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Hey all,

Just got off a fantastic ~30 mile trip from Schafer Meadows USFS airstrip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to Bear Creek takeout near Essex MT.

pictures here: https://imgur.com/gallery/EuM83gt


I’m making this post in the hope that there will be future searchers who can take some info and make their trip smoother. I can't remember how I initially got on to the idea of doing this multi day section but I have been planning it since Nov 2019 so to see it finally come to fruition was very rewarding.

My initial draw to this trip was the lack of info that can be found online paired with the remoteness of the river. Many of the classic whitewater multiday trips you can find endless videos of multiple angles and water levels for each and every named rapid and campsite etc. As well as great official and unofficial guide books and maps and of course your one friend that knows all the rivers of the world and has endless knowledge. Not so with the MFF Schafer Meadows section. There is an official USFS 'guide' that can be found here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3842663.pdf savvy googling skills are your friend for anything else. I believe this post may be one of the only long form trip reports anywhere online, with more to follow in the future hopefully!

There are quite a few posts here on the Buzz that have been helpful to piece info together ahead of time as well as PM'ing members for their input directly. My aim for this post is not to do all the hard work for you but make a post that could help alleviate headaches that I wish our group would have known. If you want to make this trip happen as a multiday it is well worth the effort and I invite you to do it. A quick google will let you know that it is entirely undammed, original wild and scenic designated, free flowing, cold, snow melt river with limited access to rescue or help and limited usage (for now). The saving grace for this year was the lack of permit required to run this section so no COVID regrets.

We flew in with Montana Air Adventures out of Kalispell. They will tell you to show up at 7 but they won’t get their til 7:30 at the earliest so you have time to repack and go through gear and prioritize weight. If you are flying in you have a weight limit of 900lbs per plane. If you are creative you can weigh your gear beforehand and use close to every pound that you pay for.

Our group logistics ended up being 2 of us flying in 2 separate flights in the morning and 4 others hiking in 13.5 miles in just under 7 hours from the Morrison creek trailhead off of Singleshot road. According to the hikers be prepared for a half mile or so of snow postholing at the beginning of the hike late June and many many creek crossings. You can find GPS tracks online from previous pack rafters for exact trail info.

We royal flyers both weighed in the neighborhood of 200lbs so we were able to have 1400lbs of gear stuffed into 2 Cessna 206’s with the seats taken out. With some gumption and persuasion you can convince the pilots to get creative with the packing and weight distribution and you will be very surprised what you can fit in each plane.

We did NOT pack light and were within 5lbs of our total weight limit for each plane flight. We had one 16 foot oar boat packed to the gills with ~1100 lbs of total loaded weight and a 12 foot paddle boat with one cooler between the thwarts. When we ran the section it was between 8300 and 9800 CFS on the gauge down below west glacier. There is NO gauge for the upper section. The water you get is what you get. From my research the last week of June/first week or 2 of July is the best time to run it with rafts as far as runnable flows and good fishing with water clearing up. We ended up getting in a little over our heads as far as flows as there was a weeklong rain storm that rolled through and ended the night before we flew in so water was ripping.

I have been told that you do not want to be running it below 5k on the West Glacier gauge if you are taking larger than 14 foot loaded boats down there and want to make it through the rapids. From my ‘expert’ opinion of looking at higher flows and rocks in the river I would agree with this. Some rapids were completely washed out at ~8500 cfs and instead of technical rocky class 4’s were fantastic class 3+ wave trains with beefyish holes and wave trains. From scouting the rapids and looking under the crystal clear water you could see car size boulders completely covered by water that would become significant rapid features at lower water. This is one of those rivers that will be completely different at different water levels so buyer beware!

https://youtu.be/eU2Owd_9OiE

We packed the planes heavy and flew the ~35 minutes to Schafer meadows airstrip from Kalispell. Montana Air Adventures were fantastic and had it down as far as the flight. They typically fly the route multiple times a day in the summer season for dropping fisherman and rafters off. Landing was smooth as butter although those with a fear of small cramped planes or stomach dropping air turbulence coming over the mountain passes may want to opt to hike in instead. Huge shout out to those guys for making it work packing all of our gear in the worst game of Tetris as well as their river advice.

Landing at Schafer meadows was a little slice of heaven. A work crew lives there with the ranger from May –October doing trail clearing and maintenance in the wilderness. Talk about a paradise. No wheeled conveyance of any type or modern technology is in there so everything is carried by horses or by hand. They seem to be having a great time living their lives in there being mostly self-sufficient and I had to say we were a little jealous. They don’t get much world news or cold beer at all so leave the news out and bring the cold beer in if you want to make friends :)

Be prepared that if you pack heavy and have a bunch of your crew hiking in 14 miles (starting at 5am if you are our crew) that you have to carry ALL of your gear a quarter mile ONE way down from the air strip to the river put in. Everything is carried through a watery knee deep muddy ‘trail’ that you will become intimately familiar with during the first day. The only relief that you will have is to hope that everyone has eaten their Wheaties that morning and that you have 2 pine wood canvas stretchers to carry things on. These stretchers have definitely seen better days and still have blood on them from the soldiers who died on them in the civil war. It sure beats carrying coolers/rafts/dryboxes completely by hand though I must say. Plan much more time than you were expecting to let the hikers revive and pack your gear up and be prepared to camp at the put in or at the much nicer campsite 20 yards upstream for the night (ask me how I know).

