling forces in my conscious. My eyes said one thing. My hands were wood. No feeling at all. I had to think about that for a minute. Why was it that certain senses shut down, and others continued to operate? I was still rational enough to know it was a survival mechanism during hypothermia, and if I were able to still remember that, I must not be too bad off. But still, I felt numb and disconnected. The monkey was screaming, “Get safe! Get warm! Build a fire!.” I shut the monkey down. Ron was trailing me by about 50 yards when I came around a corner and recognized the valley that the White River drains out of. I pulled hard toward the raised bank just downstream that I remembered from last year, and hoped nobody else was camped there. And even if there was, hopefully they would take pity on our poor wretched souls.

Having two pack horses for our use, in addition to our riding horses, was dangerously tempting. Each horse can carry 150 lbs, so theoretically, we could have carried 300 lbs of stuff in with us. You have to be careful, though. The last three miles of the trip needs to be hiked out on foot, unless you’re bad-ass enough to float the Meadow Creek gorge, and that means you need to be carrying light at the end. Plus, alpackas definitely have a load limit. Most of our start-weight was consumables. We had 70 lbs of beer, wine, and whiskey, and 50 lbs of food, including steaks, fresh veggies and fruit. Our camping and floating gear only totaled about 40 lbs each. That’s why we needed to use alpackas, instead of ‘toons (unless you arrange for an outfitter to meet you and pack it out, or are willing to make multiple trips. Groan….). That’s why we didn’t carry waders, or extra neoprene gloves, or a full-on dry suit. That’s why we suffered in unseasonably bad weather. Plus, what’s w/ the weather??!! I would never imagine needing full-on OP winter steelheading togs to float the S. Fork in late summer…..

It becomes a familiar routine. Pull in to scout a potential camp. If it’s good, unstrap the dry-packs from the boats, secure the boats, and haul everything into camp. One person goes to gather firewood, while the other sets up the sil-tarp over the fire pit. Get a fire going. Gather more firewood. Change into dry clothes, hang the wet clothes over the fire to dry. Set up tents and sleeping bags, cook food, eat, hydrate, kill weight. A simple life. Survival. We haven’t even broken the rods out yet. Lost a few beers, getting punctured and banged around in burlap bags on the floor of our boats. Oh well, beers in the cold rain aren’t too appetizing, anyway.

It was rainy and cold at 0600 the third day. Wow. What a surprise…. Actually, the lousy weather affords us the rare luxury of sleeping in. Can’t do that in the “real world” on a typical weekday. Sweet. We only need to run about 8 river miles, and we finally feel like we are getting into ‘river time’. So we roll over under the early-morning raindrops on the tent flies, and snuggle back into the down warmth goodness. Brunch at 1100, launch at 1300. Tough life. Yeah.

The weather finally got decent. For the next four days, we get some morning
and evening showers, but overall it’s pretty good. At least it's in the 50s and 60s, temp-wise. When the sun comes out, Ron catches doubles on his hopper/dropper rig, and 18-incher’s are slamming my Chernobyl hopper, rising out of improbable slots in the bedrock of the river. Life is good. Finally, the S. Fork is the way I remember it.

What’s that saying? You never float the same river twice?

Amen to that, brother.

Amen to that.

Post-script: “Thanks!” to Chris Scoones for running this site, having a gear program, letting Ron use the Alpacka for this trip, and the understanding of the various members who wanted to use it while we ‘bogarted’ it, even though we weren’t accurate on the calendar dates to begin with. Thanks for being cool about it (you know who you are, and so do we. I won’t forget….). Couldn’t have done it otherwise……
Great adventure! We used to live in Whitefish MT and my wife and I spent two days in the Bob Marshall camping and fishing! Simply put the Bob rocks and we love the S Fork... hardly ever anyone in sight and tons of Trouts everywhere willing to take a fly. We had a close call with some wild life but we expected that. I'm thinking about a trip back to MT to camp and fish the S Fork once more!


Sculpin Enterprises
Nice story well told. Near death trips are more exciting and memorable than bland, "nothing exceptional happened" trips. You survived the worst of it and you had good fishing in the end - well lived.


Ed Call

Well-Known Member
Well told adventure story, should serve as a lesson to all in some manner. Great photos and looks like the sun finally shone strong on your trip at the end.
Quite the adventure, thanks for sharing! I have come to the conclusion that "late summer," doesnt actually exist in Montana. It seems that you either get the last, hot breath of summer or the first sign of winter, IE snow in the mountains. It sure makes for some interesting fishing trips, I have always wanted to go back into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, some day!

Great pictures too, the green slots blues skie one is great! Some serious predators down there!


Active Member
Very nice trip report. Sounds like an adventure that I'll be dreaming about for some time to come.

