Early Fall Float on North Fork of the Flathead (my conservation commentary w/photos)

An Early Fall Float on the North Fork of the Flathead

This New West article with great photos describes floating the beautiful North Fork of the Flathead from its origin in British Columbia downstream to the US border??

I linked to it because I was just up there myself in BC to investigate, and a lot is left unsaid in the article.

The North Fork of the Flathead is often described as the wildest of the 3 forks of the Flathead. It isn’t, although it is very beautiful. The Middle Fork of the Flathead in Montana is completely contained inside of designated Wildernesses or roadless areas.

The North Fork, however, is completely unprotected. A number of timber sales can be seen on nearby, and especially more distant slopes, and a number of dirt or gravel roads penetrate the area, leading to the poor and deteriorating road along the North Fork itself.

The article is seriously wrong when it says you can bounce you way up this road from Columbia Falls, Montana into B.C for the put-in. This was true 20 years ago, but the border crossing was closed long ago. The road does not go through any more, a major reason for the deterioration of much, but not all, of the road that runs in the vicinity of the river.

If you want to drive in today, you need to begin way up in B.C. near Fernie, Elko, or Sparwood.

The biggest thing is huge proposed coal pit mine just one mile from the North Fork’s origin. The mine would essentially haul away Foisey Creek Ridge and McClatchie Ridge and the high mountain basin between them. Perhaps even worse several thousand coal bed methane wells are planned near the mine. These are almost all on steep slopes and each drilling site requires an access road and clearing 5 to 20 acres.

Existing coal pits to the north have polluted the streams with toxic selenium. This mine and the wells would sit right at the head of the North Fork.

Here is a story about the area from Citizens Concerned about Coalbed Methane.

My photos from several days ago.

The rocky North Fork road about 15 miles north of the border. Copyright Ralph Maughan
The rocky North Fork road about 15 miles north of the border. Copyright Ralph Maughan
Low September water on the North Fork. Copyright Ralph Maughan
Low September water on the North Fork. Copyright Ralph Maughan
McClatchie Ridge. To be hauled away and/or part of mine dump. Copyright Ralph Maughan
McClatchie Ridge. To be hauled away and/or part of mine dump. Copyright Ralph Maughan
McClatchie road bridge over North Fork. One kilometer downstream from where mine will drain into the river. Copyright Ralph Maughan
McClatchie road bridge over North Fork. One kilometer downstream from where mine will drain into the river. Copyright Ralph Maughan



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  1. Mark Riffey Avatar


    You cant drive into BC anymore, but you can drag your boat/canoe out to the river’s edge and walk up the shoreline into Canada.

    Of course, those unmarked white DHS jets with all those electronics in them will likely see you shortly after the cameras do and generate a visit from a Mountie or someone in a new green and white Tahoe hybrid 🙂

    The North Fork of the Flathead is designated Wild and Scenic, so there are protections, but protection is relative given the various coal and gold mining proposals that continue to float downstream from our friends north of the border.


  2. TPageCO Avatar

    Splitting a wild hair, I’d actually say the South Fork is the wildest, as it doesn’t have an airstrip at the put-in like the MF does. In my opinion, the single best multiday wilderness rivertrip in the lower 48.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    You might well be right, but it does have the Hungry Horse Dam and reservoir. The other two forks of the Flathead are not dammed.

  4. Jeff Avatar

    I worked as a commercial river guide/outfitter for 15 years in CO, UT and WY, but I don’t know much about the Flathead as I’ve only been up to the Glacier area once. Are these stretches lottery allocated multi-day whitewater trips? If so who is the permitting agency? What are the different sections that are runnable? Any other info? My girls are getting older and I recently bought a raft again so I look forward to getting back on the river for some multi-day floats. In 2002 I drew my Grand Canyon permit after an 11 year wait, 18 days of pure joy! Then we started our familiy…the girls love floating the different sections of the Snake here in Teton County.

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Does anyone know that answers for Jeff about the rules for running each or any of the 3 forks of the Flathead?

  6. TPageCO Avatar


    Go get your copy of Cassidy’s “Western Whitewater”. Most of what you seek is in that book, although I don’t know when it was last revised (if ever). As far as I know, the SF is still floatable without a pre-allocated permit, due to the extremely difficult logistics to get in and out – it’s a long pack to the put-in, and a short one on the way out. These logistical difficulties, along with the relative lack of whitewater compared to the MF, have kept the river corridor largely intact. Having watched the Gunnison Gorge and other formerly untrashed canyons deteriorate due in large measure to the outfitting boom in the 90’s and beyond, I’m reluctant to say much more about it. If you are dedicated, you’ll figure it out.

  7. Jeff Avatar

    Are you speaking of the Gunny Gorge from Chukar Trail down? I ran that a few times in the early to mid 90s and it always seemed pretty empty when I was there. Thanks for the info I’ll investigate, I’m probably a few years away from any big trips due to my kids age, but I’m going to try to float the San Juan next spring.

  8. TPageCO Avatar

    The early 90’s was about the last time it was “empty”. Once word got out about the big trout in there, and everyone and their moms took up flyfishing, it wasn’t the same quality.

    Another nice mellow semi-wilderness SW Colorado float is the Dolores, in a good water year. I’ve got some neat family footage of a trip on the Dolores pre-dam – there’s hardly a tamarisk in sight and the water is chocolate with big beaches. Unrecognizable today, of course.

  9. Jeff Avatar

    I lived in Durango from 90-95 and that is where I began guiding in college. I actually got to float the Dolores quite a bit with flows as high as 3800. Snaggletooth is impressive with good water, the Piedra, Upper Animas, and Upper San Juan are all great wilderness runs, minus the train to Silverton. That’s too bad about the Gunnison, my last trip there I hired 12 hourses topack in two rafts and gear to take my brother, father and a couple others on a three day fish/float trip. My previous trips were all kayaking day trips. Did you ever float the Salt pre-dynaminting of Quartzite Falls? We did that in the spring of 1992 during high water and Quartzite was certain death if you ran it. Needless to say the brutal portage discouraged most, but it is an unbelieveable desert river trip, in the mid 90s an outfitter blasted the rock ledge while on a commerical trip with customers. He turned a Class VI to a class III. He fled to Australia I believe and wound up being extradicted and spent time in prison eventually. Where in CO were you?

  10. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    The South Fork of the Flathead is a beautiful trip. It is not a white water trip like the Selway or Salmon River in Idaho. The fishing used to be excellent – I haven’t been there for several years. No permits are required probably because not many people want to hike at both ends of the float and horses are spendy! We usually went in from Holland Lake; rented horses (or bought our own from Idaho) to take in the boats and other nonpersonal items and then hiked in. Sometimes part of us shuttled the cars from Holland Lake to the take out at Meadow Creek and hiked in from there. Saves time at the end of the trip and the hike is about the same distance. (Some people run the Meadow Creek Gorge; we did once; ususly we pulled out above and hiked out the last three miles.)
    The lower part of the Middle Fork of the Flathead forms the boundry of Glacier National Park and has a Highway, US 2, and railroad along it.

  11. Dennis Avatar

    Actually Ralph, the article isn’t “seriously wrong”. If you watch the clip, the narration explains that you drive right to the locked gate at the border (not into B.C.) and there’s a put-in right there on the Montana side of the border. One guy talks about walking “into Canada without a visa”(which isn’t the smartest thing to do). The road north from Columbia Falls is good past Polebridge to Trail Creek, but it’s pretty rough beyond that. Not nearly as good as most of the roads on the B.C. side of the valley.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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