Smith River Rafting Trip, Smith River State Park, Montana

Saturday, June 18th, 2016
The alarm went off at 6:15in the morning, hit snooze a couple times but eventually rolled out of bed about 6:45. I called my brother Connor who was already up, time to get moving. Jumped in the shower and headed to his house to help load some gear. We pulled out of town about 9:45 in the morning, our first stop was Wallace for lunch at City Limits Pub and North Idaho Mountain Brewery before getting back on I-90. In Missoula we found an insane rain storm, I was so happy to own a self bailer! That was a lot of rain. I don’t remember driving east of Missoula as a child on a family vacation one summer to Yellowstone. I’m always intrigued by new country so i was really looking forward to the rest of the drive. Soon we passed Rock Creek, a popular trout stream. The country was pretty, sparse trees, lots of brush, red dirt, rocky outcroppings, and of course mountains. We passed some impressive mountain ranges, those that stick out are the Anaconda Range, the Crazy Mountains near the Little Blackfoot, and the Big Belt Mountains outside of Helena. After gassing up we went left through Townsend, Montana and followed Deep Creek through a narrow canyon before gaining a small pass and seeing for Smith River valley for the first time.. We reached a junction and went left toward White Sulfur Springs, as we approached town we crossed a fork of the Smith which looked more like a creek than a river to me. In town we went east and at the end of town found a small store who handled the shuttle. We were able to pick up limes for margaritas and a few other last minute items before reaching the put in. White Sulphur Springs was our last hope for cell service so I checked the flows, 319 cfs, we were good, 250 is the cut off for big boats. Finally we reached the boat launch where we would camp before launching the next day, Fathers Day. Thank you Robin for the best Fathers Day gift ever! In camp we met up with Rob, Jeff, Allen, Duane, Britten, and Larry, our permit was small, only 8 people. We pitched a tent and sat around the fire, drinking beer, taking shots of whisky, and telling stories, just good damn times as spirits were high in anticipation of the trip ahead.
Sunday, June 19th, 2016
We woke Sunday, ate an easy breakfast then began to rig the boats. We soon met the ranger, who gave us a quick run down on the rules and regulations for the Smith River. We picked our camps, and with the boat ramp open, were free to launch. Lucky for us somebody bailed on their trip so we had third pick on camps, and we got all the camps that we were looking for, nothing like a little river magic to start the trip. The boat launch was very steep and without thinking I bare handed my bow line while sending the fully loaded boat flying into the river. Instantly I felt the burn and looked down at my right hand to see I had torn the skin away from three fingers on my palm side, it hurt like hell, so much for river magic. After bandaging my wounds we put on at 270 cfs on the gauge near fort Logan, damn hard lesson to learn at the beginning of a five day trip.
The river was running low and slow as we meandered the wide open river valley. The views only got better as we descended the river and the canyon began to tighten up. Heavily forested slopes covered the hill side with rocky outcroppings here and there. Surprisingly the Smith River is kind of pushy through the turns and has a lot of shallow gravel bars that play with the current and can easily affect your line. With the low water, rocks were exposed all throughout the river causing us to dodge boulders constantly while descending the canyon. We quickly became real good at maneuvering with just four inches of blade in the water to prevent an oar jam. The river at this point was really green, reminding me a lot of the upper canyon of the Grande Ronde. Limestone cliffs began to make an appearance here and there, and six miles into the trip we took our first break at Indian Springs Camp. We eddied out river right and grabbed a snack before hitting the beach.
Indian Springs Camp was nice and just across the river was a natural spring dropping water from a pipe to the river’s edge, a guide service came by at one point and filled there jugs before moving on. Connor tried his hand at the fly rod and struck out. After the short break we were back on the river and before long found ourselves passing the guides at a great camp called Upper Rock Garden. We had 15 miles to cover today so a quick glance was all we had time for. At 8.9 miles Rock Creek came in on the left, a beautiful confluence. Above the river song birds sang and birds of prey soared. I don’t remember a river that offered so many encounters with so many different varieties of bird, it truly made for a magical experience. Around mile 12 Connor and I were ready for another break and pulled over at Upper Scotty Allen, an amazing camp! We both agreed that we wished we were staying here tonight and after a short break pressed on, passing another great camp at Lower Scotty Allen. We reached a point where the river had become wide and shallow and eventually we had to drag across our first gravel bar, and just below that we found our first nights camp on river left at Syringa.
