RAFTING THE FLATHEAD
In March 1915, while forest assistant on the Flathead National Forest in Montana, I had an experience I'll never forget - and one that, I daresay, Fred Mason of Ogden, recently retired lumberman of Region 4, remembers even more vividly.
A. O. Benson (recently deceased), H. J. Grossman, now living in Portland, I believe; Rex Brownlee, whom I've lost track of; Fred and I were sent up the South Fork of the Flathead River to cruise a few odd pieces of timber that the 1914 reconnaissance crew hadn't had time to cover. We snowshoed in, dragging supplies, equipment, etc., on toboggans up to Riverside Camp, which consisted of a fairly large log cabin some 8 or 10 miles above Hungry Horse Ranger Station, located a mile or two north of the new Hungry Horse Dam. The snowshoeing was good for the most part, and the cruising went along quite smoothly, though I recall we had some interesting times crossing the river in the course of our daily tasks. As we neared the end of the job we began to consider the trip back to Coram, where the South Fork joins the main river. Somehow (it couldn't have been because we were lazy) we didn't relish the idea of dragging those toboggans and equipment back over the snow again, and with that wonderful bit of water right at our front door it seemed utterly ridiculous not to use it; besides, someone in the bunch had heard that Jack Clack had rafted the South Fork once upon a time. So we decided to build two log rafts, one a comparatively light one that could be maneuvered fairly easily, the other longer and heavier to carry all our personal belongings, equipment, etc.
We drew lots for crafts, Fred and Gross getting the light raft, which was used as a pilot, while Benson and I undertook to guide the heavier, more cumbersome carrier. The river was high, but not quite at flood stage, as we left in high spirits, in the bright, warm sunshine of a fine March (or early April) morning, gleefully figuring we'd be in Coram in a few hours and feeling sorry for Rex who was snowshoeing out because he couldn't swim. You see how prudent and careful we were! I don't know just how fast we traveled, but the current was strong and we moved along at a right smart pace, enjoying the scenery and the excitement immensely, getting a bang out of the frequent stretches of white water that carried us at high speed. The first untoward event occurred when Fred and Gross let their light craft crowd the north bank too closely at a bend in the river, and ran up on an inclined rock ledge that extended down into the stream, tilting their raft so much that Gross fell off and got a good ducking. However, he climbed back on, removed and rung out his wet clothes, and put them back on to dry in the warm sunshine. Ben and I were able to pole our raft away from the ledge, but Gross felt pretty bad because he ruined his film and camera which was to record the voyage.
A few miles farther on Ben and I, in taking a left hand fork on signal from our pilots, to avoid rapids, found ourselves sliding up a big inclined rock right in the middle of our narrow channel. Pry as we might with our poles we couldn't get that darned raft off the rock. For one thing, the strong current kept pushing the raft forward. Finally Fred and Gross, when we failed to show up, tied up their raft and walked back to see what had happened to us. With their help from shore, using ropes, and with Ben and me standing waist deep in the swift current, we managed to tug and pull that behemoth back off the rock and proceeded blissfully on our way.
All this, and a peculiar eddy we got into and had difficulty getting out of, consumed considerable time, so it was afternoon (we had leisurely eaten some sandwiches en route) when we got to Hungry Horse Canyon, which we knew about vaguely, but which really meant nothing to us. Here the river narrowed to (as I remember) about 30 or 140 feet at the upper end, running between almost precipitous banks. Going through the upper stretch of the canyon, Fred and Gross were 100 yards or so ahead of us, moving comparatively slow in the deeper water. We heard a dull roar from downstream, but assumed it was only a few more rapids ahead - and white water was just adventuresome. But, suddenly we saw the boys jump around excitedly on their raft, which then was picking up speed again, and finally Gross made a leap for the south bank, toward which they had drifted. Fortunately he had the pole in his hands when he jumped it caught in the snow on the bank, and he was able to drag himself out of the water. The last we saw of Fred he appeared to be diving off the front of the raft just a fraction of a second before it went over the 8 to 10-foot waterfall. Believe me, Ben and I lost no time in tying up our craft on the south bank, and walking down to the falls, where we joined Gross.
As we peered fearfully down the very narrow canyon ahead, where in places the water was arched over completely with a bridge of ice, we could see no sign of Fred. Perilously we crawled down the south bank about a quarter of a mile (at least it seemed that far) to an eddy at the end of the canyon and there, to our great joy and amazement, was Fred, one arm over one of the logs of his wrecked raft, cheerfully calling out that he was O.K. A tossed rope, and Fred soon joined us. The rest of the tale is prosaic, but it was arduous. The first important thing seemed to be to get Fred into some dry clothes (Gross was wet, too, of course), but there wasn't much to give him. All our duffle got wet, when we were hung up on that rock because the rear end of the tilted raft was under water. However, we ferried over to the north bank, finally found a small, fairly level spot on the hillside, built a hell roaring fire and spent half the night drying our blankets and clothes. Fred seemed none the worse for his involuntary swim, but neither he nor the rest of us could figure how he ever managed to navigate that gorge safely, with logs from his raft banging about, big boulders sticking their ugly heads above the foaming waters, and the river boiling. He said all he did was drift with the current, and let nature take its course.
To make a long story short, we performed a Herculean task the next morning, snowshoeing out of there with our packs on our backs - no trail, of course - and over some exceedingly rough country. We simply took off downstream, figuring it was too much of a climb to get to the trail north of us. I don't remember whether we were right or not in that calculation.
Rex got to Coram before we did and did he give us the horselaugh! "Glad you fellows had such an easy, comfortable voyage down the South Fork," he said.