Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft

We entered at Benchmark (on the South Fork Sun), exited at Silvertip (on the Spotted Bear), and had the time of our lives over a few relaxing days while making long miles in a packraft on the South Fork.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2009-09-22 00:15:00-06

Introduction

Outside of Alaska, options for wilderness packrafting in remote areas of the United States are limited. The number of wilderness floats in excess of twenty miles are few and far between, and generally limited to America's three largest wilderness complexes: the Bridger-Teton (Wyoming), the Frank Church (Idaho), and the Bob Marshall (Montana).

The Bob Marshall offers three large rivers in particular (the South Fork Flathead, the Middle Fork Flathead, and the Spotted Bear) that collectively provide more than one hundred wilderness miles of outstanding packraftable water. Through the years, I've found so many of the creeks and smaller rivers in "The Bob" provide excellent packrafting (at least in June and July) that I'm coming to realize it may be the premiere wilderness packrafting destination in the continental United States.

In addition to the South Fork, the Middle Fork, and the Spotted Bear, I've floated the White, Dearborn, North Fork Blackfoot, Young's Creek, Danaher Creek, Gordon Creek, Big Salmon Creek, Shafer Creek, Strawberry Creek, the North and South Fork Sun (and the West Fork of the South Fork Sun), and portions of other creeks even smaller than these. Opportunities for wilderness packrafting treks in The Bob abound!

Finally, The Bob offers packrafting for all skill levels. From the whitewater gorges of the Middle Fork Flathead to a lazy day meandering down Danaher Creek, there is something for everyone.

Having explored The Bob with a packraft for several years, I find myself coming back to repeat a few stellar experiences: floating the rowdy Spotted Bear and Young's Creek at the peak of runoff and floating the more tame South Fork Flathead as the water recedes. The latter, in particular, may be the finest Class I-II wilderness float in the Lower 48. It's certainly the longest: combined with several miles of Danaher Creek or Young's Creek (its two major headwaters), a float of the South Fork in late June through mid-July to Meadow Creek Gorge offers an incredible forty plus miles of water. This length is exciting to me, because it means that I can do a long traverse (one hundred miles or more) of The Bob with a meaningful amount of miles traveled in a packraft.

And so, this was the context for a trip in July 2009 with a few friends. We entered at Benchmark (on the South Fork Sun), exited at Silvertip (on the Spotted Bear), and had the time of our lives over a few relaxing days while making long miles in a packraft on the South Fork.

We also cheated a little. I wanted to give my pals an experience of the Wild West, so we rode horses from Benchmark to the Stadler-Hoadley divide, cutting off eighteen miles of walking. So, remarkably, by the time we reached mile sixty-five on our one-hundred-plus-mile route, we had walked a paltry eight miles - and none of it uphill! I reckon that "backpacking light" comes in all sorts of packages... pardner.

The Bob is home to big, long, and wild rivers, one of the nation's finest cutthroat trout fisheries, and 160 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. This year (2009) is one where my intimacy with this wilderness will grow dramatically. In addition to the trek in July featured in this photo essay, I enjoyed the rhythms of living on nearby Flathead Lake for a week while at the Melita Island Boy Scout camp with my son, and I'll return for another week of wilderness raucousness while participating in Le Parcour de Wild in October.

I hope this essay conveys my passion for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and leaves you with a positive taste for wilderness travel.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 1
We spent our first night at the Benchmark Wilderness Guest Ranch, enjoying the hospitality of the Heckmans, which included meals served family style, stories from past generations, and these rustic accommodations. It was good to be out of cell phone range and off the grid.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 2
The Heckmans packed us and our gear for eighteen miles to the Stadler-Hoadley divide and the crest of the Continental Divide. Here, Bridger's horse, like us, anticipates some trail time.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 3
Product testing for the manufacturer of the lightest ridin' shoes on the market!

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Danny and Matt begin their descent of the Continental Divide from the pass. Six miles later, we'd reach the Danaher Creek valley and scout a put-in for the packrafts.

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Our first camp on Danaher Creek after a long day on the horses and trail was welcomed with fire and food.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 6
The next morning, we meandered down Danaher Creek to put in below a big logjam.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 7
Matt's first time in a packraft. He's now twenty-five miles from the road, probably thinking, 'Oh man, am I really going to do this?'