Syringa is a good camp, nice long landing with a short step up to a bench. We had plenty of room for a ton of tents and found a nice big kitchen area near a grove of trees near a welcoming fire ring. We quickly assembled the kitchen so Rob could get to work on his dinner of chicken pot pie, which turned out awesome. Connor and I pitched our tent at the far end of the bench and got beds set up for evening before retreating to the comfort of the fire and stories told by those who are sharing this journey with us.
Monday, June 20th, 2016
We woke up Monday and Connor and I quickly got to cooking breakfast after our first cup of coffee. This morning we cooked breakfast burritos which turned out awesome. After breakfast we broke camp, loaded the boats, and got back on the water. Just below camp on river right we reached the confluence of Tenderfoot Creek, a popular tributary to fish. We passed on the fishing and continued downstream, catching an eddy below. Connor fished the dry and I opted to lob the bobber with a nymph, even in the deep pools I wasn’t able to hook up, but honestly, I don’t know what the hell im doing or even talking about. The canyon here was magnificent! Back in the boat we rowed on with heads cocked toward the sky and the overhanging limestone high above, the view was spectacular and continued to get better with every bend in the river. We continued to fish without luck which was fine by us, we had the scenery to entertain us. We passed a good camp at Canyon Depth and pressed on, it was getting damn hot and Connor and I were ready for a swim. We found a nice eddy and swimming hole at Sheep Wagon Camp so we took full advantage of it and quickly got in the water. We chilled for a while before the rest of the group caught up and joined us on the bank for a beer and a few laughs. After a while a lone boat came around the corner and the only man on the boat rowed over to see how our trip was going, he was with Montana Fish and Game and was making sure we were having a good time, nice guy, and what a sweet gig.
After a nice long break cooling off at Sheep Wagon Camp we reached some limestone cliffs on a right hand turn in the river when “boom” Connor hooked up! I pulled over and got ready to land the monster when he pulled in the small trout which we got a good laugh at. Since Connor had caught a fish, we switched off on the oars, my turn. Just downstream the canyon opened up a little, we passed some private property on river left at a beautiful spread when “boom” bobber down! I reeled in the fish, another small one, we enjoyed another laugh this time at my expense. At least both of us had caught a fish on this trip. I was back on the oars when a short ways later we passed an excellent camp at Upper Cow Coulee. Shortly after Cow Coulee we found our hot and dry camp at Upper Sunset Cliff, when we landed there was absolutely no shade. Connor and I were doing dinner, and it was a long cook, so without a break we quickly got to putting the kitchen together. We soon seared the pork ribs and got it going in the Dutch oven before taking a welcomed break. We were able to find a little bit of shade next to Rob and Jeff where we enjoyed some good conversation. Once the sun had left camp and the shade had settled in, we pitched the tent and got back to dinner preparing the macaroni salad. Before long we ate, and the meal was awesome, pulled pork sandwiches topped with pickle, and fried onions, served with a side of mac salad. After dinner we enjoyed a great fire and entertained ourselves with a laser show against the cliff walls on the opposite side of the river before turning in.
Tuesday, June 20th, 2016
Tuesday we woke up to another beautiful morning. Rob cooked a breakfast of sausage with a spinach and egg scramble, good stuff. We did the usual routine, dishes, packed, finished coffee, opened a beer and hit the river. It was gonna be another hot one, so I put the wet shirt over my head to keep cool right off the bat. We fished along the way, but as usual it was slow, Connor and I took turns on the oars and for the most part just enjoyed the scenery, which was stunning. Connor was using my rod when “snap” the rod tip broke off! No fault of his own as it happened in the middle of a cast, needless to say i was bummed but glad i had brought along my 25 year old Pflueger rod. Allen saw the whole thing and with breaking stride asked what i was fishing, “5 weight 9 foot” he reached below his seat pulled out a metal tube and chucked it at me, the case read “Sage.” I couldn’t believe it, and was floored by his generosity. What a stand up guy, I was so appreciative. As it approached midday the heat was intense, and as we rounded a bend in the river spotted some rather large tee-pees river left just before Bear Gulch and a sign that said ice and ice cream sandwiches. Connor and I couldn’t pass this up. We quickly landed the boat and made the short walk across the green grass to a log outpost where we were greeted by Vic.
