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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Smith River Float 2018

           When my good friend Cody first told me that he drew for the Smith River in early May I declined. After a seemingly longer than usual winter, camping during a cold, wet spring turned me off. It wasn't long after his offer when a news story appeared about a group of Smith floaters who were rather unlucky. They were the third group to float the river this year, and early April trips can be very cold. Waking up to snow on the tent is one thing, but group three woke up to a completely frozen Smith River. Fortunately they were close to a ranch road and were able to get help. That was April 8th. Cody's float was scheduled a full month later but its not uncommon to have snow up into July there. The Smith begins its journey to the Missouri River from the Castle Mountains in South Central Montana. It then winds its way through farm land and cattle country before entering Smith River State Park. Here, the river flows for fifty-nine miles through some of the most beautiful country around. The Smith's highly protected waters are the prize that so many cherish and will travel many miles to float. There are a limited number of permits given each year, via a lottery system, which 6,000 people that hope to draw, only about 1,000 or so will be lucky.  It wasn't long before I changed my mind.  Several warmer than average days came in mid April and I was itching to kick my cabin fever, let alone in one of this country's most beautiful places. I mean, what was I thinking saying no?

Camp Baker morning of the launch

                After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, May 7th was finally here. With my truck loaded full of gear and the raft, I began the two and a half hour drive north to the check-in station at Camp Baker. My plan was to leave Bozeman and show up a night early to reserve an early launch for the group, but by the time I arrived my name was already fifth on the list; apparently, 1 pm the day before isn't early enough! Camp Baker soon filled with nine groups, our group of four being the smallest, all the way up to the bigger groups, with around fifteen people. The scene at camp was a lively one. One hundred people all hanging out in a unique landscape, all there for the same reason. Not one soul had to work for the next five days, and the beer count was already taking a hit. The mood was very chill and relaxing. I was a little worried about tomorrows launch, unsure of what the river would throw at us. Did we bring enough gear? Do we have enough food? Is it going to snow on us? How bad are the whitewater rapids with these high flows?

Ranger discussion at Camp Baker
             After a night of rest it was around seven the next day that Camp Baker came to life. People packing up their tents, prepping for the next days, the clinking of pots and pans and oars and anchors. We all migrated to the ranger station where we had a twenty minute group chat with the USFS ranger. He was great and went over everything we would encounter, such as springs, pictographs, rapids, float gates, etc. I'm glad I took notes because he was saying all kinds of things, rather fast, and nothing is marked on the map except for camps and tributaries.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               At around nine o'clock we had to register our campsites with the ranger. 
We didn't have a clue as to which camps were good, besides the little research we'd done, so sort of took the rangers word for it. Our flotilla was small and because we were all ready to go, we ended up being the second group to launch. We carefully loaded all of our provisions for the next four days into our rubber boats, and there we stood before the raging, chocolate milk colored water that we've been itchin' to meet for months. Our boats packed to the max, hundreds of pounds of gear. I actually wondered if mine would sink while going through the first set of whitewater rapids. Once the last bit of gear was strapped tight to the rafts we ran up to the station to tell the ranger we were ready for his inspection.
Last gear check
He dropped his pen, and with a smile on his face, followed my anxious butt down to the ramp. Without even looking over our stuff, he said "You guys all ready for a good time?", we replied with a nervous "Yeaaaaaaah". It was after this that he said "Alright, good to go, have a good time guys!". I was hoping we were set up with the right gear and weren't launching to our deaths. With the water at record flows, I knew this could be a challenge in my raft, which is much smaller than the regular rafts that float these waters. The first bend didn't send us over a waterfall, or push us against a cliff, and we slowly meandered and tapered our way into more narrow terrain. I thought the first stretch would be a lazy one and that maybe we would slowly transition into a more rugged environment. To my surprised it wasn't but after the first couple miles when the environment began to change into that steep canyon country in so many photos.
Our first mile on a new river

