Float On: Rafting Montana's Rivers

As a newbie to the “West,” the run-off season is quite interesting. Small stream beds that had just been bone-dry are now raging with feet of water, and the rivers that seemed mild and uncompromising are running over 20,000 CFS! CFS stands for cubic feet per second, which is a classification of water flow in streams.

I grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina, on the banks of the Oconoluftee, Tuckaseegee, and Nantahala rivers. And just a short drive from the Pigeon, the Gauley, Ocoee, and more. So, I’m not unfamiliar with water. Just not big water out west. It’s so different; how the water fills the gorges and spreads wide, taking up as much space as it can. 

My older brother dove deep into the whitewater culture, becoming a guide on the smaller rivers in the area when he was just 16 years old. He grew with the water and eventually began paddling C-1 open boat canoes. These canoes are equipped with knee padding and floatation devices toward the sterns of the boat. Using a one-side paddle, you sit on your knees in the boat and boogie down the stream.

Personally, I tried my hand at kayaking over multiple summers in my teens and early twenties but ultimately decided that wasn’t for me. But water is still an important element in my life, and I often seek out any opportunity to play. So, when my brother proposed a pack rafting trip on the West Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho – I jumped on the opportunity and started researching.

A couple of months were spent planning and coordinating through a group of experienced boaters. Having never been on big water out West, I was the newbie in the group. Unfortunately, the trip was canceled last minute due to historically high-water levels.

Life happens, and you’ve got to pivot from time to time. So, trying not to feel discouraged by missing out on a boater’s dream float, we made the most of our time together. We went scouting rivers on a Saturday, searching for good runs without too much water. While out scouting, we stopped at the Garden of 1000 Buddhas in Arlee, MT. Followed by driving up to Polson to see Flathead Lake.


After scouting locations and doing lots of online research, we felt confident in running the Thompson River. The Thompson River flows just west of Plains, MT eventually spilling into the Clark Fork River. We ended up floating 12.5 miles of river in a little under 3 hours, at a flow of 1500 CFS. The water was cold, but the air was warm, allowing for a perfect day on the water.

After getting a taste of whitewater, we kept looking for rivers. We decided to keep it local and float the Blackfoot River. We loaded up the gear on a Thursday morning and set off on our maiden Blackfoot voyage. We ended up floating 16.5 miles in 3.5 hours. Getting to know the local waterways has been amazing. Learning a new river is always a fun challenge.

As with any outdoor activity, it’s crucial to be prepared for anything. Running rivers is not something that should be taken lightly. Always wear your PFD (personal floatation device), be prepared to swim, and most of all, don’t panic!