Canoeing the Smith River, a Montana Gem

If you ask a random American what their stereotypical perspective of a Minnesotan is it may very likely include hotdish, hockey, and canoeing.  As a youngster, being a Minnesota native I ate a lot of hotdish but I didn’t play much hockey and I didn’t do a lot of canoeing.  In the last decade or so I’ve grown very fond of river camping and have done a handful of trips via canoe, packraft, and standard raft.  Two of these trips are firmly rooted near the top of my all time favorite camping experiences, including the one I’m about to tell you of.

 

IMG_1378

 

The idea was spawned this past winter to get a group together to put into the lottery for a permit on Montana’s Smith River.  A few of us got together for dinner and drinks, discussed strategy and entered for three different put-in dates ranging from a prime mid-June slot to riskier (low water) slots in early June and early July.  The odds of the lottery aren’t terrible but they’re also not certain.  In 2013 there were 6,662 applicants with only 1062 permits awarded.  One of our group was lucky though and a slot to put-in on Saturday, July 12th was ours.  The ’13/’14 winter hammered SW Montana with near-record snowfalls so our fingers were crossed that the 165% snowpack in the Smith watershed would hold out and provide the needed 240+ cfs flows to get all of our crafts down the river without too much hassle.

 

The word spread that we had a permit.  The original group of six or seven participants quickly swelled to 13, dropped, swelled again – right up until the last day before we put in when one last member backed out leaving us with an even 10.  We had planned extensively both via group email as well as a thorough planning spreadsheet.  And in late June as many of the participants as were available went on an overnight trip to shakedown gear and group dynamics (that was a gorgeous trip in and of itself).  The logistics of shuttling ten people’s bodies, gear, and boats was solved, group cooking gear was selected, and paddling/rowing teams were set.

 

IMG_1478

 

We had participants coming from all over the U.S. – Bozeman, Minneapolis, and Seattle – but all successfully converged at the Camp Baker put-in Friday evening for our Saturday morning departure.  We arrived after dark but shelters were pitched, a fire lit, and beers were in hand in under 30 minutes.  Stoke level was high and we sat around the fire chatting ’til around 11pm.  Smith River policy requires a meeting with a ranger to pay permitting fees, select campsites, and hear a brief safety/regulations talk the morning of your put-in and we were up at 7am and ready with bacon, pancakes, and coffee flying off the Coleman Dual Fuel.

 

The ranger informed us there had been 8,000 applicants for the lottery this season and that on average there were 135 people putting in per day throughout the summer.  Our July 12th put in is considered near the end of the season but there were still dozens of boats and a few dozen people milling about Camp Baker getting ready.  The nice thing about the permitting and controlled access of the Smith is that it spaces river users out in such a way that although you’re sharing 50 miles of river with hundreds of people you may only see a couple other boats all day.  Some choose to float in a five day window, others choose to fit it into four days. This also helps to limit how many you see as well.  We played hop scotch with one other party who shared a similar itinerary to ours the entire time but only saw a small handful of other groups on days one and four.

 

IMG_1405

 

The Smith is everything from a well managed, natural habitat for flora and fauna, to a fishing paradise, to a relaxed and generally worry-free booze cruise.  Our group appreciated each and every one of those aspects day in and day out.  We had folks along who were into fishing, folks who have graduate degrees that are into science, and folks who enjoy cracking a river beer a little after ten in the morning.

 

IMG_1475

 

The river proved a very worthy adventure for our group.  We were spaced out in four canoe teams consisting of two paddlers and one raft team with one at the oars and one on a fishin’ rod.  The raft carried a little bit of extra gear but for the most part everyone had their own gear in their own canoes.  We spent a fair amount of time planning group gear (stoves, tables, shelters, et al) so that we had little to no unnecessary redundancy.  Food was also very well thought out and we devoted certain coolers to dry-ice laden deep freeze machines and others to open-as-much-as-needed cold beer dispensing machines.

 

IMG_1310

 

Our scheduled permit which came toward the end of the heavy float season meant we’d have whole campsites to ourselves.  The Smith is laid out in such a way that areas containing designated campsites usually have an upper, middle, and lower site.  The sites are pretty well spaced so even on the last night when we had neighbors to the upper and lower sites below us it wasn’t particularly annoying (at least not to us – not sure whether they liked us or not!?!).

 

IMG_1349

 

 

IMG_1354

 

The trip was absolutely spectacular.  The fishing didn’t prove to be very fruitful because none of us consider ourselves pros with a fly and the lateness of the season meant the water was extremely warm.  Not to worry though, just getting to cast a fly into the water under a few hundred foot tall canyon wall is a relaxing and rewarding activity in and of itself and worth it without a trout reward.

 

IMG_1359

 

 

IMG_1366

 

Any amount of fishing that may have not proved fruitful was easily made up for in exquisite swimming opportunities.  We made it a point to stop a couple times a day for an hour or more at at time when we’d come to a good swimming hole.  We even found a couple decent “deep water” soloing opportunities with some fun little cliff jumps.

