‘Like winning the lottery’
Floating the Smith a Montana experience like no other
By Kristen Inbody
Tribune Staff Writer
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS For Matt Jewett, the best part of a float trip on the Smith River is launching the rafts at Camp Baker.
“That’s when all the pressures lift,” he said.
For the next five days, he will have nothing to do but fish and float, camp and chat. Cellphone service and Internet access are miles away. He’s off the clock and on river time.
A Montana State University graduate who lives in Connecticut, Jewett won’t see a highway during the entire 59-mile float from the put-in location northwest of White Sulpur Springs to the Eden Bridge take-out location south of Ulm.
“I’m here for sun, fun and a nice outdoor experience,” Jewett said, as he and friends loaded their rafts at Trout Creek boat camp.
Then he considered maybe he’d rather keep the scenic river to himself.
“It’s horrible. It stinks. No one should come here,” he joked.
Steep canyon walls, a winding river, wildlife, pictographs and a rare multi-day floating experience await visitors.
Floating the Smith River is one of the most prized outdoor experiences in Montana.
It’s one of Tom Ware’s most prized experiences, too. The Evergreen, Colo., man read about the Smith in a magazine. Since then, he’s fished and floated the “majestic” river at least 25 times in the past 45 years.
“It’s so different from your daily life,” he said. “It’s just so beautiful, and you catch a lot of fish, too.”
His cousin Herb Ware from Midland, Texas, has been snowed on, frozen, rained on for days straight, sunburned and bitten by bugs on the Smith.
“I keep coming back,” he said as he neared the end of his latest trip. “It’s my favorite place.”
By permit only, mostly
Thirteen tents were erected in Camp Baker on a recent Sunday evening, with far more pickups parked around the camp. At one camp, Ron Loehman of Albuquerque, N.M., and Ken Brewer of Florence prepared for their first trips down the river by trying to reduce their gear.
“I’ve done lots of rivers in Montana and elsewhere, but never the Smith,” Loehman said. “The stars hadn’t lined up before.”
Permits are required to float the Smith, and they can be hard to come by. About 6,600 people applied for a permit early this year, with 1,000 winners. Smith River State Park manager Colin Maas said about 700 of those permits are typically used every season. While prime floating is mid-May and June, permits are easier to get — and harder to use — in the shoulder season. Blizzards in April and low water in July have scuttled plans.
Loehman applied for an out-of-state permit for many years with no luck, but his daughter won one this year.
“The brown trout are supposed to be big,” Loehman added. “It will be pretty. No whitewater, scenic and flat. The water should be clear.”
The majority of boat trips are three nights, with four the next most popular option. At minimum, the trip may be done in two nights, and four is the maximum.
Boat camp assignments are distributed first-come, first-pick for the 52 campsites in 27 boat camps on national forest land, Fish, Wildlife and Parks land, DNRC state land and leased private land. For the year’s last Monday launch, representatives from three of the five parties who launched signed in by 7 a.m.
For a Tuesday launch, Dale Reavis of Pocatello, Idaho, his wife, Holly, and friend Mari Tusch were in line before 6 a.m. Monday so they could leap on the sign-up sheet when it was posted at 7:30. Holly and Dale have unsuccessfully applied for permits many times. This year, both drew a permit for the same day and assembled a group of 25 (15 are allowed per permit).
“There were 328 people who put in for the day we drew,” Dale said.
Tusch, in a shirt that read “Women who fly fish are just more alluring,” said she floats a river every year, usually those with more white-water “but we were excited for the fishing.”
The Reavises prepared for their trip with information they found online, Holly said.
“This river has a great reputation,” she said. “Everyone wanted to come along to the point of bribing us. We have a lot of fishermen in our group.”
When state park river ranger Jay Pape arrived with the sign-up sheet, he quipped, “Is this where we get the Rolling Stones tickets?”
Staying safe on the river
Leslie Harrison of Bozeman was part of the group first in line for picking campgrounds for Monday launches. She led Pape to her group.
Pape checked their drivers’ license to establish residency, and he collected $265 in fees for the 11 in the group. He wrote tags to attach to rafts and showed the first timers how to spot boat camp signs. He charted their campsite choices.
“We’ll go over the boat camps many times,” Pape said. “It’s bad, bad, bad if we double-book.”
Pape warned the group not to go above the high-water mark on the river banks on the 80 percent of the Smith River corridor that passes through private land. The rest is a smattering of Fish, Wildlife and Parks land, DNRC school trust and BLM lands, and Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests.
He checks that everyone had life jackets. Children must wear them; adults must have them in reach at least.
Even “micro-trash” should be packed out, Pape said.
“Beer cans do not burn in fires. Pack out more than you pack in,” he said. “Leave it totally spotless. We’ve had a lot of bear activity this year.”
Food should be made totally inaccessible to bears, with locking coolers or at least straps. Cooking — and even toothpaste spit — should be concentrated at the fire pit area, with tents pitched elsewhere. And keep nothing in the rafts.
“Claws and rafts, bad,” Pape said.
Three camps (upper, middle and lower boat camps at Scotty Allen’s Black Canyon) were closed because of bear activity as Harrison’s group prepared to launch. By the end of the week, bear activity would shut down the whole corridor.
Canoes would have no problem with the water depth at 202 cubic feet per second — and dropping fast — at Camp Baker but the rafts would scrape along at times, Pape said. More typical would be flows of 300 to 400 at this time of year. Recommended minimum flow for rafts in 250. Most floaters would travel at 2 to 3 mph.
A bigger challenge for canoes is a river that seems to want to push them into canyon walls at tight turns. Toward the end of the corridor, cottonwoods try to snag watercraft.
