Boat on your back
POLEBRIDGE - Not to sell Quartz Lake short, but as Glacier National Park destinations go, it's tough to love.
The six-mile trail from Bowman Lake Campground offers no views of Bowman Lake or Quartz as it bores through the forest.
Even when it hits a massive fire scar on the south side of Quartz Ridge, new lodgepole growth blocks most of the vista. And once you finally reach the beach and its admittedly elegant perspective of Vulture Peak, that's the end of the line.
Unlike every other big lake on Glacier's west side, there's no shoreline trail to the upper valley. You're faced with a bushwhack even a beaver would balk at.
Unless you've brought a packraft.
Then you might catch a glimpse of the fabled Cerulean Lake Basin, hidden behind Quartz's long crescent ridge. Only hardcore mountain climbers, grizzly bears and the two resident bald eagles can share that sight.
The little boats have revolutionized backcountry river travel in places like the Middle and South forks of the Flathead River, deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. They also make it possible to visit otherwise inaccessible far shores without even leaving a footprint.
Then again, as the four-wheeling crowd says about adding a winch to your bumper, that just allows you to get stuck in more interesting places.
An afternoon breeze can turn Quartz Lake's glass surface to whitecaps in an instant. So that once-in-a-lifetime view of Redhorn Peak could also be the last thing they find on your camera card.
"I think it's the most interesting and game-changing wilderness exploration tool that's come along in a number of years," said Mike Fiebig of American Rivers, an advocacy group for river protection based in Bozeman. "The benefits of paddling a packraft are they're light, easy to learn, very stable and user-friendly.
"But with that comes great responsibility to learn how to read water, know swiftwater rescue and risk management. Unlike climbing hard routes or skiing hard lines in the backcountry, with a packraft you just put in on the river and float into something pretty dangerous."
About half a dozen companies are now making lightweight inflatable rafts for backcountry use. One-person packrafts cost around $1,000, but can be rented from many places, including Missoula's Trail Head, for $30 to $50 a day.
Montana Packrafts of Whitefish rents Alpacka rafts for single- or multiday trips into the backcountry. Owners Gail and Ben Fassnacht said their inventory stays in regular use all summer.
"A lot of our clients rent for going into the Bob Marshall or Glacier," Ben Fassnacht said. "But we also offer mail services for people going to Canada or southern Montana."
The raft packs down to a roll a little bigger than a sleeping mat, inside its own dry bag. The "pump" is an air sack with a nozzle at one end and two short rods at the other that make it easy to roll up. Whip the sack open, roll it closed with the rods, and squeeze the air into the raft.
Backpackers at Quartz Lake had two similar systems for sleeping mat inflation. The Alpacka bag outperformed both mat bags in speed of inflation and ease of use (Heads up, ExPed and Therm-a-Rest designers).
The largest Alpacka raft, the Denali Llama, is 96 inches long outside and 51 inches inside. That's a little tight for a 6-foot-4 man, but great for anyone smaller. All packed up with a carbon-fiber paddle and a life vest, it weighs about 10 pounds. Alpacka introduced a 2015 model called the Mule, which is 3 inches longer and 3 ounces heavier.
The tops can be covered with either a lightweight spray deck or a tougher whitewater skirt. They're considered good for class 3 rapids, although some adventurers have run the Grand Canyon's big waves in packrafts.
That adaptability has caused some conundrums for land managers. Grand Canyon and Zion national parks have specific regulations for packraft use, while Glacier manages them just like other nonmotorized watercraft.
Yellowstone National Park allows watercraft on many lakes, but bans them on virtually all its rivers. In February, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., introduced the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Paddling Act to study and make rules for future park river use.
In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the difficulty of reaching any headwaters with a boat has been a self-limiting barrier to backcountry river use. Floaters previously had to engage a horse or mule team or an aircraft pilot to get their gear in. Packrafts have changed that — slightly.
Spotted Bear District Ranger Deb Mucklow said some visitors continue to hire livestock to haul their gear into the Bob Marshall, but opt for a packraft instead of a larger boat so they can bring other things in their load. The business of professional outfitters bringing guided float parties to the Bob Marshall interior hasn't changed much.
"We have similar numbers of parties coming in, but instead of one or two boats, they're in six or eight boats," said Mucklow. "It's changing the wilderness experience a bit for some people, but it hasn't become a policy issue yet."
Retired wilderness ranger Kari Gunderson recently added a packraft to her kit for exploring the Mission Mountains Wilderness. While it opened up many opportunities for new routes, she said it also raised worries about excessive impacts.
"I've been hearing about 'canyoneering' in Grand Canyon and Zion, where people are accessing really remote places that they couldn't reach without packrafts," Gunderson said. "These are ecologically rich places where now they can put in and do routes. That makes it really important to leave no trace."
For Fiebig, the packable boat has made him rethink many of his favorite places.
"My favorite packrafting trip incorporates 40 to 50 percent packing and 50 to 60 percent paddling," he said. "I try to link together a number of days, where I'm paddling two days, hiking over a pass for a day, paddling a day and then hiking out. It lets you cover some country you couldn't see otherwise."