WINTER ON THE FLATHEAD RIVER
A WINTER CANOE TRIP IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK SERVES UP CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
After spending the better part of six years living out of a Land Rover Defender and a Discovery Sport, adventurer and photographer Alex Strohl (@AlexStrohl) decided to put down some roots. He and his partner Andrea planned to build a cabin in Montana, the ideal backdrop for outdoor photography. When a harsh winter stalled construction, Alex found himself with some extra time to explore his new backyard.
Naturally, he enlisted Montana locals (and cousins) James Byrd (@Byrdinand) and Isaac Johnston (@IsaacsJohnston) and fellow photographer RJ Bruni (@RJBruni) to paddle the North Fork of the Flathead River…in the dead of winter. It was a first time for all; Johnston and Byrd grew up just miles from Glacier Park but had never attempted a winter river trip.
With ice and snow in the forecast, the team opted for two durable, metal canoes instead of the fiberglass kayaks one might use in warmer water. The day they unpacked the Discovery Sport for their departure, a fresh layer of snow covered the roads, setting the tone for the adventures to come. “Put simply,” said Alex, “the Discovery Sport made the trip happen. Just getting to our departure point in peak winter weather was a challenge. The road is unpaved, not always plowed and lightly traveled. It carried us with all of our gear and our canoe to the river. We forged a path through the deep snow to the edge of the river so we could unload everything near the water.”
Shortly after pushing off, the foursome found themselves navigating around a massive logjam. They ended up hiking around the obstacle with fully loaded canoes in tow. After finding running water, the group was floating again, but a few miles later they were back to hauling their vessels through knee-deep snow, this time to avoid a thick swath of ice spanning the river from bank to bank.
“Yeah, you don’t want to go into that,” said James, surveying the ice jam. “We would probably be turned sideways and then most of our stuff would go under it.” He didn’t have to mention that they, too, could be sucked into the frozen water.
There were whoops of joy upon finding ice-free water a short while later. But soon, the stream seemed to disappear entirely, covered by ice and snow for miles. With the low winter sun rapidly fading, the team roped up the canoes once more and pushed forward on foot. If they didn’t find a clearing in the ice, they would be camping much sooner than expected.
With just a couple of hours of light to go, a break finally came. They slid into clear, cold water. They paddled until the light ran out and built their campsite in the dark.
James said what everyone was thinking, “Hopefully tomorrow we’ll be floating, not hiking. I mean, it was still a good day, but....” Laughter from the others. Yeah. They knew.
As they warmed up next to their campfire, more snow fell.
In the morning, all were feeling the effects of the day before. Sore necks and backs cracked. A few repairs to their dry suits were needed, but nothing a little duct tape couldn’t fix. Boots that had frozen overnight were defrosted by the fire.
After some hot coffee, conditions were much improved. And, the weather seemed to be more welcoming; the snow had stopped and the sun was straining through the clouds. Dry suits went on and canoes were packed. James had a prediction for the day: “Right around the corner, it’s going to open up – no more ice. Today we’re going to crush it.”
“Right around the corner, it’s going to open up – no more ice.”
He was rewarded in short order with an actual current, no ice in sight. More whoops could be heard reverberating through the otherwise tranquil forest.
With the absence of log and ice jams, day two flew by. The four friends were so relaxed that they had to remind each other to take photographs of their beautiful setting. Mid-day, they lashed the canoes together and had lunch while floating.
James squinted in the afternoon sun as he reclined in his canoe. With a big grin on his face, he once again spoke for them all: “Yeah, this is sick.”
They paddled the rest of the day to the designated pickup spot where Andrea and the Discovery Sport were waiting. No hiking required.
Alex’s tips for cold water canoeing
- Assemble a team of people you have traveled with and know well.
- Have the right equipment. You’ll need a reliable dry suit, a durable canoe and many layers.
- Plan your outfits accordingly. Wear a down jacket on easier days and a mid-weight layer for when you’ll be doing more hiking and towing.
- Bring duct tape.
- Research as much as you can about where you’ll be going. Scout the route ahead of time.
- But, always be ready for the unexpected.
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