This past weekend, with three others solicited from this forum, I paddled what might be the premier 2-3 (or more) day packrafting trip in the lower 48. In Montana's Great Bear Wilderness we hiked Morrison Creek in to a point just west of Schaeffer Meadows, then packrafted out to Essex. The first day was spent hiking, with a little floating. The next two days involved 8+ hours of paddling each. River levels dropped from 1300 to around 1100 cfs over the course of the trip, at the West Glacier gauge.
I call it perhaps the premier trip because it offers tremendous scenery, extraordinary, varied floating, world class trout fishing, and relative solitude, all with modest effort and fairly simple logistics. The drive from the Essex boat ramp to the TH is 30-40 minutes, on highway and good dirt roads. The hike in is a good horse trail, and almost entirely a gentle downhill.
The initial few miles below Schaeffer are meandering and flat, with good campsites and fishing holes. When the river turns north and the Three Forks section begins life is about to become more interesting. It took us around 3 hours to paddle the ~4-5 miles from camp to Lodgepole Creek. There are some honest rapids in those miles, which involved technical boulder dodging and slot threading at our water level. Everything was runnable, and while the crux rapids involved (for us) scouting and direct attention, the current was gentle and forgiving. More noteworthy is the steep gradient of the whole section, which when combined with the low water explains our extremely slow progress. We stayed in our boats the whole time, save one or two occasions which mandated dragging, but the steep rock dodging, pirouetting, and scooting were impressively sustained and continuous. These sections weren't gravel bar riffles in the classic MT river fashion, but straight line, river wide steep and shallow rock (rather than boulder) gardens. While our slow pace was worrisome, I enjoyed the unique, strenuous and entertaining paddling.
Below Lodgepole Creek the flow increased and became more consistently channeled, and this combined with a slacker gradient and a more classic pool and drop character provided much faster floating (2.5 - 3 mph). The scenery was stunning, with 90 degree bends, big limestone cliffs, hanging gardens, deep pools, crystalline water, huge fish, and a tight canyon being the rule of the day. For me, the stretch from Lodgepole to Granite Creek might have been the best of all, and worthy of a shorter loop all it's own. Good gravel bar camping abounds.
The rest of the river to Essex maintains much the same character, with plenty of burly riffles between gentle stretches to capture your attention. The exception is the Spruce Park section, which forms the second and in most respects harder crux of the run. The section begins with a short, steep boulder rapid, with the water being concentrated enough to look pushy and demanding. We all portaged this save Justin, who made a very clean and stylish run. For the next ~1 mile the river stays in an intermittent, narrow bedrock canyon, with numerous pool drop rapids. The channel is quite narrow throughout, and the contrast in style between this section and Three Forks is at low water quite drastic. Several of the rapids were worthy of careful attention, and we found one pushy boulder slot with enough barely covered toothy conglomerate rocks that we all portaged. Our pace through Spruce slowed at the 1 mph range or slower, due to frequent scouting.
It should be noted that the river rocks all appear to be coated in trout slime, and that scouting and portaging might be just as harazdous as running the harder rapids.
Spruce Park ends rather obviously as the immediate banks widen, and soon thereafter we began to see day-tripping fly fishers on the bank. The rest of the run down to Essex is an excellent winding down for a superlative trip.