By Ari Kotler Explore Big Sky Contributor
Tumbling and meandering through the vast Selway Bitterroot Wilderness of western Montana and Idaho is a lesser-known waterway, the magnificent Selway River. Of all the rivers in the U.S., the Selway is the only one that received immediate inclusion in both the National Wilderness System in 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1968.
While floating the Selway’s 47 Wilderness river miles, it is rare to see other float trips. To maintain the pristine nature and wildness of this unique river, the permit season, which lasts from May 15-July 31, allows only 16 people to launch each day on this highly protected river. Comparatively, the popular Middle Fork of the Salmon River, also in Idaho, allows 175 people to launch daily. The Selway is not only one of the most difficult rivers for which to acquire a permit, but one of the least spoiled.
A trip down the Selway begins at a place called Paradise, deep in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains, at the end of an old logging road. The launch site is rightfully named: The landscape here is mixed conifer abundant with wildflowers and wildlife including elk, deer, mountain lion, black bear, wolves and bald eagles.
The first half of the permitted Wilderness stretch flows north, and at Moose Creek Junction, near the Historical Moose Creek Ranger Station, it changes course and heads west. The second half changes dramatically from a classic mountain environment to an inland temperate rainforest, full of western red cedars, ferns, alder and Pacific yew.
Camps range from ponderosa covered pine benches, to large sandy beaches among old-growth cedar groves. Hiking is spectacular, offering both a moderate river trail as well as several challenging hikes to historic fire lookouts.
River flows typically peak during late May and early June, tapering throughout late June and July. High water ranges from 14,000 -18,000 cfs, providing Class III-IV whitewater for the most experienced and adventurous boaters. Between 7,000 – 14,000 cfs, the Selway evolves into a more technical river with big water moves. Below 7,000 cfs, the river’s technical nature continues to increase with steep drops, but with more recovery time between rapids.
Emerald-green pools, meandering currents, sublime beaches and phenomenal fish habitat flourish between the whitewater. Abundant with native west slope cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, bull trout and whitefish, this non-pressured fishery offers exceptional access to some of the healthiest waters in the nation. With cool water, high spring flows, limited access and fish competition, the fishery does not have the trophy-sized fish of other waterways, but offers excellence in numbers.
With such a considerable effort to get into this wilderness, it’s worth spending a day on your trip to stop, unplug and take it all in. Hike or relax on the beaches. It’s nature’s therapy.
Ari Kotler is owner/operator of SOAR Northwest River Co., an outfit based out of Hamilton, Montana that guides custom Selway River trips. Find more at soarnorthwest.com.