                  It was this first day on the river that we spotted a sow black bear and cub. The mom had a watchful eye over the little one, who was grazing on riverside vegetation, talk about a shore-lunch. They didn't fear us, and watched as we quietly floated by. The day was warm and sunny, the river calm and peaceful. There was a calmness in the air, the smell of pine, the sound of the occasional duck taking off, or a gaggle of geese passing by overhead. There was a sense of wonder as to what would be around the next turn in the river. The current was pushing us at about four or five knots, it was tough to sit back and take it all in.
Sow black bear and cub
It didn't take long for our life jackets to come off. The Smith gave us a pleasant, welcoming feeling that first day. Stress slowly turned into relaxation and contentment. Both rafts, although heavy, were navigating impeccably through the giant boulders, shelves, and limestone walls. There are few things more calming than drifting effortlessly through a wilderness such as this. Oh how I wish it would never end.

                  We made it to our first camp in a hurry that day. We left plenty of room for a longer than expected float, or in case something happened, we wanted to have tents up before dark. It only took us three hours to float the days seventeen miles.
Boat camp Syringa
Camp Syringa is the name of our camp for the evening. It sits in a quiet part of the canyon, where the water flows slower than most other places. We tied our boats to the provided 4x4s sticking into the grass covered bank. The fire ring is located about twenty yards upstream from the boats and the latrine was a short hike up into the hills behind camp. We set up our tents and began cooking dinner. We would be having elk fajitas. After a full belly we tried to stay awake into dark, but we were beat. It wasn't long before camp was quiet other than the sounds of rushing water and the occasional goose.

               I awoke on Wednesday morning around six o'clock. I made a cup of joe and took a hike with my fishing rod. The rest of the group was sleeping in. I figured it would be a good time to wander around and explore the area. I fished for an hour with absolutely no luck. The water didn't look all that bad really. At times the visibility was around eight inches. Once awake, everyone was feeling pretty energized and we were eager to get on the water. After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and biscuits 'n gravy, we consolidated a couple piles of firewood into the rafts, packed our gear, and headed downstream.

           Our first stop on this day was at Tenderfeet Creek. Here we were hoping to find some healthy brown trout in clearer water. We pulled the boats into a small, clear pool of spring fed water. I was less interested in fishing and excited to keep moving down the river. After throwing our lines around for a few minutes and see what we could see, we decided to cut loose. It was near noon and the sun beat down.
Pictograph handprints
             We twisted and turned around spires taller than any building in the whole state of Montana. The turns, so frequent, that by the time you maneuvered the boat to avoid the turbulence of one turn, you'd have to turn 180 degrees to set yourself up for the next one. I've never drifted down a river so wide that snakes as tightly as the Smith. A few more miles downriver and we witnessed another black bear. This time we watched as it slid down into the river, swam across, then stood up on both legs before turning and running into the wild lands. I tried to swing the boat around for another pic but he was a healthy bear and quickly disappeared like good bears do. The river here was swift and powerful. We had our first pictograph coming up, where exactly we did not know. Keeping the boat on a good line and away from rocks was taking most of my focus. Lucky I was to see this pictograph, as it was about fifteen feet off the water, in the middle of a fast riffle. There were five red hand prints in a horizontal line, and a quick glimpse was all I could get along with a quick photo. At the time, it was a dismal feeling, floating past them at five knots, but we would soon see many more.