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 8
Danaher Creek is a sleepy, meandering float over cobbles, interrupted here and there by logjam portages, willows, and a curious bankside grizzly bear.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 9
I used a GoPro Wide Helmet camera to take packrafting (and fly fishing) video. You can find a link to the review here.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 10
Unsettled weather provided dramatic and beautiful natural light as we floated downstream.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 11
The trout fishing on the South Fork Flathead is spectacular. Every tributary, and the main river itself, is full of fat cutthroat. This was my first long backcountry trip where I relied exclusively on a Tenkara rod (read the review here). I can no longer imagine fishing any other way in the backcountry. My name is Ryan, and I'm a Tenkara addict. So much so, in fact, that Backpacking Light and Tenkara are partnering to develop a brand new version of the Tenkara rod designed specifically for backpackers.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 12
After twenty miles of floating, we pitched camp on a high bank overlooking the South Fork Flathead below its confluence with the White River. Soft evening light and the sound of the gentle riffles - it was an amazing experience in what might otherwise be a river corridor with roads and trophy homes, if not for the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 13
Breaded trout cooked over the Zia Titanium Grill. Everything tastes better when cooked over a camp fire.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 14
My shelter and sleep system on this trip consisted of a bivy sack and quilt and … that's it, I suppose. The weather varied wildly throughout the trip (Montana proverb: If you don't like the weather, give it five minutes.), so I chose my campsites carefully. Sleeping under this pine was my favorite, reminding me of trappers and cowboys that may have traveled through here 100 years ago. Maybe one of them spread their bedroll near here, too.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 15
The view upstream from my sleep site. The White River, another exceptional wilderness float, flows into the South Fork on the left.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 16
This was to be my final trip with my last remaining pair of Montrail Vitesse shoes. Long a staple of my backcountry excursions, I held on to them for months, waiting for an adventure that warranted their graceful retirement.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 17
A cold and stormy day down splashy rapids sent us scampering into the woods to warm up at one point. Our teeth were chattering and our hands and feet were numb. Being in a packraft when it's 45 degrees and raining is nothing short of pure misery and truly makes you appreciate the gift of fire.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 18
The western slopes of the Continental Divide in northern Montana are lush well into the summer season, when much of the rest of the state starts to toast a golden brown. Mossy brooks and shades of green dominate the forest here.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 19
Being able to reliably count on fish for dinner means that you can reduce your food weight significantly. Whenever I expected good fishing, I cut my dinner rations to two ounces of spicy potato breadcrumbs for trout cakes. I and my belly are happy to report that my gamble paid off.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 20
Our camp at Mid Creek was dark, chilly, and wet when we arrived. This may have been the most welcome fire of the trip, and we built it big and inviting.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 21
Mid Creek crashes into the South Fork amongst some of the most beautifully colored cobbles I've ever seen. The riverbed here is painted pink, orange, and green.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 22
The staple of my summertime cook kit: the new BPL 900 pot. This one is a prototype that we hope to bring to market in 2010. It's more durable and has a nicer finish and a pour spout - improving upon the old design without a weight penalty.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 23
While hiking, I stowed my Tenkara rod into the handle of my packraft paddle.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 24
Gazing downstream from the mouth of Mid Creek, I was wistful about running the Meadow Creek gorge on this trip. Instead, we'd travel up Mid Creek and cross the mountains into the Spotted Bear drainage.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 25
Forced into this camp by an encounter with a grizzly bear and her cub that blocked access to the upper canyon, we initially agonized over the possibility of a windstorm and blow-downs. Fortunately, the weather was fine, the night was still, and the eerie pillars reminded us of the power of nature. I woke the next morning satisfied to have spent the night here, and the experience was one of my favorites of the summer.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 26
Collecting water from upper Mid Creek, wondering if the mama bear was spying on me from the thick willows guarding the riverbank.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 27
I don't dream a lot, but long after this trip was over, I still find myself waking up in a cold sweat thinking about this day. We were ants trekking through matchsticks at the rate of three hours per mile (hpm). Frustrating and painful, it highlighted those features a map leaves out.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 28
Once we broke out of the deadfall, the slopes steepened, but our spirits rose. Our burn camp from the night before was well down the valley to the right.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 29
Upon reaching the ridge, we experienced our first sweeping vistas of the trip. The hypothermic chills, the saddle sores, the blowdowns - all was forgotten as we surveyed the lay of the land from what felt like the spine of the world.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 30
The euphoric high did not last long, however. We were faced with a difficult descent down a gully of razor sharp limestone scree and talus that tore at my shoes, my pants, my hands, and my pride.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 31
After a harrowing descent of the shown ridge (our route is a nondescript steep line just to the right of the center high point), we entered the worst bushwhacking of the trip, not making it into the Silvertip Creek valley to camp until late in the evening. Climbing the next ridge (from where this photo was taken), we looked back and felt proud to have battled the climb, traverse, and descent with grace and humility and hardly any cursing.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 32
Crossing the next pass after yet another morning of steep bushwhacking, we were pretty excited to be among high, jagged peaks. It was so far removed from the low forest and water of the South Fork that the boats and paddles tucked into our packs seemed the height of incongruity.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 33
Entering the Amphitheater - one of my absolute favorite places on the planet.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 34
Once inside the Amphitheater, we shifted gears from trekking to ambling (moseying, if you will). We must have spent two hours walking one mile. The terrain wasn't difficult, by any means - we were walking on soft tundra meadows the entire time - but the magical remoteness of this place was refreshing, and we immersed ourselves in it. At this point, Danny simply closed his eyes and just listened. Yes, Wilderness has a sweet sound to it.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 35
Our camp in the Amphitheater was nestled among small stands of subalpine fir. We bedded on buttercup-laced tundra.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 36
Storms came in that night, and the absence of big trees to shelter my head meant that I had to set up my packraft for a little extra protection. Having a fully inflated packraft far from any floatable river was a bit surreal, though my dry head was glad for the very slight shelter I managed to eke out.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 37
Exiting the Amphitheater, we were once again reminded of the power of nature's wrath when we had to cross huge swaths of fresh spruce and fir leveled by an avalanche only a few months prior.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 38
Back on a high ridge, we have been off-trail for three days at this point. Matt surveys the lower elevations - thick forests that we will be forced to reenter that afternoon as we plan our exit from the wilderness.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 39
Sweeping panoramas of the mountains of the northern Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, accentuated by storm clouds and invisible-though-keenly-felt high winds, reminded us that we're pretty small people in an awfully big place.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 40
As we descend, we find ourselves bushwhacking yet again, winding our way down steep, chossy, limestone cliff bands. Matt found himself in a precarious spot here, noting that the security of a foothold is more illusion than reality, and that I was busier taking photos of him trying to descend than actually helping him do so.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 41
After four days of bushwhacking, we are relieved to be back on trail, if only to avoid the prospect of limestone cuts and sidehilling in soft shoes. As we descended a small creek canyon towards the Spotted Bear River, we discovered this fascinating crime scene, which would occupy our detective skills and storytelling prowess for the next several miles.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 42
Upon reaching the Spotted Bear River, I finally came to the realization that our trip would be over soon. Psychologically, this is the hardest part of any expedition for me - those last few days of easy, downhill travel are often anticlimactic, and a reminder that expeditioning is only a temporary novelty in my life. Through the years, however, I've learned to cope with reentry better. As my relationships with my wife and son have deepened, my eagerness to come home to them overpowers the depression that comes with a wilderness exit.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 43
On the last night of a trip, is it too much to ask for a little sunshine? Still, I slept like a baby, and I remember falling asleep looking up at the packraft gently bobbing in the breeze, like the swinging watch of a hypnotist.

