Study confirms Flathead River busy in summer

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Rafters mug for the camera at the bonecrusher rapid on the Middle Fork of the Flathead in this file photo.

A new report of river usage in the Flathead River system confirms what many had long suspected: That river use on certain sections of the rivers in peak summer months gets very busy.

A study of river usage in the summer of 2017 found that just below Moccasin Creek on the Middle Fork of the Flathead, on average, 136.5 watercraft hit the river per day. In August, that number dropped to about 93.3 watercraft per day. All told, 5,411 watercraft floated the river below Moccasin Creek in the 60 days that the counter was up, the study found, with an average of 867 floaters taking to the water per day in July and about 573 per day in August.

The busiest day ever came in August, the study found, with 1,195 people counted floating the Middle Fork below Moccasin.

All told, 5,411 watercraft were counted below Moccasin in 60 days, while 6,307 were counted below the Quarter Circle Bridge on the lower portion of the river, which runs through a canyon en route to its confluence with the North Fork at Blankenship, but it doesn’t have any whitewater. The Quarter Circle count, however, was 38 days longer than the Moccasin.

The numbers make sense — the roughly 7.5 mile stretch from Moccasin to West Glacier is where the four raft companies in West Glacier take the bulk of their clients in the summer months. The lower Middle Fork is also a popular spot for raft companies as well, where as families and guides float that stretch for scenic, but less adventurous, beauty.

The upper North Fork of the Flathead was much quieter.

Counters near Ford Cabin recorded about 31 rafters per day, about 20 per day at Wurtz cabin and about 22 per day at Polebridge. In August, the numbers were lower, with 14 per day at Ford, about 4 per day at Wurtz and 5.6 at Polebridge.

Fires were burning in Glacier National Park by August 2017, but the study found air quality didn’t seem to bother rafters.

The data was collected using game cameras from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. hidden along the bank of the river at each location. The crew then analyzed the frames to determine the number of craft, the number of people and whether they were commercial rafts or not, though the final report doesn’t distinguish between commercial use or private use.

The study was conducted by Iree Wheeler, Douglas Dalenberg, Jennifer Thomsen and Wayne Freimund of the University of Montana College of Forestry. Freimund, however, now teaches at Clemson University.

Data will continue to be collected for the next several years with more counters in place in more locations on the river system.

The 2018 data is not yet available. The report notes that it took about five months to go through all the footage and compile the data and despite efforts to camouflage them, one camera was stolen.

The study was paid, in part, through a grant from the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

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