Setting course gates on the Swan River’s Wild Mile just before the Bigfork Whitewater Festival opening this weekend, race organizer Jonny Meyer looked over the flows that make it all happen.
“We’re fine-tuning the course right now,” Meyers said Friday afternoon. “The levels have come up a little bit. It’s not as high as it is normally this weekend, but we’ve got plenty of water to hold a race, for sure.”
But the 60 or so kayakers who have come to run the Swan’s final plunge into Flathead Lake had better prepare for a much more technical course than typical.
The Swan River gauge just above Bigfork showed it flowing at 3.72 feet, compared to last year’s mark of 5.77 feet. In 1997 on the same date, it was flowing at 7.34 feet.
“With the lower water, the rocks are more exposed, and there will probably be more contact with rock,” Meyers said. “When it’s higher, it’s more chaotic and turbulent, but it’s also safer. It’s deeper when you flip over. But we can manipulate the course and features we have, so the competition will still be high.”
Rivers throughout western Montana could get skinny this summer, as an unusually low snowpack has melted away two or three weeks ahead of normal. National Weather Service hydrologist Ray Nickless said the northwest corner of the state will especially feel it.
“Some of those are close, if not at, the lowest point on record for this time of year,” Nickless said. “The Yaak, Fisher, Thompson and St. Regis rivers are all at real low levels. The northwest just never accumulated much snow, although the Clark Fork and Bitterroot drainages did.”
Snowpack monitoring sites across Montana graph the season’s accumulation and melt-off. The line looks kind of like a backward Olympic ski jump, with a long upward curve as winter snow builds up followed by a steep plunge when spring runoff begins.
The North Fork of the Jocko River near Arlee looks poised to use up its snowpack at or before its record earliest point around the second of June. Lolo Pass has already blown out, just a day after its record earliest date. The Poorman Creek and Bear Mountain Snotel sites west of Kalispell both set new earliest melt-out dates this spring in early May.
“The word I’m hearing, especially from outfitters, is now is a great time to be on the river,” said American Rivers director Scott Bosse in Bozeman. “The fishing got better earlier than usual, but you better get out and get it while you can.”
In Missoula, Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures owner Wayne Fairchild said both the Lochsa and Alberton Gorge whitewater destinations looked strong this year.
“We won’t see a really high flow in the Alberton Gorge, but high flows mean no business,” Fairchild said. “We’re already floating it right now. And the Clark Fork there is a main tributary, so it holds water all summer long. The people who have to be worried are the fly-fishing guides. They could have temperature problems later in the summer.”
Melting snow has a major influence on river water temperatures, keeping the streams cool as summer air temperatures climb. Early runoffs can result in water getting above 70 degrees, which stresses trout and other fish and often triggers the closure of popular fishing rivers.
And the forecast for June and the coming summer remains in flux.
While a strong El Nino signal from the Pacific Ocean has many parts of the Southwest worried about continued drought conditions, in Montana, it usually results in dry winters.
The summer is more likely determined by the number and intensity of thunderstorm systems coming off the Oregon and Washington coasts.
“I’m not overly concerned about low streamflows yet,” Bosse said. “I just came back from southern Utah. As low as our snowpack is, it’s a heck of a lot better than elsewhere in the U.S.”