Vic was a super nice guy who managed a small store at the river side resort. All it took was one look at his ice cream sandwiches which consisted of two and a half inches of homemade ice cream between two homemade cookies loaded with chocolate chips. They were heavenly, which resembled the name of the outfit “Heaven On Earth.” We grabbed a couple of bags of ice and headed for the river as one bag instantly busted open spilling half the ice, Vic laughed it off and told us to grab another bag which we did. I told Connor that was a smooth way of scamming Vic out of another half bag of ice, we laughed about that one for a while. Back on the river we made way downstream. It was getting really hot so we eddied out on a shallow gravel bar river left so we could take a dip. We had caught up with Allen and Dwayne so we all took a break together enjoying an ice cold IPA and a cool swim. Back on the river our next landmark of note was Table Rock which was river left just below Table Rock Camp, and sure enough, looked just like a table up there. It was starting to get late and a massive mayfly hatch was just beginning to take off and before long we had fish rising all around us. We had managed to separate from the rest of the group when we rounded a left hand turn and spotted a bubble line above a swimming hole that was popping with fish. I was on the oars and put Connor on the seam. A half a dozen casts later “wham” a fatty rainbow, and a beauty at that. Sweet! Now it was my turn fish, but by the time I got a chance at them they had moved on. I continued to fish throwing the same orange foam golden stone look alike until “wham” I hooked up with a fish that fought like hell, but when Connor netted him it turned to be a whitefish, damn! Oh well, still fun catching the damn thing. Needless to say we got into camp late, the last boat to arrive, and for good reason.
We landed river right on a rocky beach at Upper Parker Flat, an amazing camp, my favorite so far. We had a nice camp kitchen just above the rocks with a short hike through the trees to a fire ring with tent spots scattered about. Day three was a great day, and like day two was much easier on the oars with a lot less rock dodging. Connor and I put together our final dinner, Sonnenbergs New York style Italian sausage sandwiches, one of my favorites. After dinner we retreated to the fire ring where after good conversation and a bunch of laughs was escorted to bed by the tequila.
Wednesday, June 21st, 2016
Woke up Wednesday morning to another beautiful day. I laid there for a minute listening to the song birds as they chirped and circled about above my tent. I have never been anywhere that had so many birds, it was awesome. Connor and I were doing breakfast so again we got to work. We did the sausage, egg, cheese, tater tot, and gravy scramble, a river favorite. I have to say Connor is one heck of a cook. After breakfast we broke camp and set off on our fourth day. We got out of camp a little late, so the sun was already oppressive.
Back on the river we fished, trying stuff up top and down low, nothing worked. Connor and I made good time cruising along the hot river admiring the scenery. We were low on drinking water today, which really sucked and around noon we were ready for shade as we were beginning to hit a wall. We passed through a large area with camps but eventually stumbled across Stagg Miller, we were ready for a break and jumped out. Just as we were grabbing for the camp chairs to hit the shade a guide boat hauling gear showed up, this was their camp for the night. Instead of hogging their beach we pressed on, and just around the bend caught Merganser Bend Camp. It’s an easy one to miss, but we weren’t about to let it get away. We tied off the boat and hit the shade with our camp chairs, lunch, and what little water we had left. We could have taken a nap, and the thought crossed our minds, it was just too hot to even be on the river. We rested for probably close to an hour before Allen, and Britten rowed past. We decided to join them and jumped back in the boat. About a mile downstream we found our party eddied out in a big shaded bend in the river just below Black Butte Camp and just above Ridge Top Camp.
