On a sunny day we arrive at the canoe trailhead parking lot at noon. I catch a fragrant whiff of the weedy marsh of the Clearwater River. The boat launch gravel pad and pebbles in the water have a pink cast, derived from the area’s argillite rocks. I walk to the water and spot a frog lying motionless near the shore as water laps gently over his spotted back.
A young couple organizes gear while their little boy clad in a sun hat and life jacket waits quietly for the float to begin, his eyes bright and his smile a little lopsided as he stares at our grandson Wyatt. The toddlers are both ready to launch on their first float down the Clearwater River Canoe Trail.
I slip my red kayak into the water and wait for my husband, Dewey, and our daughter Risa to load Wyatt into the canoe.
We turn to the left after entering the narrow channel that leads to the main course of Clearwater River, which winds for 3.5 miles until it empties into the northern end of Seeley Lake.
Sitting in boats, we are dwarfed by thick willow brush that surrounds us, casting a sense of mystery that adds to our excitement as we slip almost blindly around each corner of the meandering, mellow river. Wyatt drags his hand in the water captivated by the bubble contrail he is creating in the clear water. A startled turtle does a clumsy belly flop off the bank scuttling into streams of algae draping downfall that lies below. Birds flit overhead, skimming branch to branch and filling the quiet air with song.
Muddied areas along the grass and shrub-covered shore suggest the presence of beaver along with snipped branches and shiny twigs that have been stripped of their bark and lie beneath the water and strewn along the banks. Brush dominates the shoreline with only a small sandbar and an open bank along the way.
It is a different kind of trail because you get to sit down for an hour or two on a quiet narrow portion of river that allows for a lazy downstream float. There isn’t need for fast paddling except maybe to skirt possible downfall, especially in the spring when the river flows higher and faster. Later in the season, low water might require a brief portage over shallow sections of the river.
Even though it is called a canoe trail, a variety of boats are used along with canoes, including kayaks, blow-up watercraft, and paddleboards. The river paddle takes one to two hours to complete, depending on how fast you paddle and the current, which though never fast, is stronger during spring run-off.
The tunnel effect created by the heavy brush encourages boaters to zero in on the sights and sounds of this pristine section of the Clearwater River near Seeley Lake, where you can catch glimpses of the Mission Mountains bordering the 4,000’ valley on the west and the Swan Range on the east.
Wildlife is abundant along the river giving boaters a chance to see (or hear) a great blue heron, sandhill crane, eagle, osprey, common loon, yellow warblers, and a variety of other ducks and birds. Moose, deer, mountain lion, beaver, otter, mink and muskrat are some of the larger animals that find refuge in the nearby forest and along the water. Look closely to find smaller creatures such as frogs, painted turtles, garter snakes, fish and insects such as dragonflies, butterflies, water striders and the inevitable mosquitoes, especially in early summer. Early morning is usually the best time to capture glimpses of wildlife and to enjoy the added tranquility of solitude.
A great blue heron perches on the top of a crooked old snag and even though we are far below, he lifts off and flies farther down the river, only to move again when we appear later around a corner.
The buttercup underwater plant creates a lacy border along the river’s edge. We hear the rattle of the sandhill crane somewhere close, though hidden by the thick willow. Its prehistoric sound and presence combined with the virtually untouched wildness around us help transport us to an earlier time.
We paddle casually and haven’t noticed the passage of time in this serene place so are surprised when the curtain seems to open and we enter Seeley Lake through a garden of lily pads.
Other groups are close behind so we pull in the backwater of the lake to let them pass. In the distance we hear the ah-whoo of a loon. And then another loon surfaces nearby. His beak does that peculiar clapping motion as he calls back. We wait quietly thinking he will swim away, but after splashing across the surface of the water he turns in our direction again. Shortly afterwards we discover why—two gray chicks appear out of the lilies. We paddle quietly along the shoreline, trying to avoid the path of the loons, knowing it is time to leave. After all, we are just privileged visitors to this magical and wild place.
Clearwater River Canoe Trail Information
The canoe trail is located just off Hwy 83 in the Swan Valley. Traveling on Hwy 83 go 18.7 miles north of Clearwater Junction and approximately 3.7 miles north of the town of Seeley Lake where you turn at the Clearwater River Canoe Trail sign found on the west side of the highway and take the gravel Forest Service Road # 17597 for .7 miles to reach the boat launch site. The take-out point is located three miles north of Seeley Lake near mile marker 18 at the Ranger Station Compound. Continue driving to the south end of the station and then continue down to the lakeshore and takeout point, which is a loading area only. There is parking near the vault toilet located above this site.
Use is moderate and parking spaces at the launch and takeout parking lots are usually available even though they only accommodate about six–eight boats at either site. A 1.3-mile trail connecting the two points prevents the need for a shuttle and makes an interesting loop offering glimpses of the river and a wildlife-viewing platform along the way on a narrow, but easy path through a deep forest with impressive old-growth trees.
The hiking trail joins both sites so you have the option of leaving your vehicle at either site. You can start with the hike by dropping boats at the boat launch and then parking at the takeout or start with the float and walk back to the boat launch to pick up your car. The current is slow, especially later in the season so that you could even paddle upstream from the takeout point. Vault toilets are available at both sites, but without drinking water so plan on packing water for the trip.
Stop in at the Ranger Station near the takeout point for information about the trail and to pick up a brochure and a bird list. You can also call the station during business hours, Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (406) 677-2233
A Special Note
Be sure and practice the “Leave No Trace” seven principles, which include respecting wildlife, being considerate of other visitors, and leaving behind what you find. Boaters from outside of the area should stop at the Clearwater Junction Checkpoint (the busiest station in the state) or an area or regional FWP Office for boat checks to monitor aquatic invasive species to prevent the spread of AIS to other bodies of water. Follow the “clean, drain and dry” protocol.
For more information visit: www.fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/species/ais/prevention.html