Rafting Safety: Navigating Wilderness Rivers on a Drop Float

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By Zach Lazzari | Photo by Ryan McSparran

Our drop float trips to the South Fork of the Flathead River have become more and more popular in recent years. These trips on wilderness rivers provide a great opportunity to see a lot of country in the famed Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

Running wilderness sections in the Flathead drainage is not something for the inexperienced. You will need some specific equipment and skills to navigate your raft safely down the river. Take a lesson and practice rowing in advance. Do your research and speak to experts about any rapids and known hazards on the river. Take notes and you will know what to expect. Going in blind is never a good bet.

Essential Equipment:

Rafting Safety: Navigating Wilderness Rivers on a Drop Float

Rafting Safety: Navigating Wilderness Rivers on a Drop Float

Bring a life vest for each person. Fit the vests before the trip so they are snug and useful. Wearing an oversized vest is a recipe for disaster. The vest might pop off during a swim and put the individual’s life at risk. Keep a throw bag on each boat and know how to use it. Practice throwing the rope before your trip. Keep a first aid kit in a waterproof container. In shoulder seasons, wear a dry suit to prevent hypothermia. Cold weather and cold weather are a dangerous combination. Maintaining a comfortable temperature is critical to your safety. Lastly, keep a safety rope in case you must drag the boat off an obstacle. Learn how to make a z-drag system to leverage a pinned raft.

Navigating Obstacles:

Obstacles are the major safety threat on your rafting trip. Boulders and log jams can turn a boat and cause serious problems. Always look ahead for danger and stop to scout anything that presents a problem. Point the bow at the obstacle and backrow away from the danger. Always point the bow directly into rapids and forward row to punch through waves. These two basic rowing strategies will get you down most rivers safely.

Dealing with a Flipped Raft:

If you miss a line and flip the raft, get back to the boat and hold on. Communicate with your party and tell them to grab the boat with your feet facing down river. Climb on top of the raft if possible and wait until you hit a calm piece of water or eddie. Now you can right the raft, check on your party to ensure no injuries occurred. Get the boat to a safe position on the shore and take inventory of your gear. Anything lost might surface in an eddie.

For the most part, the South Fork of the Flathead river is very manageable and doesn’t require serious whitewater experience. But knowing the basics in advance can save you some trouble along the way.

For information on our drop float trips on the South Fork, please check out our Drop Floats Page. You can also call us with questions at 406-932-5687 or send us a message.