Thanks for sharing it with us.
Great Report. I have done the same trip several times and hunted in their for many years as I used to live near the trailhead you went in on. That is one tough ride you did , down to the Danaher-South Fork in one day but the fishing is really worth the pain.
Thanks for the memories.
Great report. I was camping in Glacier and trying to fish about a week earlier. UGLY weather. Heavy rains and high winds. Had one great late afternoon on Handkerchief Lake, though, with grayling. Based on Yellowstone and Glacier this year, we, or at least MT, are in for a colder, wetter and earlier winter.
Great post Snake, thanks for sharing!
Not having some cold weather gear, I'm sure you'll never repeat that mistake twice.
Yeah, those late summer / early fall storms can sneak up and bust you big time if you are up high enough...

Beautiful pics too...


tryin' not to get too comfortable
Thanks for all the comments! I'm glad y'all enjoyed the tale and pictures. A few comments of my own:

We had a close call with some wild life but we expected that.
We passed within about 20 feet of a black bear that was on the bank when we were floating by, but that was about it. All of the ripe berries were pretty high up (saw loads of them going over Gordon Pass), but not many in the river valley, so we figured the Griz were likely in the high country, and that made us breathe a bit easier. We were still real careful about keeping a clean camp and hanging our food, though. And we both carried bear spray, and I had a .44 mag. Every time we heard a stick breaking in the surrounding forest, it definitely got our attention!

Near death trips are more exciting and memorable than bland, "nothing exceptional happened" trips.
So true! In the 1980s and 90s Ron and I did a LOT of pretty serious alpine mountaineering and climbing. Most of the trips just flashed by in a blur, and I've got the photos and journal entries to remember them by, but I will never ever forget getting stormed off Liberty Ridge on Rainier at 12,000 feet, and the avalanches that were cutting loose off the ridge as we battled our way back down, or the forced bivy we endured after climbing the North Ridge on Mt. Stuart, and almost getting hit by lightning, or wandering around on the Wapta traverse in a total whiteout (pre-GPS). We burned up a majority of our nine lives during those years.....

should serve as a lesson to all in some manner.
The best lesson of all (and one I constantly have to re-learn) is that sometimes you just gotta embrace the suffer, put your head down, and grunt through it. If you start freaking out when things go bad, it just makes a bad situation worse. Having a reliable partner is invaluable. Experience, training and good gear helps, too.

I have come to the conclusion that "late summer," doesnt actually exist in Montana. It seems that you either get the last, hot breath of summer or the first sign of winter, IE snow in the mountains.
Also very true! Most of the time I've gotten lucky, but I've gotten into some pretty bad snow storms in late August/early September in Glacier Park and Jewel Basin. But everyone I talked to seemed to think this year was the worst in their memory. That's a problem with a trip like this. It has to be planned out far in advance. It isn't like a weekend backpack trip that you can just postpone if the weather forecast looks bad. We would have lost our deposit with the packer ($500) if we would have cancelled, and once he dropped us off, we were totally committed to floating out 45 miles. It's actually kind of funny. In the months preceding our go date, I was mostly worried about forest fire dangers/closures!!

That is one tough ride you did , down to the Danaher-South Fork in one day
Boy howdy. That's almost worth a whole 'nother story.... We wore padded bike shorts, and took some pretty heavy-duty pain killers, but the last 2-3 hours were completely and totally brutal. My ass still hurts, just thinking about it.

Had one great late afternoon on Handkerchief Lake, though, with grayling.
I LOVE fishing for Grayling on Hankerchief! I'm really glad the rotenone they used to nuke Clayton Lake/Graves Creek a couple years ago didn't kill the Grayling in that Lake.

Not having some cold weather gear, I'm sure you'll never repeat that mistake twice.
You're right. I've repeated it dozens of times. :) Seriously, though, it's a fine line between under-prepared and over-prepared. I always figure if at some point you are wearing all your clothes, and you are able to walk away in the end, you planned it just right. I threw in an extra wool shirt the night before we left, based on the weather report, but without a dry suit (which would have been just too much to carry) there's no way we could have avoided getting wet while boating in the rain. Wet clothes when in the boat (unavoidable), and dry clothes for camp (potentially life-saving). If it would have gotten any worse (like say, drifting into stage 2 hypothermia), I would have pulled over and hunkered down wherever we were.

Anyway, thanks again for the comments, and if anyone is thinking about doing this trip, and has any questions about logistics, good campsites, etc., send me a PM. I've got some info and tips that might help.


Active Member
Absolutely incredible story and photos. I can only imagine the scenery and fishing you experienced. Some day I'll fish the SF Flathead.

However, the quote below leaves me scratching my head, especially as a non-drinker.

We had 70 lbs of beer, wine, and whiskey, and 50 lbs of food
Makes me wonder if just a couple of beers could have been replaced with some extra clothing? :rofl:

Obviously you must really like your alcohol!