Our goal of this trip was to take it slow in the upper wild and scenic section and prioritize time there instead of the stretch between bear creek – west glacier. Our initial plan was to make it most or all of the way to West Glacier time permitting but we did not make it that far and took out at Bear Creek. No one was upset about this and it seemed to be the better trip instead of pushing for miles of flatter water tacked on to the end by the highway.

The ‘river guide’ does a good job of pointing out the sections where rapids exist. They definitely exist within the bounds that are marked but are not named. For us the first day of hitting the Three Forks section was definitely a hard and fast read and run adventure. If I were to name a few of the rapids it would be “oh s*** house rock after blind turn” and “massive island of trees blocking the left route” among others. We met up with a group at Schafer who had run this section before ~2 years previous and said that the accepted convention was to stay right at any of the major rapids. We found that, from somewhat blurred memory, to be mostly accurate. We read and run a little more than I was expecting to in this section and the stress of setting up a heavy oar boat at the right place in the river to avoid crunchy holes and pin rocks was an adventure. We made it a point to scout more during this day and the following days to avoid undue surprises which pay out dividends in the end and definitely took more time.

IF IN DOUBT GO SCOUT. I will say it again, GO SCOUT. Or be very comfortable with your reading and running skills and last minute eddy catches that you cannot afford to miss if you want to keep safety spacing and good white water etiquette.

A great example of this is in the last major rapid in three forks I will call rock headache. The rapid is long and mostly class 3+ boogie water at the flows we were on until the very last section where the right hand side became a 3/4 river right sided swirling keeper hole reminiscent of a low head damn. We maybe could have run it and maybe would have been fine with no swimmers but we ended up making the right call and camped there for the night above the rapid and took a few hours in the morning to line both boats through. We lined them through the far left hand sneak just left of the 2 large entrance rocks. Bring lots of good long ropes, throw bags and a Zdrag kit that you know how to use before you need it. It would really be a hard time trying to unpin a raft hours and hours from any help that may be coming.

https://youtu.be/WQQIrhmUAB0

As in all major rivers we have run, pay attention to the geology changing as this will signal either the beginning or end of a major rapid series. In our case when the shale started showing up we were out of the Three Forks section and into the calmer stretch. KEEP YOUR BOATS AWAY FROM THE SHALE. Unless you like to patch your boats. We were warned by the other group that they had torn a 2 foot hole in their boat on the previous trip that almost literally left them up a creek… Thanks to shoe goo they limped it out somehow. We thankfully heeded this and stayed well away which is more than doable. There are many hard turns where the water pushes directly into a shale cliff and if you are a half way competent boater you can see a mile away and set up for well ahead so it should be a non-issue. The biggest issue might be coming in to fast into an eddy and catching a stray shale rock on the bank.

Three forks section to granite cabin is calm and a fun float. If you are running this section at higher water take your time in the rapids to be safe and know that you will be clocking ~4.5 miles an hour in the main current at these flows so if you can keep your boat in the water you can make camp in not a very long time. This is not a Utah desert drift float. Another group had the castle lake/creek campsites on the left when we got there so we ended up camping on the right hand side further down. We were told by the pilots that the hike to Castle Lake was well worth it and the fishing was good for stocked trout. The campsites river left at castle creek are easy to miss and not well marked but look fantastic especially for a larger group if you setup early to catch them. There are great campsites with fantastic views to be had throughout this entire section of river from Schafer down if you are watching out for them and quick on your eddies.

At our water level 25 mile rapid was a super fun straight down the middle class 3ish wave train with a big wave hit at the bottom center not to be missed. I could see this rapid being significantly more technical at lower water and multiple videos can be found online with a quick google search. Also pro tip search for hashtags like #middleforkflathead and #schafermeadows on Instagram to find more content and message people who have run it at different levels.

https://youtu.be/QKG7Em5oY5c

A short half mile or so after 25 mile is what we called the S bend run, super fun run between 2 big rocks in the middle of the current. Ready up for a sharp river right hand turn shooting between the rocks, don’t slam up against the downstream rock and watch your oars! When you shoot through the rocks pull over directly river right into the large eddy and climb up on the rocks for fantastic lunch beer spot for trout fishing and cliff jumping. Definitely one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been with everyone in our group having great success catching various trout but mostly decent sized rainbows. Bring a selection of flies and traditional trout spinners/spoons and you can’t really go wrong. There are a lot of Bull trout in this section and they are a protected species so figure out what a Bull trout looks like ahead of time and put them back as soon as possible. I have heard of hefty fines/jail time for people targeting and keeping bull trout in this area of the Bob. They are super aggressive hitting in the water when the water is clearing up from peak run off.

https://youtu.be/Icp2IRkZ0_Y

Lunch creek rapids section at this level was also a fun read and run that allows for plenty of setup around the blind turns if you are thinking ahead and paying attention to where the current is going and feel confident staying away from obvious rocks/holes/pour-overs. The river is significantly wider at above 8k but also a lot pushier so I could see it going either way at lower flows.

