Study: About 51,000 floated lower Middle Fork last year

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Rafters head down the Middle Fork near West Glacier late last month.

A study of river usage on the Flathead Riverís three forks shows a wide range of use, with averages running from 449 rafters per day in the busiest stretch of the Middle Fork to less than three per day at Mid Creek on the South Fork in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

The study was completed by University of Montana students in staff, using remote cameras and funded in part by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

A remote camera at Moccasin Creek found that 51,179 people floated the Middle Fork over the course of 114 days last summer.

July was the busiest month by far, with an average of 907 floaters per day. The most counted in a single day was 1,245 people. Those numbers make sense, as four raft companies are permitted to guide trips on the river, and itís the section with the most whitewater.

The second busiest stretch of the river is from the Quarter Circle Bridge to Blankenship with 10,861 people floating over 84 days of monitoring.

That averaged out to 129 people a day for the season, with July being the busiest month with 299 per day on average.

One the North Fork, Polebridge, cameras counted 3,554 people total for the season, or about 30 per day.

Great Northern Flats saw about 3,347 people over 95 days, or about 29 people per day.

Ford was another popular spot, with 3,517 people counted, or about 30 per day.

The high was 118 rafters on one day at Wurtz; and the high was 271 rafters at Blankenship .

Like all other stretches of rivers, July was the busiest month.

Ford saw an average of just under 77 floaters per day; Polebridge just under 79 and Great Northern just under 71.

Blankenship in July had the most, with 107.

The study also counted the number of rafts per day.

Ford averaged about 13 craft per day, Polebridge 6 and Great Northern just under 15.

By contrast, Moccasin averaged about 73 rafts per day.

The South Fork was by far the quietest river, with just 269 people total counted over 72 days at Mid Creek, or an average of just 3 people per day.

The gaps in days counted were due to a variety of reasons. Sometimes the cameras malfunctioned. In one case, a card was stolen from a camera and in another one was tampered with. All told, 13 spots were sampled.

The study also looked at use on Lower McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park. Over 52 days, 2,230 people floated the creek, or an average of 42 per day ó thatís more than all of the North Fork sites, save for Blankenship, which saw an average of just over 48 people per day.

Gathering the data was a time consuming process ó it took six researchers five months to compile all the data from the footage, which took photos every three seconds in many cases.

The cameras ran all day long.

The study also looked at the perception of floaters to the cameras. For example, the Forest Service does monitoring floats. On one float the monitoring float that started just before 9 a.m. from Canada to Polebridge on July 1 counted two parties with four craft and 10 people floating. The cameras, however, recorded 11 parties with 24 craft and 53 people floating.

In other words, a person on shore would have a different experience than someone in a raft.

The study continues through this year, as the Forest Service continues its work on a new Comprehensive River Management Plan for the three forks of the Flathead.

Editorís note: This story has been clarified to reflect the maximum rafter numbers on the North Fork of the Flathead.

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