Kayaking down the Bitterroot River

 Kayaking down the Bitterroot River

Conner to Lolo, Montana

76.5 miles

Lolo take out site of June 16th 2002


Section Two:

The Bitterroot Valley runs from south to north from Lost Trail Pass to Missoula, Montana. It is flanked on the east by the Sapphire Mountains and on the west by the Bitterroot Mountains. The Bitterroot River flows south to north through the valley and is known for trout throughout the western United States for its great trout fishing. It also offers a scenic kayak route connecting Conner, Montana in the south to Lolo, Montana, in the north. During most of the year this river is a gentle flowing shallow waterway, with an average flow rate of 900 – 1000 Cubic Feet/second, offering no real challenges or danger. But in May and June the Bitterroot swells to 9000 cubic feet/second, nearly nine times its normal size. During this period the Bitterroot overflows its banks and presents some real challenges to anyone trying to make the journey. Little did I suspect in mid June of 2002, when I decided to try kayaking down the Bitterroot River, what a harrowing experience it was to be.


On June 14th 2002, during the height of the spring runoff I drove from Seattle to Darby, Montana and settled into a rundown old motel. While at dinner in one of small diners in Darby I struck up a conversation with one of the locals who inquired as to why I had come to Dar by. I told him that I was working my way across the United States by water and hiking and then told him I was planning on kayaking the 71 miles down the Bitterroot to Lolo, Montana over the next two days. His response was immediate, “Are you crazy? Can’t be done this time of year. The water is too high.” Over the years I had learned to take what “the locals” had to say with a grain of salt. They often have an overblown sense of machismo about their little piece of the world, so I replied with my own bravado “that so?” The race was on. He talked about the many drownings over the years along the Bitterroot and I talked about me years in the mountains. Eventually I got him to agree to help by shuttling my car, the next morning after breakfast, from Conner to Anglers Roast. This first 22 mile section of the river would give me a chance test the conditions and set the stage for completing the additional 50 miles to Lolo the next day.


After breakfast on the morning of the 15th we drove to Conner and then west about a ½ mile to the put in site on the west fork of the Bitterroot. This is near the site that Clark and his contingent camped at on July 4the 1806 on their return trip. The water was indeed high and the current was four to five miles an hour, but it wasn’t too intimidating and so after a few minutes of preparation I pushed off and started down the river (10:30).


The river followed a narrow course through the woods and while the water threatened to overflow the banks there were only a few places where that had happened. About a mile downstream I rounded a bend and had to paddle hard to avoid a tree that had fallen over along the riverbank. This didn’t really create much of a problem, but was a sharp   reminder to stay alert. Between the current and the sharp river bends there wasn’t too much time for reaction to obstacles and the consequences to becoming trapped by one of these “sweepers” would be very unpleasant. A little past the 2.4 mile mark the west fork meet with the east fork of the river and formed a considerably larger river with more obstacles to deal with, small rapids, logs, gravel bars and flooding outside the banks soon became the norm and held my undivided attention for the remainder of the trip.


Four miles from the start I swept past the Hannon Memorial picnic area and then under the Highway 93 bridge. Once past the bridge the river valley opened up and the river broadened out. Here the river a gentle series of braided meandering turns as it a broad flat plan. The only real issue here was avoiding log jams. This wasn’t too hard since there was plenty of visual distance to give enough time to react and steer a course through the maze without getting too close to these dangerous obstacles.


About three miles down from the Highway 93 Bridge the river made a very sharp 100 degree bend and the entire bottom on both sides was flooded. Here the river literally ran through the woods. With the high volume of water moving down the river channel the bend was a torrent of surging water and boulders. I decided to cut the corner and soon myself navigating through the woods on an ad hoc joy ride amongst the cottonwoods and willows. As rough as it was I felt safer than trying to ride out of the class IV or V rapids of the main channel.


The next half mile or so was a strip of fast water and boulders making for a wet ride but nothing more than class II rapids. After that the river again broadened and straightened out considerably making for a little time to relax and enjoy the views before an exciting passage under the Darby Bridge (Mile 6.5; 11:45). I had about 3 feet of clearance under the bridge and had to bend forward over the deck of my kayak to clear! After the Darby Bridge I made an uneventful passage around Darby I thought most of the serious problems were behind me. I was wrong!


At about mile 10 the river became very braided and the main channel was hard to follow. I had to pick the most likely channel without being able to see whether it was the best route. Most of the time it was, but more than once channels were blocked by logjams and I had to paddle furiously against the current to get to shore portage around these hazards. Looking back on the experience I think I was very lucky not to have gotten trapped and swept under one of these killers.


After the excitement of the logjams downstream from Darby I again entered a relatively easy stretch of river for four mile to the Wally Crawford Bridge (mile 12.9; 12:45). The current was strong, and the river had overrun the banks but the there were no significant logjams and the main channel was easy to follow.


image001First Part of Route Taken June 15th 2002


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