We took a big break here, and after a while it was obvious what the plan was, wait for the night bite and hope for another huge hatch. After about an hour we pressed on downriver, and sure enough, the mayfly hatch was picking up and the fish we soon slapping at flies. At one point Britten liked what he saw and pulled over, it was a nice long run with fish popping here and there. No sooner than we were parked did Connor grab his fly rod and make his way upstream, followed by Britten, then his dad Larry, and a little while later Allen. I figured I had seen enough, so I tied on a big red chubby Chernobyl and made my way upstream, jumping in ahead of Britten and below Allen. I cast a few times working from closest to furthest, when “wham” a fish bumped my fly, I set the hook but missed him. I kept fishing, and soon had another missed opportunity. On one cast I was watching my fly drift past me when a big fish rose about 20 feet upstream of me behind my fly. I heard Britten behind me shout “go get him.” I pulled my line from the water, made a quick false cast to dry the fly then placed her right where the fish had jumped and “boom” fish on! My rod tip instantly doubled over and I knew I had a good fish, I played him a little as I worked my way to the bank where I met Connor for a quick photo before releasing the beautiful rainbow, it’s moments like that in life that are so overwhelming and I am just so grateful to have had some of the experiences that I have had in my life, and that one right there will stick with me forever. Not long after that we were back on the river.
A little ways down stream we encountered the first of the three major rapids on the entire trip. From the top of the drop it appeared as a series of rocks you had to avoid while working your way right to avoid a monster haystack rock. It was a lot of work slowing the boat and making the moves before finally slipping between the big rock and the right bank. Once through that rapid we encountered more rocks and unfortunately hung up on one just below the surface that I never saw coming, luckily we were able to rock and roll ourselves off of it. Just when I thought we were done, we discovered Givens Gulch Rapid, the only named drop on the river. It looked good hugging the right bank through the left hand turn. I felt good about my line, when oh shit happened! Big rocks choked the bottom of the rapid and I was too far right to avoid them. I stuck the oars and pushed for my life and with just enough water going over the tops of the rocks we slid right over, that was close. I just goes to show, when you think your done, don’t give up, you have to do something! Looking back i should have taken a look at that rapid, next time if flows are similar I will pull over and take a peek. Just below the rapid on river right we found the last camp of our trip at Lower Rattlesnake, a stellar camp. We had a rocky landing with a nice bench just above to set up the kitchen, and just above the kitchen was another bench of tall grass with plenty of room for us to pitch our tents, it was awesome.
After setting up camp Rob cooked us a dinner of meatloaf from Eggers with roasted potatoes, it was spectacular. After dinner we enjoyed some good conversation and laughs, across the river from us was an amazing display of bird of prey, the majestic golden eagle, a spectacular bird. We observed him for a while before he finally gave up and moved on, what an amazing creature. When the sun left us we had another laser show on the cliff face across the river, which I’m sure those camping at Upper Rattlesnake, and Givens Gulch Camp enjoyed as well. For the last time we eventually sauntered off to bed.
Thursday, June 22nd, 2016
We woke up on the final morning of our trip, stumbled out of bed, and soon ate a delicious breakfast of biscuits and gravy provided by Rob. I disassembled my rod and gave it back to Allen and thanked him endlessly for the loaning me his Sage, it was a very generous offer and a great rod, and I was thankful to have caught such a nice rainbow the day before with it. After breakfast we quickly packed the boat and before long found ourselves on the river.
Just below camp on a left hand bend we encountered the final boulder field of the trip, from what I recall I ran it mostly left and center as I dodged numerous rocks, we avoided the right side entirely. The spectacular scenery continued with more and more limestone cliffs as we rowed out. Connor and I decided to skip the fishing today and hung with Rob and Jeff on a slow but steady forward row out, we had a long drive to make once we reached the takeout. About half way out the canyon began to open up as the trees became more and more scarce. Soon the limestone cliffs gave way to cow pastures and eventually we reached a private bridge, and in my opinion the end of the trip. Signs of civilization were now ever present, as we passed houses, roads, and vehicles. Our moods had changed, but it didn’t kill the trip, instead we were enlightened and forever changed by the magnificent Smith River. We eddied out one last time to take a final swim, by now the sun was oppressive and the dip felt great. Shallow gravel bars and woody debris were all that were left of the Smith but we enjoyed her all the way to the takeout at Eden bridge.
The take out is a swift landing, be ready to jump out and grab the boat! We almost missed her if it wasn’t for a young guide from an outfit that helped us wrangle in our red Aire 156D. Connor went for the truck while I unloaded the boat, and about a half hour later we had her loaded and ready to go. We had an amazing time and met some awesome people along the way, the Smith River is 59 miles of pure bliss. I will continue to apply for permits and hopefully the river gods will deliver me one in the not too distant future. I can’t wait to share this experience with Robin and the kids one day, it would make for a great family float. For more pictures click the link. Smith River Rafting Trip

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