Floaters flock to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River for its whitewater summers, but its fall colors make an equally attractive goal.
The Moccasin Creek-West Glacier reach flows through many of the popular whitewater zones, with evocative names like Bonecrusher, Jaws and Pin Ball. But in September and October these Class III and Class IV challenges subside a grade, becoming more of a task of avoiding hang-ups on protruding rocks than getting stuck in tricky hydraulics. Expert canoers and intermediate rafters should be able to pass with due caution, and numerous professional guide services provide late-season fishing and floating excursions.
The nine-mile float takes about two and a half hours in July, but can require four hours at lower flows. Even though it parallels U.S. Highway 2 and a major railroad corridor, the sense of isolation is remarkable. Huge cottonwood galleries add color to the red and green rock formations. Crystalline water reveals the surprising depths of the Flathead as it cuts through narrow channels. Mountain goats and elk occasionally appear on the north side where Glacier National Park has jurisdiction. Bald and golden eagles, osprey and herons hunt for fish. And the cutthroat trout fishery draws anglers from all over the world.
Fall floaters should take extra care to follow the 100-degree rule: If the sum of the air and water temperatures don’t exceed 100, hypothermia becomes a serious risk in any dunking.
An in-depth guide to the Flathead Middle Fork’s scenic options, access points and river hazards is available from the U.S. Forest Service online.