 

IMG_1416

 

 

IMG_1423

 

Get your friends together and apply for your permit if you want to float the Smith.  If awarded, do yourself a favor and do some pre-trip planning (or a ton of planning as we did).  Dial in your food plan so you can eat gourmet grub three meals a day and figure out which campsites are awesome and which are just so-so.  Find a couple good friends who don’t complain about the sun or the lack of good fishing and hit the river.  The Smith is an absolute treasure and worth sharing.  If you feel the same, consider researching the current plans to attempt to build a mine at the headwaters and write a note to your government reps or consider a donation to at saveoursmith.com.  Let’s keep Montana beautiful as both a natural resource and a recreational playground.

 

Superior Hiking Trail, Sunday, May 08, 2005

Sonju Lake, May 2005

From my Trail Journal, Sunday, 2005-05-08, Sonju Lake

The sun hangs in the sky, lazy. The choir of creatures surrounding me don’t mind me being here and have just struck up a tune. A choir with tens of thousands of players, no composer and no sheet music. A jazz combo of epic proportions. The first few mosquitos of the summer buzz solo parts in my ear. They are huge.

The Art of Glissading

Wikipedia defines glissading as the

“..voluntary act of descending a steep slope of snow in a controlled manner either for the sheer thrill of the ride or to bypass tedious scree.”

During the summer of 2009 I co-guided a course in ultralight backpacking for the Backpacking Light Wilderness Trekking School alongside Andrew Skurka and Glen Van Peski in the beautiful Wind River Range of Wyoming. One afternoon as we were descending along painfully slow scree fields (I believe off Wind River Peak) we opted to speed things up and glissade some perfectly pitched snowfields.

View the embedded video “Glissading in the Wind River Range” on Vimeo.

Backpacking the Spanish Peaks of the Madison Range

The crew I was part of in college refers to ourselves as Flavor Country and a small subset of this crew has been taking an annual backpacking trip since somewhere around 2002 or 2003.  I and my roomate (also a part of Flavor Country) have the fortune of living in a place where there is ample and awesome backpacking so a couple of the guys from the Midwest came out to visit last week and we hit the trail for four days and three nights.

There was some big ol’ glacial erratic along the trail.
We found ourselves way up in the high country singing “Misty Mountain Hop”.
Then it snowed.  Eric was so afraid he had to close his eyes.
Someone left a metal grill at the site so we steamed some beef sticks in a sardine can.
It was pretty much exquisitely beautiful. 
Eric constructed the best firepit ever.  ‘Twas a shame to practice LNT and tear it down in the morning.
At trip’s end we had to fight Jax dog for the last tall boy of Old Swill.  

Parcour de Wild 2009

Continental Divide TrailOn October 11th, 2009 Matt Lutz and Sam Haraldson drove to the Continental Divide along the desolate Montana Hwy 200.  Arriving at the 5,610 ft trailhead and finding just shy of a meter of snow paired with temperatures around 10 deg F the duo put on their hardmen game face, snowshoes, backpacks, and began climbing from Roger’s Pass to the Crown of the Continent – the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

SunriseFor the previous months Matt and Sam had been planning a route across parts of the Helena National Forest comprised primarily of the Bob Marshall with the expectation of traveling between 130 and 165 miles as part of the loosely-organized wilderness adventure race Parcour de Wild.  As the date for the trip grew nearer the snow began to fall in NW Montana and Sam and Matt’s chances of making 150 miles along the Continental Divide grew slim.  Much planning had gone into the route and little time was left to create a Plan B so when Matt arrived at Sam’s house in Bozeman after driving from Minnesota the two stuck with their plan. 

MattEven with the first steps from the highway, over the five foot embankment of plowed snow, up the switchbacks to the top of the first ridgeline Sam was doubtful of the teams ability to complete their route.  Being the perservering type he kept his mouth shut and mentally determined his mindset would be that of forward-progress with no particular end-goal intent.  Sam and Matt discussed their plans in ongoing dialog as they walked for the first and second day.  Sometime during the second day after having only made less than a dozen miles they knew the focus of the trip should change from fast and light adventure race mode to an enjoyable winter camping trip. 

MattAfter a decision to hike out-and-back rather than push on toward the finish was determined – a decision which did not negatively affect either hiker – the lightness of step that is found in any fun backcountry excursion continued with each snowshoe placed into the glistening white powder.  Matt and Sam hiked until a pre-determined time, had some lunch, melted some water, and then began back-tracking their steps toward the trailhead and waiting automobile. 

Golite Shangri-La 2Although we set out to do a light and fast adventure race both Matt and Sam decided to themselves and openly to each other that this sort of pursuit would be better suited to them in summer months.  Matt is an ultramarthon runner with multiple races under his belt and Sam is a thru-hiker with a couple long trails to his name.  They both enjoy hikes in the 20 to 30 mile range and if this race had taken place one or two weeks earlier the duo felt they would have been in contention. 

CDT cairnOnly two other racers opted to participate in the event and they were successful, completing their intended route with smashing success.  Dave Chenault and Kevin Sawchuk’s race report can be viewed with a subscription to BackpackingLight.com at Parcour de Wild 2009. It was rewarding to both Matt and Sam to hear the other two had participated and completed the route for it added a legitimacy to the event.  The four men who were out in the cold that snowy week in October may not have all finished but they could be certain they had planned, prepared, and set-out to do it.  There were eight other individuals who originally intended to race the Parcour de Wild that ultimately did not.  There is something to be said for at least giving it a go. 

Video Trip Report:

Trip Photos

The full set of photos for this trip can be seen at:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/walloftvs/sets/72157622795840046/