The kayaker glides through the glassy waters, leaving a silver trail on the calm lagoon. Over the Wild Mile, another kayaker jumped down the Swan, and disappeared into white froth before the river spit it out again from the boiling white water. Outside on Flathead Lake, a couple launched their canoe for an extended paddle and camping along the Flathead Sea Trail. The lake lies quietly on a morning drenched in an ethereal mist, but by afternoon, it may be filled with white blankets. Lots of water and so many ways to experience it.
Hundreds of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs dot northwest Montana, dozens of which provide public access for kayaking adventures. Miles of rivers wind through mountain valleys of smooth flow into raging white water. Traveling by water provides a unique perspective and connection to the wonderful and extraordinarily inspiring natural world.
Although all waterways are filled with the same basic compound of two hydrogen atoms bonded by a single chemical bond to an oxygen atom, they can function quite differently depending on the shape of the land in which they flow along with seasonal and climatic conditions. The water in a very calm lake is cloudy while the water falls into a steep river much like a crazy child.
For some, the magic of paddling is the sensation of buoyancy and the ability to cool off on the surface of a calm lake or a serene stretch of river. The absence of engine noise allows you to hear the merganser’s laughter or the howling of a halo and the gentle sound of waves hitting your boat’s bow. Hop on the paddleboard to see what lies beneath – shiny trout or a glimpse of some lost or abandoned objects like an old dock or a rusty can. Flatwater provides the opportunity to drift off with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and spot the wildlife that lives in the water and along the waterfront.
Those looking for an adrenaline-filled outing can enjoy the challenge and excitement of the extraordinary energy of the flowing river, but it is essential that you have the skill and information necessary for a safe journey. Obstacles such as wooden boxes are common on some rivers and can get trapped or capsize. The river’s flow is usually at its peak between mid-May and mid-June and the water stays well cool until summer, which poses a risk of hypothermia if you end up with.
Early spring is the perfect time to start thinking about summer kayaking although it’s too early for most kayaking outings. Many of the smaller lakes are still frozen on the first day of spring. Use this time to get ready for fun on the water before you book tours and run out of boats. Start doing your homework until you know – as the saying goes – “what floats your boat”.
If you’re new to kayaking, start by learning about your options and some of the best places and ways to use your boat. Three of the most popular are canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard, also known as “SUP”. All of these boats are fairly easy to transport and depending on the waterway, they are easy to use. Local sporting goods stores in the area can help guide you through the process of purchasing the right equipment and can recommend places to paddle. Some of the popular online stores also have sections dedicated to advice on buying and enjoying your new boat.
There are many boat rentals in Flathead Valley and some offer boat rides to the area’s lake or guided tours. Many sporting goods stores offer rentals and some rentals are available directly on the lake. Renting a boat or taking a guided walk is a great way to wet the paddle!
A variety of kayak styles are available including sit on top, recreation, tours, fishing and whitewater. Two great boats for beginners are the sit top and leisure boats because they offer more stability and lower fares.
The upper seats are easier to load and unload due to the open cockpit, but are more suitable for a warm summer day due to the possibility of getting wet. It’s a great boat for kids playing on the lake, and it serves as a swimming platform that can be easily loaded and unloaded. The scoop holes make it self draining.
The recreational boat is a shorter, wider boat that allows for a longer season with the option to add a spray skirt to seal the boat from paddling and spray drops. They are best suited for flat waters and slow-moving rivers.
Some kayaks have a cockpit large enough to accommodate a dog or small child while paddling. A tandem kayak is another great option for paddlers. Kid-sized kayaks are a great introduction to kayaking for the younger family members.
Tourist kayaks are longer and narrower which makes them more efficient for longer paddles. It also tracks better and has more storage space. They are generally more expensive than recreational boats.
Whitewater kayaking requires skill, experience and a high level of concentration due to the harsh environment of the fast-moving waters. The boats are short and designed to turn fast and are made of hard plastic to withstand knocks when going downriver.
Standing Paddleboard (SUP)
Although SUP looks simple in design, there are actually many types of panels that vary by hull design, fins, materials, width, length, and thickness. These design elements are applied according to the type used – for recreation, touring, racing, surfing. The leisure board is a good choice for beginners and for hiking or yoga due to its stability. The racing and surfboards feature a streamlined design for efficient water penetration.
The canoe is a classic stable boat with plenty of room for gear, kids and the family dog. The recreational boat is stable, maneuverable and easy to control, making it a good choice for those learning to sport. Other more specialized kayaks include land, excursions, whitewater, racing, and fishing.
There are also inflatable kayaks, canoes, and kayaks, which are usually available at a lower cost and can simplify storage and transportation.
Places are advised to visit
Flathead Lake is about 30 miles long and has an area of about 200 square miles, making it the largest natural freshwater lake (by surface area) west of the Mississippi. The views of this gorgeous lake overlooking the mountains are breathtaking and give you a perspective on the size of this lake. Flathead Lake can be ocean-like with waves recording five feet high – making it important to check the weather before setting out on a picnic.
There are several access points to 161.4 miles of shoreline with six state parks and nine fishing entrances. The Conceptual Marine Route offers a variety of routes that can be customized to different levels of skill and interest from long stretches of open water to paddles along the shoreline. Camps for sea lane rowers can be booked at five state parks along the boardwalk. There are also commercial accommodations along the lake.
There are many smaller lakes that are less exposed and less prone to wind and undulating conditions for those who want a quieter experience. Swan Valley is dotted with smaller lakes, which are good for paddling including Swan, Salmon, Alva, Lindbergh, and Seeley Lakes. There are also several lakes less than an hour from Kalispell including Whitefish Lake, Lake Tully, Lake Ashley, Lake Voise, Lake Thompson Range, and Lake Mary Ronan.
There are many wonderful paddling lakes in Glacier National Park including Lake Macdonald, Lake Two Medicine, and Lake Bowman. Some lakes also offer boat rentals. Located in the Flathead National Forest, the Hungry Horse Reservoir is a larger 34-mile body of water with more than a dozen campgrounds on its shore.
The rivers are generally best left to skilled and experienced paddlers unless it is a sure stretch of slow, flat water. The current of the river increases with the melting of snow and can also rush with heavy rains. The Clark Fork, Blackfoot, Kootenai, and Flathead Rivers all have exciting stretches of river for kayakers, but generally require a higher level of skill and experience.
The Clearwater Canoe Trail in the Swan Valley is a slow meandering section of the river that offers mellow paddle boarding and paddle boarding for families and beginners. The trail begins in the north of the town of Scilly Lake and ends at the USFS Ranger Station at the northern end of Scilly Lake.
Where do you start
The USFS website includes a list of non-motorized boat launch sites: www.fs.usda.gov/flathead
FWP encourages boat owners to use these resources to prepare for boating outings: fwp.mt.gov/activities/boating/education
Free Online Paddlesports Safety Course: www.boaterexam.com/paddling/
If you’re traveling by private boat, you’re required to stop at all boat check stations to keep Montana’s waterways clear of invasive aquatic species. After a day on the water, practice the three steps of cleaning, draining, and drying to help keep Montana’s waterways pure.
The basics include:
• A boat of your choice
• paddle (paddle)
• A means of transporting the boat
• Additional items recommended for a picnic:
• Toothed hat
• sunblock cream
• Protective clothing from the cold and the sun (which may include a wetsuit or dry suit)
• Dry bags to protect your phone or anything else you want to keep dry – a wide mouth water bottle can be used for small items
• Bales of sponge
• Headlights and safety whistle
• Water and snacks when you’re on the paddle longer