7/06/2018 @ 3550 cfs (Twin Creek gauge)
The Meadow Creek Gorge section of the South Fork of the Flathead River, MT has earned a notorious, if not somewhat dubious reputation over the years. Some of this reputation is well earned, but much of this is simply due to its location, logistics, and dearth of beta specifics. For instance, the bulk of the rapids have gone unnamed or classified, until now.
Most of the paddling guides simply refer to this 4.5 mile section between Mid-Creek take-out and Cedar Flats RAP, as a Class IV-V run, with some random mentions of “notches”, “slots”, and gorges. At moderate flows (2000-6000 cfs at Twin creek gauge) this section has 11 rapids, ranging in difficulty from Class II+-V.0. Generally, I would call this a Class III-IV run at flows below 2,000 cfs, Class IV-V run at moderate flows, and a Class V run at flows above 8,000 cfs. The ratings below are based on moderate flow levels and nudged up a tad based on the hydraulic consequences of taking a swim.
As one passes Mid Creek and the associated “take-out” adorned with a “hazard-red” trimmed USFS warning sign, you are riding atop Gateway, a swift Class III entry rapid to Meadow Creek Gorge section, offering a brief introduction to the hydraulic power of the lower gorge. Next is the mild, but lengthy Class II+ wave train and eddy lines of S-turn rapid, which leads directly into Sookie’s Suckhole III+, which sports a decent drop and river wide recirculating hole and boil.
Soon after this, the shoreline becomes rocky and more incised, forming a constricted wave train with small drops and standing waves called Bob’s Canal III, terminating with a decent drop and boil line of Overboard III.
Briefly the main channel is divided into two braids, which converge just ahead of a constriction that is only 4 feet wide at moderate flows and highly technical in approach; whereas at high flows this feature forms a massive right hand turn pour-off, with an associated drop and hole. Either way, Notch Rapid is a Class IV feature, due to the hydraulics and complexity of the associated entry or drop.
After Notch Rapid there is a little break in the action, but before long one will hear the roar of the next two rapids. The first to be encountered is the high gradient drop of Thor’s Hammer, which may be a little more washed-out at higher flows, but approaches Class V.0 at moderate levels. Approximately 125 meters below this is the entrance to The Slot, which one does not want to be swimming from an ejection at Thor’s Hammer. The Slot is a solid Class IV at moderate levels and may bump up to a Class V at higher flows, due to the 4 foot wide opening, 25 foot sheer cliff walls, and the associated waves and funky hydraulics.
After passing Gorge Creek on river left, one begins the right-hand entry into The Gorge, where the canyon constricts the river volume to an 8-10 foot wide slot within the 60 foot deep gorge; producing Class IV+ hydraulic boils and erratic eddy lines for 100-200 meters. Once again, this can be a Class V feature at high flows.
At this juncture, most will think the whitewater is over, but in fact, two rapids remain. The first is a lengthy Class III+ constriction with standing waves and small drops, which may be a bit washed-out at high flows, but is now known as White Fang.
The last rapid of this run is called Donkey Punch and is a Class IV drop that earns its name, because after a right-hand turn between a mid-stream boulder and cliff face on the right, all while bucking two large waves, the flow drops into a 6 foot hole with an 8 foot standing wave. The only way to escape the meat is to run far right along the cliff face! Two bends in the river and ½ mile later finds one exiting at Cedar Flat take-out on river left; a .2 , but a steep hike on a well-constructed trail finds you back on the East Side FR.
While the potential for wood hazards can’t be understated, ALL of the rapids and constrictions can be scouted and portaged, if necessary or desired. Even The Gorge can be scouted for wood from the rim above; granted the scouting or portage of this feature does require a steep hike up from the mouth of Gorge Creek and back over to the east rim just downriver of the stock/foot bridge. Fortunately, wood was not an issue during our run.
While this section can theoretically be paddled in a narrow R2-4 raft, I agree with the USFS, and wouldn’t recommend this for fishing or oar rigs of any kind; as the Notch, Slot, and Gorge are just too narrow. However, for those with the skill, determination, and nerve, piloting a kayak, IK, or packraft through the gorge at moderate flows is a rewarding and unique experience.
"You guys making a movie? Not many folks bring a raft through this section of the gorge." Those ominous words from a Kalispell couple echoed through my mind as I stood on a pack bridge high above Meadow Creek Gorge scouting yet another blind bend on the South Fork of the Flathead. Having easily traversed nearly 19 river miles the day before (two guys in kayaks, three--plus my dog Sunshine-- in a 13' raft) we were now completing Day 5--a ten hour saga that included three brutal portages, two near misses, and a whoping 2.5 miles traveled. So, when I traded my Gerber river knife to the Kalispell fellow for a 6-pack of cold Bush Light (uuggh) and two Diet Pepsis, I thought I had made the deal of a lifetime--a "kill" equal to bringing a buffalo back to the Mandan tribe.
