Rafting Montana's Wild and Scenic Smith River
"You can't be unhappy in the middle of a big, beautiful river."
Beau Downing (@montanatrailrunner) is a stream and aquatic habitat restoration project manager for the State of Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program. Outside of work, he is an avid trail runner, river rafter, family man, and fisherman. Beau used the Canyon Adventure Grantfor a multi-day permitted trip down the Smith River. Read on to hear about the adventure.
As we descended into Camp Baker and the put-in for Montana's 59-mile permit only float through the Smith River State Park, the temperature gauge in the truck finally settled on a balmy 12 degrees. It made the dozens of bags of firewood we had packed as a group seem less ridiculous, and the last-minute bag of ice I purchased in town seem absurd. Anyone that has ever floated the Smith, as it's lovingly referred to in Montana, would agree that it's best known for towering limestone cliffs and a temperamental blue-ribbon trout fishery; but it's best remembered for its unpredictable weather. Once again, it appeared the weather would be the dominant story to emerge from a late April trip. Regardless, the promise of 5 disconnected days on the river was welcomed news after a year of excessive electronic connectivity.
Ice discs form along an eddyline on Day 1 of the April low water trip.
Despite the freezing temps and low water, it quickly became apparent that another story would rise from the icy waters of the Smith. Frozen eyelets and frosted fly line notwithstanding, the famed blue-ribbon trout fishery that often eludes most trips was going to be in play for the entire 5-day float. With steady flows and clear water, hungry fish were lined up to fill their bellies after a long, harsh winter.
Sunny day 1 lunch break with promising fishing along the cliff wall.
Casey with a big brown caught on a dry fly day 3.
Thanks to lower-than-expected flows and outstanding fishing, our time on the water was both rewarding and challenging. Even with well-spaced boat camps (chosen during phone registration 2 days before your launch date), the days were often long, and camp was a welcomed site each night. With temps dropping into the teens or twenties most nights, coolers became a defense against freezing food and beverage, and comfort depended on big campfires and hearty meals.
Early evening blaze to warm the bones after a day on the water.
Sam prepping dinner in camp on day 4.
With the water low and the temps cold, we opted to float each of the 5 days our permit allowed us to be inside the river corridor. That meant donning waders each morning, warmed by the woodstove nestled inside a wall tent we hauled in, spreading the heavy load across multiple rafts. Every morning the load got lighter but still required deep thought and a daily game of Tetris to load a constantly changing pile of gear, wood, trash, and recyclables.
Chris contemplating the loadout from camp on the morning of day 3.
Pack it in, pack it out. Doing our part to get our trash and recyclables out of the canyon on day 5.
Through it all, we laughed, we shivered, we fished, we survived. Some would even say we thrived. We took off the river knowing that the memories of the last 5 days were uniquely our own, with the common thread of the Smith stringing them together as only it can. It was, quite simply, impossible to be anything but happy.
For a lucky few, the opportunity for another 5 days of happiness was just around the corner. A friend had been lucky enough to score a late May launch, which often means higher flows and better weather. However, in classic Montana style, the weekend prior to the next launch was one for the books. Wet, heavy snow blanketed much of Montana, and boat camps were nervously reserved two days before launch as it fell. For those gearing up for their first trip down the Smith this year (or ever), the stories of the April trip loomed largely.
Pre-chilling the Prospector Cooler taken to extremes. Helena received almost 10 inches of wet heavy snow the weekend before the Monday launch.
Thankfully, the forecast improved, and better temps were on the horizon. Unlike the month prior, the weather at the put-in was pleasant, and morale was high. Warmer weather and higher water promised ample opportunity for taking in the stunning beauty of the river, including some of the more easily accessible pictographs that adorn the walls of the canyon and caves.
Blue skies and higher water welcome Jayson into the canyon on day 1 of the May trip.
Pictograph of an adult hand made with red ochre. Pictographs occur in various locations along the river and are thousands of years old.
In stark contrast to the April trip, flows were up, and the fishing was slow. With reduced time to float between camps, the group opted to enjoy a layover day at Camp 2, appropriately named Sunset Cliffs. Highly coveted for a layover day, Sunset Cliffs provides unrivaled views from camp and access to public land and the canyon rim above.
Comfortably snuggled into camp, the morning of day 3 brought with it a light rain. Everyone was thankful for the opportunity to sleep in since camp did not have to be broken down and the boats loaded. By the afternoon, the rain had stopped, and we could access the canyon rim above camp.
The weather continued to improve, and the longest float day (24 miles) brought plenty of sunshine and the warmest day of the trip. Yet, another great campsite was on tap for the evening. Lower Givens campsite is situated adjacent to one of the few small rapids on the Smith and a great place to spend the final night.
Dan digging deep for a frosty beverage in the Prospector 103 on the final night in camp.
Final night libations, with Givens rapid in the background.
Much like the April trip, we took off the river knowing that the memories of the last 5 days were uniquely our own, with the common thread of the Smith stringing them together as only it can. It was, quite simply, impossible to be anything but happy.
For more information on the Smith River, the Smith River State Park, and the permit lottery system info can be found here:
The Smith River is in danger. In August of 2020, Phase 1 of the Black Butte Copper Mine was given a final permit to begin operating in the Headwaters of the Smith River. If you, like me, cherish wild places like the Smith, please consider supporting efforts to protect the headwaters from the impacts of copper mining. More info on the Black Butte Mine and the risks it poses to the Smith can be found here: