White Pass, White Rivers, White Water: The 2013 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open—Western Approach
Dawn broke cold and clear for eleven of us who gathered at the Benchmark Trailhead for this year’s attempt at BMWO. Several were returning from last year’s attempts and several more were out for their first run. Returnees Dan Durston and I had decided earlier to team up for this year’s event. Our route would take us up and over White Pass to the White River, where we anticipated some sporty rafting, then down to the SF Flathead River, terminating above Hungry Horse Reservoir at the Twin Creeks takeout. From there our path would cross the northern end of Dean Ridge, at the headwaters of the Twin Creek drainages and down Long Valley to the Middle Fork of the Flathead and on to the finish at Bear Creek. Weather conditions were far better than last year and we anticipated making a quick run of the course.
Shortly after 8 AM and with all necessary preparations, ethics expectations and warnings dispensed, Dan, myself and Greg (AKA Hiking Malto) strode out of the parking lot at a brisk 3+mph pace and set off for the bridge crossing over the West Fork of the Sun River, about 4.6 miles distance.
By 9:30 we were across the West Fork and headed upriver to Indian Point. This was a portion of the same route I took last year, only this time without the fresh snow, rain and mud that so plagued the trail in 2012. Hiking Malto was in the mood to make tracks and it was not long until the three of us were spread out along the trail. This time I stopped to take pictures that I was unable to take last year due to the camera repeatedly fogging up.
After fording across the WF Sun River at the mouth of Indian Creek, Dan and I headed upstream toward White Pass followed by the only mosquitos we would encounter the entire trip. Along the trail a set of large wolf prints led past us in the other direction. While I can’t completely swear on it, I’m sure the wolf that left these prints was the same one whose prints I saw on the trail the follows the SF White River last year, one valley over and about 6 miles to the south. For me it almost felt like a homecoming of sorts.
Remnants and tendrils of the winter’s avalanches still clogged many of the chutes that led down from high on the side of Red Butte. I noted with interest that many of the logs that had been pushed down from above now lay scattered and stacked, sometimes twisted around corners and pushed far down the stream bed that lay below In other places the fury of the seasons’ slides had been replaced by tranquil streams and fields of yellow, blue and orange flowers.
For a short time Dan and I followed two sets of fresh footprints left by a couple of early season explorers whose tent camp we passed back along the SF of the West Sun. We thought they might actually lead us up into the snowfields that beckoned from above, but they petered out shortly after the avalanche chutes and we were once again completely on our own.
Somewhere off in the distance I heard a hawk cry out, its voice soon carried away in the wind. Fresh water was not hard to find and we filled and drank from our water bottles frequently in anticipation of deeper snow ahead. Last year I had issues with dehydration in this mountain range and ended up eating a lot of snow trying to make up for that deficiency. This year I was determined not to repeat my mistake.
The wolf tracks continued to greet us as we climbed above 6500’. We rounded a corner and faced the Indian Creek Basin in front of us. I could tell that the snow on the leeward (eastern) side of the pass was not as deep as last year. I could see cornices on many of the ridgelines around us, but nothing too loaded at the pass summit ahead. Several head of elk had crossed the pass from the west and their tracks now headed past us and down the valley. Perhaps my trepidation about the conditions we might find was proving misplaced after all.
By 1:00 PM we were in solid snow and working our way up the drainage toward the saddle that makes up White Pass. We could see long lines of elk tracks leading down from the shoulder of the pass. After a final water bottle fill-up we pushed hard to reach the top of the pass at 2:00 PM. The snow on the western side of the pass was less firm and we broke through several times to our hips. I noticed that with my KEEN Mid Voyager boots I broke through less frequently than Dan, even given that our weights were nearly the same. The narrower insole of his shoes did not support him on top of the snow as well as my wider footprint. Neither of us needed our snow shoes on the climb, they became but mere passengers on our backs as we crossed the second summit line and descended into the Molly Creek Basin.
The snow on the descent was soft and we slid/ran/shoe skied down the other side until we came across the trail just coming out from under the snow pack. Here the trail was wet and thick with mud, similar to last year. I noticed with some amusement that the lone wolf whose tracks I had been watching with interest on the way up had also left his tracks all the way up the trail from the western side of the pass.
We covered the roughly 6 miles from the summit to the confluence of the White Rivers in about two hours, arriving at 4:00 PM. Dan’s Trip Report does a great job of describing the fun we had freezing ourselves in the class II and III rapids on our way down the White River. I recall at one point sitting in 8” of ice water after the Velcro on the side of my spray skirt was overwhelmed by wave action. I also recall that after about an hour my legs began to cramp up from sitting in pools of ice water.
