Description: The sparkling Swan flows through pine forests and cottonwood bottoms, providing occasional views of spectacular mountain ranges on both sides of the river.
Vital statistics: 93 miles long (including 15 miles of lakes and reservoirs) from its headwaters above Lindbergh Lake to Flathead Lake.
Level of difficulty: Mostly Class I water except for a very difficult 1-mile Class 5 section immediately below Bigfork Dam. Wicked logjams limit most of the Swan to intermediates, but practiced beginners can handle specific sections. Very dangerous at high flows.
Flow: Annual mean flow: 1,155 cfs near Bigfork. Above Point Pleasant, it can get too low by mid-August. A gauge at Piper Creek Bridge should read at least 2.25 feet to float the river above Point Pleasant.
Hazards: Numerous logjams and sharp bends.
Where the crowd goes: Fatty Creek Road bridge to Point Pleasant.
Avoiding the scene: Lindbergh Lake to Condon.
Inside tip: Include huckleberry picking in the nearby woods with an August float.
USGS: Choteau-MT, Cut Bank-MT, Kalispell-MT
Maps:BLM: #10 (Kalispell), #18 (Hungry Horse Reservoir), #19 (Swan Peak)
River rules: Piper Creek to Swan Lake, catch-and-release
for cutthroat and rainbows with artificial lures only.
For more information: Bigfork Chamber of Commerce; FWP, Kalispell.
The paddling: Any mountains as spectacular as the Missions would have to spawn a beautiful stream, and the Swan River is that gem. The Swan springs out of Crystal and Grey Wolf Lakes and then dashes wildly down the mountains until it reaches Lindbergh Lake on the valley floor. Then it flows more placidly for about 80 river miles northward, before entering Swan Lake. After Swan Lake, it meanders slowly for about 13 miles before entering Flathead Lake near Bigfork.
Thick timber and abundant vegetation characterize the Swan Valley, which generally ranges from about 4 to 16 miles wide. This valley receives nearly 25 inches of precipitation per year, significantly more than most other western Montana valleys. The moisture creates a thick mantle of pines that frequently extend right to the river's edge. Nearly every coniferous tree native to Montana can be found close to the Swan River.
Early logging companies tried to use the river to float logs, but it was too small. Above Condon, it's barely large enough to float a canoe. The abundant trees make continual contributions to the river; numerous logjams and downed trees are the Swan's claim to fame. This creates difficult and hazardous floating. You might consider taking along an axe to make the trip easier for the next floater.
At peak flows, Swan River float trips can be hair-raising and dangerous. Sharp bends in the river hide impenetrable logjams and the river frequently braids into small, ever-changing channels. Expect to encounter jams that completely block the river. This river requires excellent boat control, as there are many blind corners.
About 2 or 3 miles above Swan Lake, the river slows down and begins to flow in wide, easy meanders. Beginners can handle this section if they start at the first county bridge upstream from the lake-Porcupine Creek Road Bridge. This section includes part of the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge, which supports large populations of waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as deer, mink, and muskrat. This area receives heavy hunting pressure in the fall.
Those floating the last few miles of the upper river above Swan Lake have to paddle across the lake for about a mile to reach the take-out point at Swan Lake Campground. Stick close to the shore when strong winds are blowing.
Except for the last few miles, all of the river above Swan Lake requires at least intermediate canoe skill. The logjams make it perilous for rafts, too. The upper Swan gobbles up boats every year, and occasionally claims lives, so note water conditions carefully. Peak runoff usually occurs around the first week in June. Since the area receives heavy snowfall, high flows may continue into July. When the runoff subsides, the river is safer. Spills that might be catastrophic in June will likely mean only wet feet in August.
Floaters can expect to encounter anglers on foot. The Swan retains one of the nation's best bull trout populations, an imperiled fish species. Regulations prohibit fishing for them. There are also good populations of rainbows (about 800 per mile) and whitefish.
Except for ever-increasing subdivisions, much of the upper Swan River bottom remains undeveloped. It's a great place to see wildlife such as white-tailed deer and black bear. A few grizzlies prowl the valley, but they're rarely seen. While the Swan has great birdlife, this river's namesake is not common.
There's also floating downstream from Swan Lake. For the first several miles below the lake the river flows briskly and has some tricky rapids. Beginners should steer clear.
A float popular with Bigfork residents is the 8-mile trip beginning at the Montana Highway 209 bridge east of Ferndale. From here, the river takes a giant loop, and floaters end this tranquil trip at the Swan River Road Bridge. This section of river is a popular spring and fall float-fishing section, suitable for beginners.
The Bigfork Dam blocks the river a couple of miles above where the Swan empties into Flathead Lake. Right below the dam flows an unbroken stretch of extremely difficult whitewater know as "The Wild Mile." The river plummets 100 feet in 1 mile. This section is for expert boaters, and scouting is essential. It's very difficult to catch an eddy to size up the next rapid. Additionally, many rocks along this stretch have sharp edges because of recent blasting. In sum, wear a good life jacket and helmet, use quality equipment, and be careful.
Since white people settled the Swan Valley in the late 1800s, towering trees have attracted timber cutters. The Forest Service approved the first timber sale in the Swan in 1907, and the cutting continues both on public and private lands. Scars on the land bear testimony to past abuses. Many of the last big trees remain along scenic Montana Highway 83. They line the road like a Hollywood set, hiding the hatchet job behind.