Thursday, August 26th, 2021

The Great Bear Wilderness – A Trip To Remember

River flowing through Great Bear Wilderness

One week in June, 30 miles from the nearest road, 11 people set out to voyage in one of Montana’s last best places – the Great Bear Wilderness.  We were on river time, in the Montana backcountry, wilderness camping, and all of life’s worries disappeared for four days. I dream about going back to the Great Bear Wilderness – it was the most beautiful and incredible experience I have ever had!  

Glacier Raft Company sent me and my coworker, Rachel, on one of our overnight rafting trips to understand exactly what our customers experience on our 4 Day Great Bear Wilderness Whitewater package. Rachel and I both have immense respect and love for the great outdoors and we were beyond excited to have the opportunity to engage in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. We developed new friendships, rekindled our passions, and embraced Glacier Raft Company’s heart and soul on this journey.  

On launch day, I woke up early that morning in anticipation and excitement for what was to come. As I drove to work, the early sun rose with the most beautiful orange and red hues that lit up the gateway to Glacier National Park, setting the theme for the trip. After arriving at work, I finished packing my dry bag and met up with our clients and team.

In order to get to the area we went rafting in the Great Bear Wilderness, you have to be taken by plane or hike in by foot. So, we all hopped in the SUV, and Mike, our General Manager of Outside Operations, drove us to the airport in Kalispell, Montana. The early morning fog rose in the open farm fields as we took in the countryside of the Flathead Valley. Our SUV was quiet with nerves and excitement for what was to come.

When we arrived at the airport, we met our pilots. They weighed us and our gear and then calculated how they would transport us into the wilderness. The check-in process was super easy.  Mike drove us right up to the hangers where our aircraft was waiting for us. There was no security line or invasive luggage check because we were on a small private bush plane. 

Our flight took us to Schafer Meadows. It is the only open airstrip within the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex with only two ways to get to it, by foot or by plane. This flight was the first savory taste of what we were about to experience this week.  

 

Flying over Flathead Lake

For 30 minutes, we were as close to being birds without eating worms. We flew through the valley and could see the snaking Flathead River below as the river delta flows into Flathead Lake, the largest lake west of the Mississippi. Every passenger on the plane had their face pressed against the windows, mesmerized by the views. Rising higher in altitude, we approached the untouched mountain tops of the Swan and Flathead Mountain Ranges. These mountains may not be as big as many of the other Rocky Mountain ranges, but you quickly realize how small you are in this great big world. After soaring through the vast natural beauty of the remote wilderness, we landed on the grassy field of Schafer Meadows.  

Wheeled and manned devices are not allowed in the wilderness, so we carried all our gear by hand down to the riverside. My coworker, Rachel, and I tried to be helpful by hauling gear down with the rest of the guides. Our ambitious wilderness skills were already being tested as we attempted to work smarter and not harder by using stretchers to carry the gear.  The trail was a bit soggy, boggy, and muddy from the spring melt as we traversed Schafer Creek. It turns out that we weren’t as bright as we thought we were because we both slipped into the mud more than once. The guides grinned as we made it down to the river bank. 

We ate lunch, put on our wetsuits and got a safety talk from one of Glacier Raft Company’s owners, DJ Stoneman.  DJ grew up with Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in his backyard. His father, Darwon Stoneman, founded Glacier Raft Company back in 1976.  

Great Bear Wilderness raftingsaftey talk

Once our safety briefing and rafting introductions were completed, we hopped on our rafts and began our 4-day voyage back to West Glacier, Montana through the Great Bear Wilderness.  We would be out of range from technology, most humans, and modern civilization for the next four days. We were going to experience what it is like to be in the remote Montana backcountry, wilderness camping. Due to the rugged and challenging terrain, this trip is designed for those who have some prior camping experience, but all are welcome.  

No matter what level the water is flowing, it can be difficult and dangerous. This portion of the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River is generally rated as a class III with sections that have class IV and class V rapids. The upper section of this run includes the Three Forks series of rapids. These rapids are caused by large boulders that choke the river at lower levels and create huge hazards with high water levels. As we approached these river sections, our guides pulled our rafts into eddies, the “rest stops” of the river. Once our rafts were secured, we got out to scout the river ahead.  

This trip was unique because our guests got the first-hand experience of getting out with our guides to scout. They learned how to navigate particular rapids by reading the river and developing a strategy. One of the couples on our trip told us they had gone on several whitewater trips where the guides got out to scout, but they didn’t explain why they had to paddle when the guide said to paddle. One thing you will notice about the people at Glacier Raft Company is, if you are willing to learn, they are eager to teach. Everyone made it through the Three Forks Rapids without anyone falling out or flipping the rafts. 

Scouting rapids in the Great Bear Wilderness

We paddled to our campsite along the river bank, where we unloaded our gear. Everyone was willing and able to pitch in to set up camp. 

As we awaited dinner, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I half expected a bland meal that leaves you still hungry.  I also didn’t know how well our guides knew how to cook. In my dry bag, I packed extra snacks just in case.  We ended up having a steak dinner on our first night. It was amazing!  Every meal on our trip was mouth-watering and filling. They even served dessert!  

Our trip was during the summer solstice.  The long evenings were fantastic, giving us time to enjoy the scenery. Though it took the whole evening for the sun to set, we were graced with a full moon and a blanket of stars that lit up our camp throughout the night.  We were all astounded by how time disappeared because we enjoyed each other’s company and the journey together. 