On the way down the river we watched as a loon made its way effortlessly through the rapids, bobbing along without a care in the world. At one point, about halfway down, I spooked a large Bald Eagle off the upturned roots of a river-washed log. It lifted off and flew on down the valley to someplace where it would not be disturbed again.
We made the confluence with the SF of the Flathead River a little after 6:00 PM and immediately headed down stream. This was a section I rafted last year and knew it would be easy going. While on the river we observed an osprey snatch a fish from the river and start flying upriver to its nest, prominently built on top of a tall standing snag on the banks of the river. However, once it drew near Dan the bird let the fish drop from a height of about 50 meters. It hit the water with a resounding splash -- one lucky fish.
At around 8:20 PM we passed Black Bear Creek and I had my closest call of the trip. Unknown to me (or Dan for that matter), at that location there exists a narrow slot with (at the CFS the river was running) a vicious hole on the backside. Dan went first and I followed. Dan seemed to clear it without incident but I foolishly slid to the left and right into the hole. Within seconds I was fighting a battle to avoid being pulled backward into the current rushing through the gap. I had to paddle as hard as any section of river I’ve ever been on (with some exceptions in Alaska) to dig myself out of the hole before being overturned and swamped in the roiling waters.
My arms were about to give out when I caught just enough of a side current to lift myself out and reestablish my path down the main river current. By now, I kind of wanted off the river. But we both were aiming to get to the Mid-Creek takeout by dark, around an hour downstream. Dan reports best on what happened but from my vantage point I witnessed the following: At 9:20 PM we came upon an unexpected slot with a large “limbo” log jammed across the entrance. The log was about eight feet above the water and Dan set up to shoot though the slot. I saw Dan enter, pitch bow up, at a crazy 45 degree angle, hang and drop left. I was sure he had flipped as he disappeared around the corner.
I pulled my raft to the western bank and halted. I could not have cut to the eastern bank in time without also sliding into the slot. I had 6” of ice water in the raft at the time and there was no way I was going to attempt that slot after seeing what happened to Dan. It took me about 10 minutes to get my cramped legs to get to the top of the rocks that framed the slot and look downstream, but no Dan.
I drained the raft, portaged the slot and set up on top of the rocks that formed the chute. By then it was too dark to climb back down the other side and set off after Dan. I had to spend the night on top of the rocks. Shaking badly from the cold and perhaps a little dread, I made a fire and cooked a hot meal. That night every thing froze and it took me until 7:40 AM to once again set off. By the time I reached the Mid-Creek takeout, Dan (as he reported) had a three-hour head start on me and I could not catch him. But I had seen his footprints and at least I knew he was Ok!!
I put back into the river below the Meadow Creek Landing strip and had an uneventful trip the rest of the way to the Twin Creek Takeout. Meeting a US Forest Service Ranger on the road to the Lower Twin Creek Trailhead I left a message for my wife as to when I thought I would get out and headed up the trail. The Cairn Map suggested that the trail up Lower Twin Creek would be rough and hard to follow. Fortunately, a trail crew had cleared the trail this past fall and it was an easy follow. Deep snow and side hilling greeted me near the top of the pass just as light was beginning to fade. I made the top of the pass at 9:07 PM and quickly descended into Long Valley below. By 10:00 PM I was out of light and set a camp in a tree well to wait out the night by a fire. I used my Bivvy bag to get about 6 hours of sleep.
The next morning I headed out at 5:20 AM and within 30 minutes found Dan’s footprints leading down the valley through the snow. I also noted a set of fresh Grizzly tracks were following Dan’s. I assume I camped within a half mile of the bear that night as the tracks did not continue down the valley for long before turning to the side and disappearing into the woods and back up the valley.
The hike down the valley was straight forward and by 9:00 AM I was at the banks of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. I rafted less than one mile through two sets of rapids before calling it quits, taking my rafting victories and heading home.
I arrived at the Bear Creek Trailhead to find Dave hanging out with Kate. We shared a couple of beers and had a few laughs before heading into town to meet up with M. My total time was 53.5 hours to cover the 97 miles. Next year I am going to take a lighter pack as I ended up not using my snowshoes. I also ended up with extra food; it’s going on my next summer trip shortly. My feet are in far better shape than the pounding they took last year too, a testament to the help I got from rafting this year.