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 Blackfoot River

Description: The Blackfoot is a glacial stream, lined with large rocks, that occasionally gets squeezed into short canyons. The result is a dashingly beautiful stream that provides outstanding whitewater excitement, incredible scenery, and dependable fishing. It's Missoula's favorite recreational river and there's no better place on a hot summer day.

Vital statistics: 132 miles long from Anaconda Creek near Rodgers Pass to its junction with the Clark Fork near Milltown.

Level of difficulty: Class I and II except at peak flows. The best whitewater lies between Russell Gates and Johnsrud Park.

Flow: Annual mean flow: 1,573 cfs near Bonner. Floatable all year below the North Fork of the Blackfoot. Flows above 1,000 cfs are optimum. 10,000 cfs is a maximum.

Hazards: Numerous logjams, sharp turns, and narrow channels in the upper river. Rapids in the middle section. Take out at weigh station just east of Bonner to avoid dangerous diversion dam at Bonner.

Where the crowd goes: From Roundup to the weigh station. The closer to Missoula, the higher the number of people.

Avoiding the scene: Few float between Lincoln and River Junction. In summer, go early in the morning before the river warms enough to attract inner-tubers and swimmers.

Inside tip: Great diving rock and swimming hole at Rainbow Bend.

Maps: BLM: #20 (Seeley Lake), #21 (Missoula East), #31 (Elliston), Garnet Travel Plan Map
USFS: Lolo, Flathead
USGS: Butte-MT, Choteau-MT
Montana Afloat: #2 (The Blackfoot River)

River rules: Special rules for river access, camping, and day-use along the mostly private 26-mile stretch of river from Russell Gates to Johnsrud Park. Generous property owners have made their property available for recreational use, so please respect these rules. Maps and river regulations can be found at most access points and at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Missoula.

For more information: Grizzly Hackle, Missoula;Missoulian Angler, Missoula;FWP, Missoula.

The paddling: The Blackfoot has earned a reputation as one of Montana's top whitewater canoe streams, particularly in May and June during high water.

While most streams run swiftly in their upper reaches and then slow down in the lower parts, the Blackfoot River does just the opposite. A brushy meadow stream where it originates near Lincoln, the Blackfoot picks up steam and offers some challenging whitewater before its juncture with the Clark Fork River near Bonner, just a few miles east of Missoula. During the heat of summer, it is one of the most heavily used rivers in the state.

The Indians knew the Blackfoot as Cokalihishkit, meaning "river of the road to the buffalo." Tribes followed the river for its entire length, crossed the Continental Divide near the place we now call Rogers Pass, and then traveled to the plains surrounding present-day Great Falls in search of bison. Fur trappers willing to risk encounters with Blackfeet Indians also worked the river in the early days, and later on timber companies floated logs down the river to a mill at Bonner.

Many Montanans call this stream the "Big" Blackfoot River to avoid confusion with the Little Blackfoot River, which runs into the upper Clark Fork near Garrison Junction.

Although the Blackfoot doesn't have the huge whitewater of an Alberton Gorge or a Bear Trap Canyon, it can be quite challenging and very dangerous when flows are high and the water is cold. Because of possible hypothermic conditions in the spring, only strong intermediates or better should try the river at this time. Wetsuits, ropes, a throw bag, and a dry bag with matches and warm clothes are standard gear. Keep in mind the 100-degree rule: if the air temperature and water temperature combined do not exceed 100 degrees, there's a real danger of hypothermia. It's a smart policy to go with several boats to a party. Each boat should have experienced people who know the river.

Once the water drops (usually by mid-July), less experienced rafters and canoeists can try their luck. While parts of the Blackfoot can be floated by beginning rafters, beginning canoeists should first practice on easier rivers like the lower Bitterroot and lower Clark Fork. Get some experience before challenging yourself too much.

Blackfoot floats can start as high in the drainage as a few miles east of Lincoln, where the Landers Fork meets the main river. Although some of the upper river is slow and flat, the numerous logjams, occasional sharp turns, and narrow channels create too many hazards for beginners. Because canoes are the easiest craft to portage over logjams, they're the boat of choice for the upper river, although a small, light raft is a possibility. Beginners can handle this section at low flows only. Be prepared to portage your boat repeatedly.

Above the North Fork of the Blackfoot confluence (about 25 miles west of Lincoln), the Blackfoot braids frequently and floating may be impossible in dry years. Below the North Fork, floating is almost always possible.

The North Fork of the Blackfoot has floating potential for those willing to drag across logjams and blocked channels occasionally. It frequently gets too low to float by late summer. When the water is high, it can be challenging even for intermediate rafters and canoeists, especially above the Highway 200 bridge.

Between Lincoln and Russell Gates FAS, the main Blackfoot offers outstanding scenery as it meanders through undeveloped river bottoms, occasional farmland, and secluded canyons. It's an excellent area to see bald eagles, as several pairs nest along the river. Keep your distance. Look for white-tailed deer, elk, sandhill cranes, and waterfowl as well. Please be considerate of private landowners by staying within the river's high-water mark.

