Fluid Worlds: Rafting The Flathead River

Fluid Worlds 2002 Pic C

Looking down through these translucent blue and green waters, you could easily imagine you're floating in the Caribbean. But once your eyes fix on the glittering stones along the river bottom, you bring your gaze upward, past the green forest to the sprawling sky, where ospreys survey the expansive wilderness to the south, Flathead Lake to the west and Glacier National Park to the north. Yes, there is no mistaking that this is Montana.

To get that bird's eye view of the Treasure State, sign up for a raft trip on the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River with the Glacier Raft Company. The trip begins with a half-hour flight from Kalispell, carrying you over three connected wilderness areas, one of the largest stretches of unspoiled terrain in the country.

Depending on water levels, Glacier Raft Company offers two variations of the Upper Middle Fork excursion. At high water, the plane shuttles rafters 35 miles out for a four-day trip. When the levels drop, horses carry guests in seven miles for a 25-mile raft expedition.

The adventure begins on the upper river, a narrow, rocky Class III-IV section that can test even the most skilled guides as the crafts spin and carom through the technical course of boulders. With most of your focus on staying in the boat, you may not notice the vast surrounding forests of fir and pine that reach as far as the eye can see. No worries¿you can take it all in during a layover day featuring a hike to Castle Lake, which is nestled between rocky crags about a thousand feet above the river.

On the final day, you'll negotiate a narrow chasm known as Spruce Park Gorge. Several waterfalls stream down the canyon walls and empty into the river below, where heart-stopping drops await your craft. Make it through the gorge, and your courage will likely be rewarded downstream with views of mountain goats enjoying a salt lick along the rocky but peaceful riverbank. As the boats pull out at Essex, take a nice, long glance over your shoulder. As you look at where you've just come from, your only thought will be how soon you can return. ¿Lee Cohen

DETAILS Glacier Raft Company (800-235-6781, www.glacierraftco.com) is located in West Glacier, Mont., at the west entrance to Glacier National Park. The season generally runs from mid-May through September. Flyfishing trips are also available, using specially rigged rafts.