Big Sky, Big Surf

A group of standup paddlers explore the whitewater gem that is the Alberton Gorge
All photos: Seth Warren

Montana’s Clark Fork River is a crown jewel of the American West. Its cool waters flow through Missoula, a beautiful college town at the foot of the Bitteroot Mountains. Upstream of Missoula, though, the canyon walls of the Alberton Gorge rise in sentinel-like beauty as the Clark Fork flows between them—often in a maelstrom of whitewater and current.

But the Class IV waters of the Gorge are not death-defying. The river’s rapids belie their girth—there’s always a line somewhere in the big water cataracts that decorate the canyon. And the surfing. Playful waves abound in high water and low, making the Alberton an ideal place to standup paddle, a playground for progression. This spring, a group of paddlers from Colorado explored its wonders. Here’s what they found. — Joe Carberry

Paddler: Mike Harvey

 “A lot of people don’t talk about the Alberton Gorge but it was a perfect SUP destination. A lot of variety. We tried to open up some lines, surf some different waves and push ourselves and the sport. Everybody took different lines through the rapids so it was a really cool mesh of all the team’s skills.” –Mike Tavares

“As a longtime whitewater kayaker, the Alberton Gorge has serious allure. It was featured in “Paddle Quest,” a seminal whitewater flick that was big in my early 20s starring guys like Dan Gavere and Corran Addison. Years later, I was super excited to see the Gorge first hand.” —Mike Harvey
(Paddler: Spencer Lacy)

“The biggest drop at the high level we were in there at was Tumbleweed. It’s got a giant lead-in. There’s definitely a move. There’s a really chill line about 25 feet off the bank and I set up to shoot and said, ‘Hey Miles (Harvey), tell everyone to go 25 feet off the bank.’ Spencer Lacy disregarded my beta and took this rad line on the other side of the river, a line a lot of kayakers wouldn’t paddle, and he just greases it. I’m like, ‘Miles, did you tell him?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I told him.’ If he fell off and swam into the big hole in there, he’s got a SUP attached to him by a leash. Not good. Be he has so much confidence and made an awesome move.”—Photographer Seth Warren
(Paddler: Lacy)

“We got to see all the stereotypical Montana postcards, the bald eagle soaring over us. We were stunned how light it stayed. It felt like we were in Alaska. The whole crew was siting above Fang Rapid, waiting to run it, not having seen it before. It’s nine o’clock at night. It should be dark but the evening sun is peaking through the canyon. We’re all laughing about that before we drop into this big rapid. It’s those kind of cool moments that really stood out.” – MH

“I definitely think whitewater SUP has grown. I’ve done so many river clinics this year and the amount of interest is double to what it was last year. People are getting more exposed to it and ocean paddlers are getting into river stuff. A lot of it has to do with this group of paddlers. These are probably the best whitewater paddlers out there right now. It’s so cool to be with them. They definitely push me; I feel like I get better every time I paddle with them. – Brittany Parker

“For (my 13-year-old son) Miles, it’s the next progression, being part of the crew. Everyone treated him like another one of the paddlers. And he meshes right in on the river. He runs and cleans stuff with more success than a lot of adults. But you get off the water, and you’re like ‘Oh yeah, he’s a kid.” He still wants his bagel toasted a certain way. He’s definitely had his vocabulary expanded but everyone is really respectful of him.” – MH

“Missoula has a lot of paddlers. There’s definitely a lot of kayakers and (the town) has some of the best river surfers in the area. We camped at Jason Shreder’s place above the canyon and he runs a raft company so that’s a big scene too. It’s definitely a pretty crazy river down in that deep canyon. One of the waves, Triple Bridges, was really hard but you could get good surfs on it. I fell off the wave once and had a brutal swim to shore. The river is pretty big volume. Every rapid is a lot bigger than what we have here in Colorado.” – Miles Harvey

“It was really special to have the whole Badfish whitewater crew together. Everyone rallied to Missoula and it was a new river for almost all of us. And it was great for SUP— big water and really deep canyons.” –BP

This feature originally ran in the Fall 2015 issue.