        In the middle of a remote stretch of the canyon there sits an oasis to floaters. The Heaven on Earth Ranch is kind of an odd place. You almost have to see it for yourself. We had read about it beforehand and thought we may stop for a drink, or round of golf. Yes, there is a beautifully kept nine hole golf course out in the middle of the Smith River Canyon. They are happy to serve rafters free hard drinks but will take donations. You can also stay at one of their many cabins and enjoy a hot shower or soak in the hot tub. "Shall we stop?", Carly hollered. Dark violet and ominous, the clouds besieging us were moving in fast. There was friction in the air. "Can we keep moving?" I yelled back. A nod was given. I think we all had the same feeling.
spring number two, before the storm
              It wasn't long after the ranch that we stopped to fill our water bottles at a quiet little spring. By now, the sun was gone completely and the sky was ever darkening. An enormous bolt of lightning hit the canyon rim directly above us, thunder instantly rumbled around us. In a moment, our day went from bright and fun to wet and possibly dangerous. While we covered the firewood with tarps we discussed our plans. The rain began to fall hard. "The ranger didn't mention what to do during a lightning storm did he?" I yelled through the sound of rain pelting the water, but I already knew the answer. We couldn't risk losing precious hours holed up under a shelter waiting for it to pass, this thunderstorm could potentially last all day. We tucked our graphite fly rods down low and slowly left our little cove of cover. With our rafts turned and our backs downriver, against the rain we paddled on Water  would eventually finding its way into every little dry space on me. Lightning clapping all around us. I sure felt vulnerable during that hour on the Smith. Natures power can make you feel small at times. I felt some protection from the canyon and hugged the walls until we reached our next camp.

The rain eventually subsided and we made it to our 3rd camp, Camp Crowsfoot. It seemed as we realized there weren't any trees here to hang a tarp for shelter, the rain had stopped.
Evening view from Camp Crows Foot
We were overjoyed when the sun came out, just in time to set up our camp for the evening. A few more hours of daylight were yet to come, so we hiked a short ways to look at some pictographs that Riley had found. I must say, we had a much better look at these than the previous ones. There were probably twenty that we found.
several pictographs from Camp Crows Foot 
The cliff face that held these had eroded heavily over the years, putting a few pictographs on large slabs on the ground. I wondered how many pictopraphs have fallen off over the years; it would appear with some imagination, that the whole limestone wall was at one time covered in paintings. We saw paintings of a buffalo hoof, a fox, hand prints of adults and children, finger prints, finger swipes, symbols and many more we couldn't identify. I myself am a huge fan of ancient peoples, and this site was worth the trip alone.

The canyon walls grow taller 
             After a much needed refueling of spaghetti dinner, we tried sitting around the campfire to enjoy the natural stadium that mother nature had created around us. I found myself pretty tuckered out after each day. You'd think floating down a river would be easy, but the constant chores of moving camp everyday took a lot out of us. We watched as lightning from another thunderstorm rolled closer and closer to us. The rumbling storm slowly moving our way. It was then, as pellets of rain splashed down around us, we ran to our tents. The wind picked up and lightning was striking nearer. I would experience a rather miserable evening that night. The tent had some weatherproofing issues, and eventually succumbed to the constant saturation of wind and rain. All four corners of my shelter had little rivers, all trying to gather in the middle where I lay inside my sleeping bag. It was difficult to sleep, I was worried about waking up covered in water. The temperature would drop into the thirties at night and I did not want to get wet. Around midnight, fatigue finally knocked me out and to my relief, I woke up halfway dry. I wasn't sure if my tent could handle another night of rains. The next morning we woke up to dry weather, the rain had quit sometime early that morning. We splayed out tents, tarps, and our gear to dry that morning. The suns rays were warm and welcome. We found ourselves getting on the water each day between ten and eleven AM.. Averaging around fifteen miles a day and each day we floated for around three hours, with intermittent stops here and there.

             The canyon walls were at their tallest this day, and within them, there was a 'pictograph cave' that we were on the look-out for. It was river mile thirty-eight we discovered it, high above the river. A small trail came into view around a slow bend. The shore was so steep here that instead of landing the rafts, we had to tie them to trees and let them float. We strapped both rigs together to make a large barge that we used to change into more fitting clothing.