We awoke to a new day where the guides had coffee brewing and breakfast on the griddle.  Together all of us packed up camp and got ready for the next leg of our journey.  We thought day one was fantastic….day two was extraordinary!  

Smiling in the Great Bear Wilderness

Once everything was tied down on the rafts, we all piled in and went “All Forward.”  At mile marker 68.8, we passed Granite Cabin, one of the many cabins utilized by the people working for the U.S Forest Service.  Shortly after this, we pulled ashore to the Castle Lake Trail.  Our guides started cooking burgers for lunch while the rest of us explored the waterfall just behind the trees at the trailhead.  

After lunch, we geared up for our 1.2-mile hike up a mountain.  As we hiked in a single file line through the heart of bear country, we knew we weren’t alone as we gaged the size of the paw prints of a bear that used the same trail we were using. The bottom half of the trail was lush with green bushes and tall pines. The uphill climb tested our endurance, but we took it slow and worked as a group to get to the top.  It was a hot day, so we embraced the slush under our toes when we reached the unmelted snowpack.  As we continued hiking, the forest opened up, and it was like a scene out of a movie—a wide-open landscape nestled in the mountain top where the legendary Castle Lake reveals itself.  

We noticed a Moose and her calf at the far end of the lake and sat watching as they grabbed a drink. Moments later, they disappeared into the brush. The lake was crystal clear and refreshingly cold. A few of the guys tried their hand at fly fishing but did not have much luck. It was not really about catching fish, though. We were savoring the moment.  

castle lake Great Bear Wilderness

After spending some time at Castle Lake, we hiked back down and headed off to our next campsite. We were reinvigorated and inspired by the immaculate landscape that we got to enjoy. We all experienced what true happiness was. We all went to bed that night without a worry in the world.  

The following day we packed up our gear and set off down the river again to our next campsite.  We decided to do a short day before taking on the Spruce Park Series. We were exhausted from the previous couple of days but didn’t realize how tired we were. It was nice to take half a day to relax by the riverside. 

As the evening fell, we enjoyed our final dinner, which was baked salmon. Our guides have their riverside cooking down to an art. We sat by the fire talking about the walks of life we come from, our hopes and dreams, and the adventure that has connected us for life. It dawned upon us that we had one more day of solitude and peace before we had to re-enter civilization again.  

The morning came, and we reluctantly packed up camp for the final voyage. We pulled up to the Spruce Park Series and scouted ahead. It was bittersweet knowing that the journey was ending in a few hours.  

rafts tied up on a Great Bear Wilderness trip

After four days of exhilarating whitewater experience, hiking to utopia, camping under the stars, and floating through the most beautiful and pristine wilderness, this experience has been the most exciting and inspiring trip I have ever been on. We said goodbye to our new friends and entered society feeling rejuvenated and inspired to take on the world.  

Many people travel to northwest Montana to visit the iconic Glacier National Park.  Next door lies the more rugged and remote Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, home to the Great Bear Wilderness Area.  As a new transplant to Montana, I was able to experience this spectacular wilderness with Glacier Raft Company. Glacier Raft Company offers guided multi-day float trips throughout the summer that provide a true backcountry rafting adventure on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.  

The Great Bear Wilderness is 286,659 acres of protected wilderness. It is home to several wildlife species, including the densest population of Grizzly Bears left in the United States. While rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, you will witness breathtaking landscapes filled with rugged ridge tops, alpine and grassy meadows, forested river bottoms, lakes, streams, waterfalls, and the famous Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River. 

As you prepare to disconnect from society and reconnect with nature, Glacier Raft Company takes care of pretty much everything. Our four-day Great Bear Wilderness trip includes transportation from the office to the river, meals, waterproof bags, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, river equipment, safety gear, and a guaranteed adventure. Packing for four days in the wilderness can be challenging because Montana weather is unpredictable. Temperatures can vary from 30 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. You want to be comfortable, but remember, you do not need to pack your entire wardrobe to enjoy this journey.  

Suggested Packing List for 4-Days in the Great Bear Wilderness:

  • Waterproof rain jacket and pants (ponchos, vinyl rain gear NOT acceptable)
  • Lightweight fleece jacket
  • 1-3 t-shirts
  • One long sleeve shirt (sun protection)
  • 1 set of synthetic thermal underwear top and bottom
  • One pair of pants (for use while at camp)
  • Two pairs of shorts (1 for river/1 for camp)
  • Swimsuit
  • 1-2 wool or polypro socks
  • One pair of camp shoes (for use around camp & short hikes)
  • One pair of river shoes (water sports sandals with straps. (Chaco, Keen, Teva, trainers)
  • One hat (sun protection)
  • One pair of gloves (fleece, wool, neoprene)
  • Washcloth & towel
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste
  • Soap & Shampoo (biodegradable or Ivory Soap)
  • Medications
  • Sunscreen, chapstick, lotion, insect repellent
  • Sunglasses & eyeglass retention strap
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Water Bottle 
  • Small Day Pack or fanny pack
  • Camera, film, binoculars (we have water-resistant containers to store these items in, but you should still have a protective/padded case to use inside the container.)
  • Personal beverages or snacks (cans or plastic bottles)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

We hope you’ll consider joining Glacier Raft Company for a trip down the river. Our attention to detail, along with a strong emphasis on safety, experience, and customer service, make us the perfect match for your family or group whitewater rafting experience. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

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