Between River Junction and Russell Gates gushes a 5-mile section of river known as Box Canyon. One of the most memorable scenes in Norman Maclean's excellent book, A River Runs Through It, takes place here (the movie was filmed on the Gallatin River). Steep cliffs rise from both sides of the river and thick timber blankets surrounding hillsides. Cliff swallows construct mud nests on the cliff walls, as do hawks and eagles. While the river has several rocky ledges and dropdowns, the canyon has only one moderately difficult rapid. It's at the lower end of the canyon, about a half-mile above Scotty Brown Bridge, and it will swamp the inexperienced or the unprepared. We have seen a canoe wrapped around the biggest rock here. Those not interested in earning whitewater merit badges can easily walk around the rapid. Watch for a diversion dam about a quarter-mile farther downstream.

Some of the river's toughest rapids lie three miles downstream of Russell Gates FAS near the Bear Creek bridge pilings. Between here and the Clearwater Bridge watch for a couple of drops with big rocks and high waves. Most drops are followed by big pools, allowing time for recovery if problems occur. In high water, only strong intermediate canoeists or better should try this section. Spray skirts or air bags may be necessary to avoid getting swamped by big waves.

Between Russell Gates and Roundup, it's all Class I and Class II water at normal flows, but the drops bump up to Class III during runoff. Immediately upstream from the Highway 200 bridge at Roundup lies a big rock garden that lasts for several hundred yards. Easy access makes it a popular kayak spot.

Whitewater continues for several miles below Roundup, with plenty of big rocks. At high flows, the rapids can be fairly continuous, allowing little time for recovery if there's an upset. But you can catch your breath in the six-mile stretch of quiet water between Ninemile Prairie and Whitaker Bridge. Right after Whitaker, look for the Blackfoot's best-known piece of whitewater, Thibodeau Rapids. Look for big rocks and a drop; the safest route is on the right. Watch for several other frisky rapids in the next few miles below Whitaker and Johnsrud Park. Most of the river between Roundup and Johnsrud is Class I or II except during high water when the larger drops become Class III.

At high flows, even the 10-mile section between Johnsrud Park and the weigh station at Bonner can be exciting. It's mostly Class II or less, but high waves can develop and the current is very fast.

Fishing is good on the Blackfoot. Insect carapaces on the cliff walls tell the story of a significant salmon-fly hatch. Salmon flies are a species of giant stonefly that generally hatch in mid-June. In most years this hatch coincides with high water, making fishing difficult. The upper Blackfoot contains mostly brown trout, with some rainbows and an occasional cutthroat and bull trout (release them all). The lower river is predominately a rainbow trout fishery.

Access to the lower Blackfoot (below Russell Gates) is quite good, thanks mainly to private landowners-along with federal, state, and local agencies, they have formed a cooperative river management zone which protects the river and makes it accessible to the public. Along this 26-mile corridor (from Russell Gates to Johnsrud Park), various sites have been designated for boat launching, day use, overnight camping, and other uses. A pamphlet which details regulations and provides a floating map is available from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Missoula office. Be sure to follow regulations, as it's only through the good will of the various landowners and corporations that this outstanding section of the river has been protected and made available to floaters. Many experts point to the Blackfoot's innovative management as a national example of how cooperation can protect a river.

The Blackfoot between Roundup and the Bonner weigh station receives more use than any other portion of the river. From Ninemile Prairie to Whitaker Bridge, floating is easy, suitable for beginners. This stretch's real claim-to-fame, however, is Montana's only nude beach.

Beginners should pull out at a day-use launch just below Whitaker Bridge, as Thibodeau rapids lie less than a mile below. Watch out for the big rock on the right side of the river.

Next comes Johnsrud Park, the most common starting point for a Blackfoot float. The standard trip starts here and ends 10 miles downstream at Bonner. At normal flows it takes around five hours. At low flows this section is suitable for beginning rafters and canoeists, but watch carefully for rocks and snags. Many people use inner tubes during the heat of summer. Be prepared for heavy use, and take along a bag to pick up trash left by our unthinking, beer-drinking brethren.

Floaters should beware of a dangerous diversion dam opposite Stimson Lumber Company in Bonner. Several people have drowned after floating over this dam. Signs upstream from this hazard provide warning, but don't get close-take out at the Bonner weigh station.

Despite the cooperative management plan, the Blackfoot has problems. Private housing development and subdivision are the biggest threat. But worse, large mining companies have proposed a mammoth open-pit gold mine on the headwaters of the river near Lincoln. The leach pits from the mine would be a quarter-mile from the river, and the river itself would be used to dilute mine wastes. While a mine on the Blackfoot seems unthinkable, it could happen if river lovers fail to remind decision-makers that this river is far more precious than gold.

Excerpted from Paddling Montana by Hank Fisher
(Copyright 2000, Falcon Publishing, Inc.)

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