Quite frankly I’m not much of a rafter, nor am I a fisherman – but I am smart enough to know that you don’t pass on a chance to float the Smith River. The sixty-mile, multi-day trip has become so popular that the state uses a lottery system to limit the number of groups to 8 per day. I had never floated the Smith, so this was my chance to see what all the fuss was about. (Photo Tour)
One of the hottest tickets in Montana.
According to the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, there were 9,365 applications for 1,175 permits in 2016. Although each permit allows for 15 people, the average group size was 7.22 people. There were 4,978 floaters in 2016 (mostly April through mid-July), including 611 who were guided by outfitters. Mid to late June launch dates are “golden.” Based on data from 2016, it’s likely that 500-800 applicants requested a Friday, June 17 launch date, hoping to draw one of the 8 permits for that day. That’s why it was so unusual that one of my students (Andy) and his dad (Kurt) both drew permits for June 17th. Kurt organized a float with a group of his boyhood friends, and Andy invited the Helena High Outdoors Club to join him for one of the most unique adventures Montana has to offer.
Logistics, logistics, logistics.
Fortunately just the right number of students wanted to go (9), I was able to find 5 rafts, and 5 other experienced adults offered to come along. A lot of people had to do a lot of work to make the trip happen, but it all came together. So the 15 of us, with our rafts and our gear, set off for the “put-in” at Camp Baker (about 100 miles from Helena) at 7:30 am Friday, June 17. We were on the river at 10:30 am. During the trip we camped four nights at sites that Andy and his dad reserved for us. As you will see when you look through the Photo Tour we had a GREAT trip! The weather was good and the flows were perfect – Things couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Our trip ended at Eden Bridge (20 miles south of Great Falls) early Tuesday afternoon, and we were back in Helena by 4 pm.
A happy place.
It was pleasant to be around people that were enjoying themselves so much. Fishing, scenery, rapids, campfire time, good food, bad jokes, exploring, s’mores, hammocks, hacky sac, bird-watching, hiking, water wars, no cell phones, working together – It was all good. But for me the most memorable part of the trip was the hike to the cave shown in the photo atop this page. The hike was less than a mile, but very steep, and did involve some “class 3” climbing. The huge cave included some of the best pictographs I’ve ever seen, and provided an amazing view of the river below. Another personal highlight was the time I spent on the raft with Andy and Clayton. Although Clayton and I helped with the rowing, Andy (age 15) did the lion’s share. He was good at it, and seemed to enjoy it – and he’s a good singer too. Clayton (HHS Class of 2017) has a passion for fishing. I‘d never thought of fishing as a spectator sport, but it was fun to watch and share in his sense of anticipation. As for me, I spent most of my time gawking at the scenery, taking photos, and enjoying the Smith experience . . . totally understanding what all the fuss is about.
- Photo Tour
Almost 60 miles of canyon in west-central Montana.
- Montana State Parks Site: The Smith River
Everything you need to know about floating the Smith.
- HHS Outdoors Club Facebook Page
No child left inside.
Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.