Montana has wild whitewater |

Montana has wild whitewater

by Ira Townsley

Montana has a reputation for being rough, wild, and untamed. It isn’t just the natural features such as the Continental Divide, the abundant wildlife, and that renowned ‘Big Sky’ that give it this image. Less publicized by the tourism industry, Montana is also the state of choice for the Unabomber, for seperatists such as the Freemen, and until recently, the home of the non-numerical ‘reasonable and prudent’ speed limit. In other words, Montana is one wild and wooly place.

This being the case, one would expect that the state would afford ample opportunity for one to participate in a rough and wild activity such as whitewater rafting. Yet, this outdoor sport is conspicuously rare in Montana; the river running is limited, for the most part, to an area in the north near Glacier National Park, and to a stretch of the Clark Fork River in the west through what is called the Alberton Gorge.

The Alberton Gorge is just off the Interstate 90 corridor, about two hours from the border of Idaho. It has come under such heavy use in recent years that the state’s department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, which maintains the boating put-ins and take-outs on this stretch of river, has required commercial rafting companies floating the Gorge to operate under a permit system. The area chamber of commerce and the local game warden are good sources of information on local rafting outfitters.

The main put-in is at a spot named Cyr, after a long-time area family. From Cyr to the actual Gorge is a float of about an hour, interesting if uneventful, with a couple of minor rapids.

An immense lavender-colored cliffside signals the approach of the whitewater section of the trip. As the raft swings around a bend, the first thing that comes into view is a criss-cross of concrete and iron, some hundred feet above the river. The two bridges of Interstate 90 (one for the eastbound traffic, one for the westbound) and a now-defunct railroad trestle provide an identity to the first major action of the float; Triple Bridges Rapids.

The bridges were built at the mouth of the Gorge because of the way that the river narrows so dramatically here. It is a bottleneck on the Clark Fork that forces a massive volume of water into a channel that suddenly drops to roughly one-third of its original size. Combined with a steep drop in elevation, this makes the Alberton Gorge a premiere whitewater destination.

Unlike some of its Eastern counterparts which offer a long, continous stretch of medium-sized rapids, the Alberton Gorge presents large, violent rapids alternating with short calm stretches of water, all with damp moss and pine-covered cliffs looming overhead on both sides.

After forcing the rafter through rapids with such colorful names as Fang, Boat-eater, and Thunder Rock, the Gorge ends, and the Clark Fork widens back out to its original size and shape.

It is another calm hour-long float down to the take-out. Rafters with more time on their hands can take advantage of the non-whitewater recreation offered by the water. There are a number of picturesque picnic sites on the banks, certain stretches are slow and wide enough for swimming, and, as it winds its way toward the northwest corner of the state, the river is a popular fishing destination.

But one can find fishing and swimming opportunites nearly anywhere in the country. It is the Alberton Gorge that sets this river apart. The whitewater rafting offered in this short, narrow stretch of water lives up to the wild and wooly, the rough and tumble reputation in which the state of Montana revels.

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