Riley sits on the shore in front of pictograph cave
            After lacing up some hiking shoes and finding the bear spray, we had a quick snack. We followed the trail to the cave, which we could clearly see from the rafts. Little did we know that this would be more of a challenge than we anticipated. We knew it was a tad dangerous and difficult to reach, but we figured that was a warning for the 'average folks' out there. Riley and I climbed up to the top of the trail. There were about twenty different foot trails forking all different ways. I made several attempts to locate the right path, and each way took me to precarious ledges and drop offs. We scrambled down and tried an alternate route. Riley found me and we explored this ridge to the fullest. It was one heck of a hike be we ended up walking about one hundred feet under the cave without even seeing it, just to climb above and get an amazing view of the Smith.  We still had a half day of boating to do and decided we could look no more for this darn cave. With low energy, we climbed several hundred feet in elevation looking for it. There is a sort of illusion that plays out when you're there looking for it. The cave is a lot larger than it looks from the bottom and it throws off your judgement. The ground is pretty sketchy and getting hurt out here, thirty miles from the nearest road, is not a good idea. Defeated, we played it safe and decided to head back down to the river.

Our boats at Upper Ridgetop
            After the cave ordeal, we had about five river miles to go. This would put us in camp between four and five o'clock that afternoon. Our destination was Camp Upper Ridgetop, which sat nestled privately in between two other boat camps along a tight, steep turn in the canyon. The boat landing was directly above a left hand turn that quickly turned into a small whitewater rapid. The sound of the water, the view of a steep canyon wall across the river, and the fact that everything was wet, gave Camp Upper Ridgetop, a rain forest/Pacific Northwest feel. The best part of this camp was that it was surrounded by willows and large Douglas-fers, so it was quite cozy.
A short trail from our boats led to our sheltered camping area. The fire pit sits in the middle of a triangle of three towering conifers trees, and each tent-site is isolated, a few yards from where we would all gather for dinner. It managed to stop raining for the few hours, we set up camp and cooked our dinner. We feasted on elk chili and other snacks on this night. The gang preferred to drink coffee in the evening over beer, I guess we are getting old. Speaking of old; it was the day before Cody's thirtieth birthday! What better way to spend a milestone like that than floating down one of the countries unique rivers, in Montana?

Fun around the campfire, Upper Ridgetop
             After a full belly, we explored our little nook of land. We were completely blocked in by an impassable rock wall to our backs, and across the river, there was narrow corridor of public land, also blocked in from the back. We had "camp deer" in our camp on this day. There were six or seven little mule deer does that had no problem with us being there. With few flat, green areas in this rugged country, this was probably where they spent a lot of time. The scenery here was spectacular. At one point, as it began to get dark, I played a game of flashlight tag with one of our neighbors at the camp upriver from us. They were shed hunting and had climbed way up this large rock outcrop. He would shine his light a number of times and I would repeat it. It was enjoyable, noting they were probably a good half mile away and a few hundred feet up the canyon. This was the only night that we could see and hear our neighbors, not to mention our latrine was about twenty feet from the group below latrine. Besides the close proximity toilets, this was our favorite camp. Its amazing how every mile of river will show you something new, and each camp has its own personality and charm. There are better camps than others, so if you plan on doing a Smith float, research some good campsites, write em down and bring them with you. It helps to arrive the morning before the day you float, to reserve the good sites.

         The rain that night once again determined when we would get into our tents and go to bed. This time, I strategically placed my tent under a large pine tree to avoid as much moisture as possible from the monsoon like rains. I tried to position the tent onto a hump, so water wouldn't pool inside, and I added an additional rain tarp over the original for added coverage. Despite my best efforts, the rains were just too strong and consistent. I was tired during the night that I didn't let it bother me as much, and woke up inside a half soaked sleeping bag. I couldn't believe I still managed to get wet, along with most of my stuff in the tent, that wasn't in a dry bag. It was difficult to get up and pack but there wasn't much else to do. Annoyed that we woke up to a very cold and rainy morning, we brewed some coffee, water proofed our bodies and got to work taking down camp.
Staying dry during the rain
There would be no stopping the rain from this point on for the rest of the trip. We would have no way to dry all of the gear, so if we were planning on another night, we would have been soggy. We left Camp Upper Ridgetop at eleven o'clock that morning.

