by Stephanie Laporte Potts
Sometimes, everything works out for your dream summer hiking trip: good health, mild weather, and a strenuous but rewarding trail. Other times, you catch the flu the weekend before you are scheduled to leave for your 30+-mile ridgeline backpacking trip, and the temperature spikes to the high nineties.
The latter was my reality a couple of weekends ago, as I lay on the couch feeling sick, hot, and sorry for myself while watching my dreams of a week spent high in the Pioneer Mountains slip farther and farther away from reality. I knew that, in my condition, a week in the high elevation sun would be anything but a restful vacation, but the thought of being trapped inside for the week did not seem any better. My inner lake-loving Michigander kicked in, and I exclaimed (to my cat, who was the only one home at the time), “Uggh! Why can’t I just be on a boat? On a lake!?”
The cat had nothing useful to contribute, and walked away. But, as she did, something in my fever-addled brain thought to look out the backyard window. And, as it turns out, I do have a boat! It’s nothing fancy, and probably not seaworthy on the Great Lakes, but the simple green canoe sitting up on blocks in my backyard was exactly the solution I needed for a re-worked, but still wonderful, Montana summer vacation.
Canoeing, especially small lake canoeing, is delightfully straightforward and uncomplicated. All you need is a canoe, paddles, and lifejackets. There are no bilges to worry about, engines to deal with, or trailers to pull. When you arrive at a lake, all you need to do is flip the canoe over, grab the paddles and life preservers, and hit the water.
After a day of planning using my two favorite references, Paddling Montana (co-authored by MNHC board member Hank Fischer!) and the Montana Gazetteer, we were ready for five days of “canoeing the heck out of Northwest Montana.” With the canoe on top of the truck, and the camping gear in the bed, we were ready to go.
Because our trip was so last-minute, our locations were somewhat guided by where we could find a camping spot nearby. Our first stop was Dickie Lake, near Eureka. This small lake sits at the gateway to the Tobacco Valley and is surrounded by mountains and big trees, with Highway 93 flanking one side. There is a day-use picnic area (formerly a campground) on the south side of the lake, and a lovely campground on the north end. To my delight, we also discovered there is a children’s camp midway around the lake, and we got to hear their campfire songs and games float over the water during our sunset paddle.
One of the reasons we chose Dickie Lake was so that we could wake up early and quickly get to Glacier National Park the next day and try to find a camping spot. Along the way, we also discovered a really useful tool on Glacier’s website that shows real-time campground status (https://home.nps.gov/applications/glac/cgstatus/cgstatus.cfm). This turned out to be super helpful, because, even though we were there in the middle of the week, the campgrounds we had been eyeing all filled by 7:45 in the morning—but we were able to figure that out without driving all the way to the entrance gate.
By this point, though, we were pros at rolling with the punches. We discussed some options, including heading to Bowman and Kintla Lakes in the North Fork or staying with 190 other families at Apgar, but ultimately chose to take a look down Hungry Horse Reservoir to see if we could find something. Our gamble paid off, and we ended up in a wonderful small campground where the rushing waters of Lost Johnny Creek enter the blue-green depths of Hungry Horse.
I’d never canoed Hungry Horse before, and while few would say it’s a small lake to paddle, I can attest that it is a beautiful and pleasant experience. There are a number of small coves and bays that are great for novices, and the views of the Great Bear Wilderness from the main channel are stunning. Camping right near the water, we again had the opportunity for an evening paddle, with the full moon rising over Nyak Mountain and alpenglow lighting the sky.
In the morning, we woke to a Swainson’s Thrush singing over our tent. Its throaty melody followed us along the lakeshore as we set out for a longer canoe down Hungry Horse. As we wove in and out of forested coves, the calls of Chipping Sparrows and Townsend’s Warblers joined the chorus, and accompanied our mountain-view picnic lunch. The thermometer said 99 degrees that day, but the cool lake breeze and the option to swim if overheated made all the difference. On the return trip, we landed and disembarked on a small island, which to our delight was covered in just-ripened huckleberries. We gorged ourselves, swam in the clear rocky bays of the island, and delighted in the amazing place we’d discovered.
All of these experiences would have been enough to consider the trip a success…but Glacier was just so close, and Upper Two Medicine Lake was calling my name. Since our basecamp was at Hungry Horse, the trip was a reasonable distance. Plus, it’s hard to get bored when you are looking out your car window at the Flathead River and the Front Range.
Upon entering the park, we discovered another huge bonus to bringing a simple craft like a canoe: due to threats from invasive species such as zebra mussels, only hand-powered, non-trailered boats are allowed in Glacier National Park waters this year. All boats must be inspected and permitted in order to avoid spreading these problem species, and check stations are conveniently located everywhere you’d likely want to boat, including Two Medicine. Simple canoes, especially those stored and transported upside-down like we do with ours, tend to dry out thoroughly and are easy to keep clean, making the inspections a breeze.
With our inspection tag attached, we hit the water in Upper Two Medicine Lake, which for me was the highlight paddle of the trip. The waters were crystal clear and deep blue, and waterfalls rushed off glaciated peaks that towered around us. Canoes and other small boats are available for rental at Two Medicine and at many Glacier NP lakes, so there were a number of other paddlers enjoying the water as well. However, the lake was large enough to accommodate us all easily without seeming crowded.
Many paddlers, especially those in rentals, tended to stay near the boat launch, but the wind was calm and we found it relatively easy to paddle nearly the whole circumference of the lake. Having hiked around a number of Glacier’s lakes in the past, it felt especially rewarding as we efficiently and quickly made our way down the length of the lake and back. And the cold—and I mean cold—swim at the end, looking down at the full length of the lake I’d just paddled, felt all the more refreshing.
As we drove home, the end of the canoe visible at the top of the car window, we resolved to try to canoe at least once a week for the rest of the summer. The truth is, you don’t need to drive to Eureka, or Hungry Horse, or Glacier National Park for a great canoe trip—there are a ton of great options very close to Missoula. One of our favorites is Upsata Lake, near Ovando, which has a great view of the mountains in the Scapegoat wilderness. Salmon lake, on the way to Seeley Lake, is also a great spot, where I always tend to see interesting waterfowl. For that matter, any of the lakes up the Seeley-Swan Valley make a great place to take a canoe.
If you can find another car for a shuttle, there are also ample river canoeing opportunities nearby. Since you can’t see an entire stretch of river in the same way you can a lake, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research on the section you’ll be visiting (Paddling Montana is a great resource for this!), and to check streamflow gauges (https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt) to make sure there isn’t too much or too little water for a relaxing voyage. One of our favorite places is the Clark Fork just west of Missoula, after it meets the Bitterroot, as that section tends to have good flows through most of the year.
Another gem, which you can do without a shuttle car, is the Clearwater Canoe Trail, just north of Seeley Lake. Here, the river has an array of wide bends through riparian brush and islands, creating great bird habitat. All those loops add up to about three river miles, but the place you put in is only about a mile as the crow flies from where you end up, meaning you can easily hike back to your vehicle once you are done.
Even if you aren’t a boat person, I encourage you to try out a canoe! If you don’t own one, there are a number of outfitters that will rent them (either in town, or often near to your destination), and since the boats are so simple the rental fee is usually pretty reasonable. They are easy to get started using, and a fun challenge to master. Try it out—and enjoy your summer (and fall!) on the water!