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft - 44
On our way out, we passed this fellow coming in with his trusty donkey. They'd clearly both traveled their fair share of miles here. We asked him about his itinerary, and he replied with no hesitation, 'Oh, I reckoned I'd just fill up these boxes and wander around til they were empty...' At which point I finished his sentence, '...and then head on home, eh?' He squinted at me kind of funny and corrected me, saying 'No, son, that's when I'll start fishin'.' I could tell he was a kindred spirit.


Citation

"Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/bobmarshall.html, 2009-09-22 00:15:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft on 09/22/2009 14:14:44 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Bob Marshall & Tenkara on 09/22/2009 17:11:58 MDT Print View

Beautiful photo essay, Ryan!

But this is what got me going:

"My name is Ryan, and I'm a Tenkara addict. So much so, in fact, that Backpacking Light and Tenkara are partnering to develop a brand new version of the Tenkara rod designed specifically for backpackers."

Can you tell us anything about the new rod? It's hard to imagine a better rod for backpacking then the Tenkara Daniel already has!

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
the Bob on 09/22/2009 18:09:30 MDT Print View

very nice trip indeed

the "Bob" (Great Bear too) were my old (old as in 20 years ago) stomping grounds - looks like nothing has changed much (that's a very gratifying feeling knowing that in another 20 years it will still be about the same)

a Middle Fork bull trout would really give your Tenkara a work out :)

Mike

Andrew Wilson
(andreww) - MLife

Locale: Vosges
Fabulous pics! on 09/23/2009 01:53:16 MDT Print View

You took some great pictures here, very professional, with great color and depth of field, still shots (tripod?). I found myself wondering how could this be achieved lightweight. What was your photo kit, both pre- and post-production?

joe newton
(holdfast)

Locale: Bergen, Norway
Re: "Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft" on 09/23/2009 02:37:30 MDT Print View

Simply stunning Ryan. Great adventure and brilliant photos.