Nestled in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness the South Fork of the Flathead is considered one of the most remote wilderness rivers in the lower 48. The river originates at the confluence of Danaher and Youngs Creek and can be reached via Holland Lake to the west (27 miles), or Monture Creek from the south near Ovando (26 miles). While mules can pack your boats and gear in, most outfitters charge by their total trip in days--(2) in and (1) out. However, Cheff Ranch pushes to the confluence in one day, offers some of the best rates out there, and were wonderful to work with. During higher water the hike can be shortened up to nine miles by putting in above the confluence at Hahn Creek, a tributary to Youngs.
The first 40 miles of the South Fork is pretty straight forward Class I+ (II) water; however, expect to meet a couple of massive log jams along the way that demand portage. The river is so remote in this section you may have better luck seeing a grizzly than another human. Ther scenery is spectacular and the river is as clear as remote rivers I've seen in Chile, with visibility at 20+ feet. Even if you have never fished before, take along your fishing gear and expect to land 50 Cuthroat trout a day. Side hikes to the Chinese Wall and alpine lakes are other options to consider if you have the time and energy.
Class I-II rapids dot the river early on, but the last four miles before Mid Creek offer a handful of low-end class IIIs with decent surf. If you want to end your peaceful float, be sure to take out a Mid creek, as the nature of the river changes dramatically beyond this point--there is a large sign warning the unweary of their impending doom. If you decide to takeout here, you still have a 3-mile hike to the Meadow Creek trail head, so arranging mules is a good idea.
Once you have floated past the Mid Creek take-out you are pretty much committed to the gorge, as the limestone walls quickly close in and the gradient begins to take a noticeable drop. The first significant rapid is a Class IV drop that has a rock situated perfectly for a vertical pin. The channel narrows quickly through a series of Class III drops and leads into a slot too narrow for most rafts (250 yard portage), but posed no problems for the kayaks. Just past this slot is a fun wave train that has a hole on the right you may want to avoid. The next major challenge is how to get the raft safely into a micro eddy in order to avoid a three foot wide slot that the entire river pushes through; our plan worked, but nearly cost us everything...let me share our Plan A and Plan B, the story goes something like this:
Plan A: OPERATION HIT THE SMALL EDDY ON THE RIGHT OR DIE
As our group moved forward cautiously, kayakers scouting ahead, we came upon a very narrow 3-4 ft. slot that required a portage of the raft....trouble was we had 80 ft. sheer walls on both sides of the river and no way to head back upstream; we hastily devised what we thought was a workable plan and moved into action. Two members of the group would kayak down and catch a micro eddy approximately 30 ft. above the "Death Slot", and wait there for ropes that would be thrown from the raft by two others. Everyone was in position and I had the raft right where I wanted it to be--the perfect line to catch the eddy--when suddenly the raft struck a submerged rock as it entered the safe zone and catapulted the raft abruptly downstream towards the white storm and certain peril. Two ropes flew from the hands of the damned and our two anchormen caught both and miraculously were able to hang on just before the abandon ship command was given, which, by the way, was Plan B.
Below this challenge lies a long set of Class III rapids with tight turns, narrow slots, and small drops which we deemed too risky for a fully loaded raft--we spent the next two hours portagingn gear and supplies, and lining the raft through the rapids that the kayaks easily negotiated. At the bottom
of these rapids you will find the second very narrow slot, perhaps 5 ft wide---
we were able to deflate the unloaded raft enough to squeeze it through. The
last constriction lies below Meadow Creek Pack Bridge. At higher water
(3000+)there is a pillow rock on river right that absorbs nearly all of the
current; at lower flows (below 1500) this rock shows itself as an undercut. The second Slot
(click pic to enlarge)
The current can be a bit pushy through the narrow, sheer-walled section,
and be on the lookout for strainers as there is little or no eddy service. Once the canyon slot opens up you have a 1/2 mile section of fun Class III/IV water that is best run left to right. Take out at Cedar Flats just below this section unless you want to continue the 18 miles of Class I water to Hungry Horse Reservoir.
The coolest place.
Letter from John Craighead on the issue of dams and the need for wild rivers.
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Meadow Creek Gorge rapids
The Slot - Meadow Creek Gorge
Meadow Creek Gorge
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