In May, I was invited on a trip down the iconic Smith River. People warned me about the rain. They said, be sure to bring your rain gear. I listened, but I didn’t think it would be that bad.
Driving over from Helena the clouds were low. It was cold. And as soon as we got to the put-in at Camp Baker, it was drizzling. It didn’t look too threatening, but yes, it was raining. We signed the book, shoved off and within an hour into the float realized, it was going to be one.
After floating by many multi-million homesteads for the first couple miles, the canyon narrows and the conifer trees come down to the shore. The limestone cliffs begin to show their true potential and the water widens. We floated past several boaters all bundled up under tarps and tents, until we reached our destination, Rock Creek. As luck would have it, the rain let up, allowing us to set up a “dry” camp. (Note, Rock Creek had the best toilet of the whole trip!).
The next day we floated to Sunset Cliff. The day was mostly speckled with rain. The sun did come out right as we were floating through Canyon Depth though, which was great because at this point the canyon begins to grow and the cliffs become quite spectacular.
We floated for a couple miles beyond Canyon Depth, stopping at Sunset Cliff. The campsite is amazing, as it sits under a giant red cliff (hence the name). Opposite of the cliff and above the camp is a gorgeous meadow. I hiked up there in the evening and saw five mule deer and twenty minutes later two white tail deer.
The next morning we woke to rain. This day became the wettest of all the days. It started off steady and slow, but by midday it was a complete downpour. My hat wasn’t just dribbling water off the brim, it was pouring water. I could have filled a water bottle from the stream in seconds. That day might possibly have been the wettest day I have ever experienced in Montana. Heed the warnings, bring your BEST rain gear. Waders are highly recommended!
Despite the rain, the scenery blew me away. People always say, “Smith is one of the prettiest rivers around.” I never really though much about it. For some reason I just thought it was a fun, remote(ish) fishing river. But that day, in the rain, however wet I was, I was blown away. This section from Sunset to our third camp, Fraunhofer was by far my favorite part of the float.
Oh, did I mention it never stopped raining? When we arrived to our camp, the fire ring was completely full of water. Each tent site was saturated and the slope from the river to the camp was a mud slick. Let’s just say patience was tested setting up this camp.
We got the tarp strung and ended up adding rain flies and clothes lines to it. It quickly became our little Smith River shanty town.
Low and behold, the next morning the sun came out. It wasn’t blasting full heat, but it was out and it felt great! We were able to dry our gear to some degree before packing it up. The next section of river had some bigger rapids. And when I say that, I mean there were white caps on the waves.
We floated by several more groups and made lunch at Deep Creek. I wanted to get a different perspective of the canyon, so I left the group and hiked up to the canyon rim. It was probably class 3 scrambling up wet rocks. Kind of sketchy in Chacos, but it was well worth the effort.
Instead of climbing down the same way I came up, I decided to take a much more leisurely route down a sloping meadow that put me a half bend below the rest of the group. After about 20 minutes of waving my arms and whistling, they finally realized what was going on and floated down to pick me up.
We stayed at the very last campsite of the river, Rattlesnake Bend. After setting up camp, Carla and I ventured up the ridge through a sea of Arrowleaf Balsamroot. The sun came through the clouds and lit up the whole field (see the top photo). We stayed at watched the light for a while and continued on up the hill. We came across an old homestead, pushed a couple deer and waited for the sun to dip below the clouds before going behind the Rocky Mountain Front.
The next day was a mellow float out to the takeout at Eden Bridge. No rapids, just meandering water through low lying ranchland. We passed by a large sheep ranch and a Black Angus ranch. This day turned out to be HOT. And we welcomed it wholly!