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September 2005

Paddling’s Greatest Getaways

16 wild ways to find backcountry solitude and big-time scenery. All this, and you can bring the ice chest, too.


Killer Mountain Scenery

Float the wildlife-rich west side of Glacier National Park on this local-secret river.

What a difference a few miles make. While boatloads of summer tourists crowd the Middle Fork of the Flathead River on daily outfitter trips, the quiet North Fork goes almost unnoticed as it flows out of Canada, just a couple of hours away via a rough gravel road. The 58-mile, moderate whitewater journey on the Wild and Scenic River starts with views of Glacier’s Kintla and Numa Peaks, then passes through remote elk, moose, and bear habitat on the park’s border (watch for grizzlies, store food properly, and keep a clean camp). Some of this stretch burned in the fires of 2000, but showy wildflower displays are the dividend today. Superb backcountry campsites can be found all along the river, but stay only on river right, on Forest Service land (avoid private property), as camping is prohibited on the national park side. You can do the whole section in 4 days, but allow more time if you want to cast for the river’s legendary cutthroat.

Get there The North Fork Road parallels the free-flowing Flathead. Drive north from Columbia Falls and put in at Polebridge if the water level is low, or another 10 miles upstream if flow is good. Take-out is at Blankenship Bridge on Blankenship Bridge Road.

Season May through September (avoid earlys-eason high flows)

Difficulty Moderate, Class I-III

Contact Flathead National Forest, (406) 758-5200;

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