Hike and River Running in the Bitterroots, Missoula, MT, 28-30 Jun 97

The beautiful Kootenai creek with the Bitterroots in the background…

Normally I might not take the time to write up a simple day hike but this was my first excursion into Montana and I was thrilled with what I saw… and wanted to record the events for my failing memory in years to come. The occasion of my excursion was to visit my brother, Mike and his girlfriend, Lisa who have lived in Missoula, MT for two years.

Missoula is an interesting town to visit and one can get around town completely on a mountain bike which we did … visiting the quaint downtown section, the local university, and the microbrewery only 2 blocks from his house. It pays to know the master brewer! The town in nestled in a valley surrounded on four sides by mountains, with the Rattlesnake Wilderness to the north and the Bitterroots to the south. I found Montana to be a beautiful state just from the little I saw driving over from Spokane. I must admit I saw it fast as there are no daylight driving speed limits in good weather so I average 90 MPH and occasionally looked down at the rental car speedometer at 105 on straight sections. It must have to do with my love of NASCAR!

The day before the hike, Mike and Lisa and their two young dogs had introduced me to the fun of river running… without a raft…. actually I guess you would call it river swimming. We took the dogs on Friday just outside of town to the Clark Fork River where it was flowing at a good pace with snow melt still occurring higher up in Mt. It was a milky white and flowing at a pretty good clip. We hiked out to the river, fording one waist length tributary and walked along the river with the dogs where we came to a section that Mike always crosses where a riverbed of rocks compress the river, causing it to be swifter, but more narrow.

The brothers; Bob and Mike….

We walked upstream and Mike explained where he would come out on the other side, aiming for an eddy of slow water to get up shore. I was an observer at this point as Mike used to be a lifeguard and is an excellent swimmer where as I am just an average swimmer. He was standing on the bank with me and plopped in a sitting position into the river (I had thought the water there would have been 2-3 feet; it was really about 10’)… and he quickly floated into the current. He rolled over off his back and swam a few hard strokes to get into the middle of the current, then a few hard strokes to get out of the middle closer to the shore, all the while going very far away downriver. The dogs followed and the older, more experienced made it to him, but the younger one (not yet fully trained in the currents) swept by and started drifting down around a corner into the wider, gentler section of the river. Mike dove in and swam to the dog and brought him back to the side I was still standing abet about a 1/2 miles down the river. They hiked back to me and Mike wanted to give it a go. I said I was game (weighing the risks and abilities) and first he dropped in again, then I dropped in…. wow!

I had not been in that powerful of a current before and made the hard strokes out of the center, going with the flow. With the current, it is easy to keep buoyant and I sped along the center, making a few hard strokes to get to the eddy. Did I mention the water was cold???? Refreshing on a hot day! 🙂 Raven, the older dog made it again, but Murphy, the younger dog missed again and out went Mike again, bringing him to the far shore this time. I had to wait while they hiked back to me so I sat on the gravel bar in the warm sun and warm rocks- life was good. (But I still had to get back). When Mike got back to me we walked upstream to have our landing zone end at Lisa back on the “home shore”.

The river…

Lisa had said that although a good swimmer, she did not like to river swim due to the fact that the tendency is there to fight the current and begin to panic or fail. I kept that thought in my mind as I waded out into the river. For a while, I thought I might be able to wade about 1/3 of the river from this side, but as the water got to my waist, I started watching the water, not the bank on the opposite side…mistake! The water runs so quickly that it gives you vertigo and you start to get dizzy. As soon as that started I dove in and gave some hard pulls… I thought I was doing great until I took a wave in the face, resurfaced and saw I was not as close as I thought, so I started to swim faster and avoided the 1 second feeling of not being in control – which clearly I wasn’t :-)…. at any rate, a couple more and I ended up on the opposite shore right where we had planned. This is not a practice that should be taken lightly as being swept under a snag or undercut bank would be tragic. A life vest would be helpful but almost makes you too buoyant to swim and the current just sweeps you down the river. At any rate a lot of fun; did I mention it was cold????

That adventure aside, we returned to Missoula and woke the next morning to clear skies and warm temperatures. We drove about 25 miles south of town on Hwy 93 into the Bitterroot wilderness with the dogs in the back of the pickup truck. We arrived at the trailhead next to the raging Kootenai creek and started up a wide trail by the creek with rock walls hemming in both sides with excellent climbing opportunities abounding. (We saw some climbers top roping on the way down). The trail became narrow and continued up the drainage next to the ever present whitewater is its powerful roar. Sometimes we were by the river and sometimes higher on a hillside….while down by the creek we had the opportunity to wade in and let the dogs refresh themselves. Since it was just a short hike we picked a turnaround time and rested on a rock outcropping over the creek with views of the Bitterroots above, some still draped in snow. The descent was quick and easy, meeting two horses and riders going up and a few single hikers. It was great to be out west again and enjoy the no humidity mountain air. One thing that impressed me about Montana was their access to rivers and streams for fishing and recreation, even across private property. They are much more accessible than Colorado rivers and landowners are more open to allowing this access. Getting back to Missoula, we rested and then I returned to Spokane again at a good clip. I plan on coming back to Montana during the winter to have Mike teach me snowboarding which is his winter specialty!

Beta: Kootenai creek trail, 6 Miles RT., 1100’ elevation gain, 3 hours