Pro tip if you have an offline map app like Gaia GPS or Avenza/Garmin etc, compare where you are as far as upcoming creeks with where the rapids start on the USFS guide and you will have a very close approximation for where the rapids will appear. When you pass the creek you are looking for you can start setting up for an eddy or to run through whatever is coming.

Spruce Park was an interesting experience for all. The cabin that can be seen on the map is high up behind the trees on the river right side and can only really be seen from downstream of it from what I saw. RUN RIGHT if it is clear of trees where the river FORKS around a large island directly BELOW the cabin. Left hand run was too low and resulted in having to walk our boats back upstream even though from the top it looks nice and clear and lots of flow. Can only imagine how bony it would get on the lower left at lower flows.

https://youtu.be/juXcCJXlDHg

The Spruce Park entrance rapid was a very straightforward river center right run around the entrance rock that I could see being a couple of gnarly boat eating holes at slightly lower levels. Look out for the sobering white kayak paddle memorial strapped to the tree river left. I have heard that commercial trips will often line their boats through this entrance rapid I am imagining at lower water levels. When you are in the canyon you are COMMITTED. Be smart about your eddy catching and pull over where you can scout. If in doubt go scout! Drink your beers and send it through the rapids after you are confident what is around the next corner. This saved our bacon more than once especially at the exit rapid. The exit rapid, as is always from river karma was by far the biggest pushiest gnarly rapid in the whole section. The rapid was well defined with class 4+ water and solid class 5 consequences depending on what you hit. There was not much at all for nice eddies to catch higher up to see it and you can’t really scout from the river for this rapid so be smart on your eddy catching closer in. There is slack water below this rapid but be prepared to quickly chase a flipped boat or throw some bags.

There is a cleaner line away from the large river center left holes by running down the right side and then backing away from the big rock right hand side. I was trying to setup for this right hand run in the video but was too far out in the current and a little sleep deprived to get setup correctly. I ended up probably the worst line through that rapid but had a big boat with lots of weight which probably saved a long swim.

https://youtu.be/WErSQsfuGd4

Try to run right of the river center pin rock at the exit of the rapid if you can make it, if you are expecting it then you have enough time to setup to get way right. There was a hole perfectly placed to stall a boat above the pin rock on river left that would push you straight into it if you were not paying attention. Due to one thing or another we ended up in the eddy river right directly above the last rapid at 7:30pm in the middle of a giant hailing thunderstorm. We ended up having to make the world’s worst camp on the rocks river right and ran it the next morning. Try to avoid doing this for group morale sake…… At least the sun appeared the next morning to shine on our run and to get to the takeout.

If we were to do this section again I would definitely pack lighter and take a smaller oar rig, maybe pack raft it self-supported at lower levels late July or early August. Much fun was had by all and it was an adventure to remember. Take the chance to run this if you can while it still wild and permit/crowd free! If you go at higher water take a competent, positive team that can handle surprises on the river and are confident in both their whitewater and rescue skills. Also bring a sat phone, 10 cans of bear spray and some cold smokes to drag bag.


Happy boating!!
 

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Just missed you, flew in on the 17th and took out on the 21st.We had five packrafts and had a good time. No problems but we carried part of the last drop and lined part of one other in the Spruce Park section but ran everything else. Pushing 10,000 on the West Glacier gauge a couple of days due to rain. About as much as I wanted in a packraft. Fishing was poor except for Castle Lake. The water was higher and cloudy. First time for any one of us on that section but I will be back at lower water for the fishing.



Thanks for your report, pretty much what we saw.We had two boats run tight right at the drop you lined and at our higher level it was washing through enough to be runable, but I can see it being stickier at lower water, the rest of us ran the left sneak. The last drop in Spruce Park flipped three out of three fishing cats we saw a couple of times on the river. It had a really big folding hole that would have been pretty much impossible to punch in a packraft. We carried around and ran the lower part below the hole.
One of the guys on the trip is working on a video of the run, I will post a link when he gets it done.
 

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JDUKE and dsrtrat, thanks for the trip reports and photos, I really enjoyed them, they were excellent. I have flew from Colorado into Schafer Meadows about five times to fish and camp, it's a beautiful descent and approach flight to the runway. I have never rafted the Flathead so I really enjoyed your right up.
 

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Thanks for great read! Felt like I was there...
 

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This is why I joined Mtn Buzz.
Thankyou so much for taking the time to write this up. It is truly a goldmine to find the details of all the logistics that makes for a fun and safe float.
 
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