           We donned every piece of dry, waterproof material we had. The rain was falling at a steady rate and there was a stiff breeze blowing upriver. We turned our boats and backs to the wind again and held our heads down as we paddled seventeen river miles to Eden Bridge. The terrain turned from mountainous canyons, much like that of the Gallatin Canyon, to a whole new world. Suddenly I felt like we were in New Zealand. There were flocks of sheep grazing in fence-less, wide open spaces. Giant rolling hills of green were shrouded in a thin layer of mist. The absence of roads, telephone wires, fences, buildings, and people, gave the scenery a boost of  remoteness. Still, the river making sharp turns every few hundred yards. Black Angus cows dot the landscape along with huge cuts of exposed earth and limestone caves. The pines gave way to small trees here and there with geese still all along the banks. The river began to widen up and slow its current. To make up some time I paddled ahead of Cody's boat and imagined a warm, dry Toyota 4Runner patiently waiting for us at the take out. We passed under a privately owned bridge, which read "Eden Bridge take out 5 miles". I was thinking we were much closer than five miles. After the bridge I entered a pretty large farming operation. Someone was sheering sheep in a huge metal barn. As I silently drifted by, sheep would joyfully run from the barn to regroup with the others. I remember thinking how happy those sheep looked. They do live in a pretty spectacular place. It wasn't much longer after this when I caught up with a group ahead of us, three boats. I was cruising along pretty good, my back downriver; every now and then Id glance back to see where I was going. To my relief, Eden Bridge was much closer than the five miles the sign read. The river narrowed here, braided a few times, I didn't want to miss the ramp. As I made my final turn on this magnificent river, a friendly gentlemen kindly grabbed my throw rope and pulled me in hard against the fast current. We exchanged a few words and I began unloading my gear. About ten minutes later, Cody, Carly, and Riley came down and I caught their rope.

          Eden Bridge has some of the nicest changing facilities I've ever seen at a campsite. I guess this is where part of my floater fees comes in, and I'm more than happy to pay them if this is where it goes. There's dumpsters there to get rid of all the trash we accumulated and a camp host who is happy to answer any questions you might have. From here we loaded both rafts onto the trailer and we began the long drive back to Cascade, down to Helena, Townsend, back over to White Sulphur Springs, then north to Camp Baker. Once my raft was in my own vehicle we made the two hour drive back to Bozeman.

Incredible scenery
         This trip is something I will pursue every year. MTF would like to start an annual Smith River float trip. The more folks we have putting in for the permit, the better our chances. If you'd like to join us, feel free to send me an email. I will post information next year about the upcoming float possibilities.  Next time I would like to add one more day to the adventure. Scheduling a layover day would be nice. We had more than enough food. I'm glad I didn't rely on eating fish, I would have been hungry. The fishing was tough. Cody hooked into a couple of trout but there was literally zero clarity in the water. The river is rated as a Red Ribbon stream, which obviously isn't as good as the many Blue Ribbons we have in SW Montana, but still holds some very respectable brown and rainbow trout. Prime time to float the Smith River is May 25th through mid July, after that, the river gets too thin to float in the bigger boats. I would say a beginner could navigate a large raft down the Smith, but you need to respect the river. I also came to the conclusion that I myself would not float a canoe down this river during high water. There are too many heavy currents, pushing water all over the place, up against cliffs, etc. The wildlife was abundant. The myriad of waterfowl was incredible. Baby goslings were with about every other couple of geese, some trying to tag along with our rafts. Birds of prey, bears, deer, elk sign, and plenty of baetis hatches were visible. We were actually rather lucky to see three bears. We talked to a couple other groups, and people that have floated it in the past, and none have had bear sightings. The weather, despite the rain and low thirty temperatures, we managed to stay relatively dry and happy. It can snow every month out there, so its wise to always bring a bag with full winter gear, including the infamous 'goggles'.
View from our hike looking for the cave


  1. That is a wonderful and great read, Mike. Thanks for sharing all this good information.

  2. Thanks for reading! Appreciate your feedback :)