The addition of a packraft and fishing gear really add depth to the wilderness experience which too often has us leaving this sort of equipment behind as we strive to shed grams. A great new perspective. Thanks for sharing.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - M

Locale: Cascadia
Nice on 09/23/2009 11:29:38 MDT Print View

Really nice job. Epic photos.

. .
(biointegra) - MLife

Locale: Puget Sound
A nugget! on 09/23/2009 15:15:32 MDT Print View

"So much so, in fact, that Backpacking Light and Tenkara are partnering to develop a brand new version of the Tenkara rod designed specifically for backpackers."

Oh, visions of sugarplums, trout, and frankenstein!! I can't wait!

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: Photo Essay: A Traverse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness by Foot and Packraft on 09/23/2009 20:28:43 MDT Print View

Sweet pictures and tantilizing glimpses of route choice consequences in the upcoming "Le Parcour de Wild". Thanks for the subtle beta Ryan. I'm totally excited about traversing the Bob Marshall in two weeks.

http://www.parcourdewild.org/pdwblog/?p=9

Heidi Ahrens
(HeidiAhrens) - F
with children? on 09/23/2009 20:48:18 MDT Print View

Thank you for the inspiration. I wish to do that kind of trip one day with my daughters and keep a record of possible trips. What do you think doable with two young children?

http://outdoorbaby.net

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Fabulous pics! on 09/24/2009 14:06:16 MDT Print View

@andreww - These photos were taken with the Sigma DP2, and I did have a small tripod with me - a cheapie Sunpak XL1000 (I think I bought it at Target a few years ago), weighs only about 6 oz after modifying it, and it has a height of 18 inches or so, which is nice for getting above the grasses. My post production workflow is based primarily on Lightroom. I have some automation built into my imports, and they are customized for each camera/lens combination. I may spend a little time afterwards on some images in Photoshop as well, to add something like a graduated ND gradient or remove the errant moth from my skies :)

The other cameras that I spend the most time shooting with are the Olympus E-P1 and the Panasonic TS1.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Custom BPL Tenkara Rod on 09/24/2009 14:08:02 MDT Print View

Regarding the new Tenkara Rod, it's a new model (their lightest yet!) that will be offered exclusively through Backpacking Light ... it has some neat features (notable: less than 3 oz, and very compact)... I'll post some photos and info about it next week, I'm mired in end of week administration work now! :)

bj bretzke
(lilorphanbilly) - F

Locale: Montana, MT (Stealth Mode)
Thank you ryan! on 09/24/2009 21:41:08 MDT Print View

Your pictures are superb. Love the Bob. Rock On! Waiting for details on the pole. I use a modified ice-fishing rig or hand lines.

I am so looking forward to the trek of my dreams starting at Gibson reservoir at the southern end of the Bob and then walking the CDT (for the most part) to the beginning of the milk river (St Mary's Drainage) on the east side of Glacier Park. From there we packraft through two nations in two days. Stop in Milk River, Alberta on the way through (I live on the Milk River in MT.) Finish in Fresno Reservoir for a good old fashioned fish fry.

Would a bunch of hippies make it through the border?

The Monkey Wrench Gang :)

Edited by lilorphanbilly on 09/24/2009 21:53:32 MDT.

Dave .
(Ramapo) - F - M
Bivy opinion on 09/25/2009 08:16:09 MDT Print View

Ryan, I've got a gear-related question for you if you have a minute.

I'm thinking of becoming a bivy user. In particular, I plan on using a bivy on bald peaks above treeline. Now that you've been using a bivy for some time, can you comment on the durability of the all eVENT bivy bag? (I think that's the one you're using...)

Does the bottom abrade easily? Do you use a ground sheet to protect it?

I'm trying to decide wheter to get one that is all eVENT or one with an eVENT top and more durable cordura bottom.

Thanks. And great photos, by the way. Looks like an amazing area.

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: WNC
Re: Bivy opinion on 09/25/2009 08:51:08 MDT Print View

Ryan has a customized version of the microbivy. That's the one with the more durable bottom. Ryan's has a spinnaker bottom though.

Dana Sherry
(dsherry) - M

Locale: Mi Upper Peninsula
trip on 09/27/2009 07:34:01 MDT Print View

sweet trip, and thanks for sharing your passion for the Bob. I'll add it to my list of destinations.
Dana

Jon Loevner
(JLoevner) - F
Spotted Bear River on 11/19/2009 15:15:50 MST Print View

Anyone packrafted down the Spotted Bear?