“Be on top of getting a good line through those hard turns,” Pape said.
Those manning the paddles or ores should have at least an intermediate skill level.
Twenty years ago, traffic on the river tended to be experienced anglers. These days recreational floating is more common than it was. But, river rafting is much different than on the lake, Maas said.
“The Smith River is not white-water, but it can be challenging,” he said. “You need to have the skills to serpentine between boulders and rocks, to feather the oars and read the water, to know how the water will push you, pull you and spin you.”
Just as the sun slipped behind the mountains on the evening before their launch, Andrew Cassidy of Bozeman and Jensen Howard of Park City, Utah, loaded rafts with propane and drinking water, stuffed dry bags and rubber containers.
Cassidy is in his second summer working for a river outfitter, and Howard in his sixth. They packed the rafts for a group from Utah and Georgia on what was planned as the fourth of five trips for the summer for the pair.
“There’s always something to see,” Cassidy said. “There’s bears, scenery.”
Guests are “stoked,” especially if the fishing is good, he added. “Guests get excited about the amount of fish they can catch. Well, I’ve never seen anyone too grouchy on the river.”
Eight outfitters share 73 launch permits, typically with eight clients and seven staff members per launch.
Enjoying lunch on a gravel bar six river miles from the end of his float, Brian Scott, a Lewis & Clark Expeditions guide who may have the record for most trips down the Smith, said he hasn’t gotten tired of the river in his 30 years or so exploring it.
“I’m tired lots of times, but I never get sick of it,” he said. “It’s fish and scenery and fun. My favorite stretch is around the Tenderfoot Creek, but I like it all.”
Landowners along the river can take day trips without a permit, and Joyce Morgan, who has had a cabin there for 52 years, tries to take at least one a year.
“I like the cliffs, and the river is so beautiful,” she said.
At the Heaven and Earth Ranch, a Smith River landmark about 29 river miles from Camp Baker, Vic Anderson said that about 90 percent of his business in early summer is floaters. Some stay in a cabin, some just buy a shower and others are after ice cream, ice or a meal.
“The floaters say the Smith is one of the best things, like winning the lottery, even when the weather’s crappy,” he said. “If I can get them off the beach, I’ve got them forever.”
He starts catering to floaters April 15.
“The fishermen want to be on the river before it comes up, but you could get an iced river or four feet of snow,” he said. “Eighty percent of people on the river know what they’re getting into. The rest, they learn.”
Anderson has poured hot drinks for crabby women and help dry out soaked tents.
“When they come here, they don’t look too good. A warm shower and a nice drink, that’s how to please a woman,” he said. “All the clients I have are here to have a good time. Even if they’re miserable as hell, they regroup and they have a good time anyway.”
Not your typical day of work
While Pape stayed to run Camp Baker, seasonal river rangers Nate Kluz and Don Mendenhall, who works for the Forest Service, set off on a weekly patrol of the river.
“Oh, Mondays,” Kluz said, grinning as he stopped for lunch along the river under a gorgeous blue sky.
The job isn’t all blue-skies and cool water, though. The rangers operate from canoes and rafts, and they camp. They make contact with floaters and help sort out problems.
“They really have to have highly specialized skills,” Maas said.
The national forests help pay for the boat camp maintenance since some are on forest land. The rangers check camps for hazardous trees, proper signage, extinguished fire pits and trash. And then there’s the other important duty.
Some rivers require floaters to carry out their feces, but the Smith River has latrines at boat camps.
At Middle Indian Springs, Maas stopped to connect with Kluz and Mendenhall as they dug a new hole 36-inches deep and moved the seat over it. The old hole would be filled in with dirt from the new hole. Bushes and a wooden screen provide some privacy. Some holes fill up in a year. Some last eight.
“I like to say I’m a fecal appraiser,” Kluz said.
“This is the glamorous part of the job,” Maas added. “Every time you sit on a privy, say ‘Thank you, Nate.’”
Josh Stoudt was on the river that day, too. He’s one of five state park rangers and has law enforcement training.
“He’s got rugged, wild country to patrol between the Smith and Sluice Boxes State Park,” Maas said. “It’s so nice having Josh. We’ve historically had very little law enforcement, and we don’t have a huge need, but when you combine it with public safety, we do.”
And when a fearless black bear wandered into camp on his last night of float patrol, Stoudt suddenly found himself back on duty, trying to haze the bear, packing a family’s rafts for a move down river, keeping vigil all night, responding to bear alerts at a nearby camp and posting camp closure notices — after rowing in 90-degree heat for two days with one more day ahead.
Anderson said it’s a lot better under the permit system with state management.
“If someone does something wrong, they’re caught, and the river isn’t overcrowded,” he said. “Before, with the 4th of July weekend, it would have tons of people and no designated camp sites.”
‘What a unique vacation’
Less arduous than backpacking (as long as an experienced rower is at the oars), the Smith can be a great experience for children and older folks, too, Maas said.
“Scenery and fishing are the initial draw, with the social aspect of family, friends, camaraderie. People are thrilled to death, and what a unique vacation,” he said. “The Smith River is a semi-wilderness experience. There are private homes along the river, but we’re remote. You get a sense of wilderness. People like that it’s primitive, and you have the cultural draw of the pictographs, too.”
Near Scotty Allen’s Black Canyon at river mile 12, Maas estimated 400 people were between him and the Eden Bridge takeout at river mile 58.9. He seemed to have the river to himself, though.
“You can get such a feeling of solitude on this river,” Maas said. “For people used to fishing shoulder-to-shoulder, this is truly wild.”
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