Kootenai Creek, Bear Creek, and Big Sands Creek

By Mike Copeland

A few weeks ago I got a phone call from Matt Sylvester to go run Big Sands. I said I’d think about it but wasn’t sure. I didn’t have a lot of beta on it and couldn’t find anyone that had run it, but was told it was steep and difficult. Glancing at the old run description in Idaho the Whitewater State by Grant I found a run description that was just as vague as any information I already had. Plus, the discription was written quite a while ago talking about portages and wood by Doug Ammons, so who knows how hard it was going to be if it was even runnable by mere mortals. I was assured it was good and fun and the portages are now run and the best part of the creek because of newer boat designs (I was told when Doug ran it, it was during the era of Dancers). Plus, I had heard the water was low on the Hazard Creek near McCall which I was planning on running that weekend so I had no other options, I bit on the bait and told him I’d see him Friday night.

After work Friday I loaded up my gear and headed up to Donnelly to meet Matt at his house with plans to leave first thing in the morning. We were planning on surfing a little at Pipeline on the Lochsa and hike in and run Upper Fish Creek to warm up for Big Sands on Sunday. On the drive up we decided to scrap the idea of Pipeline and Fish Creek and instead we would just head the extra two hours to Montana for a day of warm-up slab granite creeking on some of Matt’s backyard runs.

Mike Copeland on Bear Creek

He introduced me to Montana creeking with style with our first run being a short section of Kootenai Creek. We had a short hike in up the trailhead to the top of the bottom and best rapid. We put in there for a quick quarter mile thrill ride down a steep twisty drop that started with a precise boof at a “room of doom” and ends with a series of sticky three to four foot ledges leading into a twisty slide and several more ledges with no eddies in between. In all it took about 5 minutes to hike in and 40 seconds to run which really gets your blood pumping. It would be a great place to run laps and get dialed on boofing and keeping precise boat angle which is needed on steep creeks and is totally different than anything I’ve paddled in Idaho. With that fun drop behind us we tossed our boats back to the car and 10 minutes down the road to Bear Creek.

Matt above the Room of Doom on Kootenai Creek


When we arrived at Bear Creek we were concerned about the flows. Looking at the gauge rock the water was on the LOW side of good.

The rock should have water halfway up it for it to be "ideal flows"


We debated not even bothering to hike up the trail and decided we were here, we might as well go scrape down a few slides. We shouldered our boats and started hiking up the trail into the Bitterroot Mountains. We hiked about a mile when we saw the last drop, Brave Bear. Looking at it I was surprised how steep it was. It looked really cool and it was a series of bedrock ledges into slides.

Brave Bear on Bear Creek 

We continued hiking up the trail for about another mile to just above the put in slide. The water had about 3 or 4 inches going down this wide slide. At higher flows there would be a big hole at the bottom. But now, it was just fun gradient loss.

Matt Sylvester on Bear Creek

After the first slide there were a few ill placed pieces of wood and we put in just below for a manky boulder garden that led us to a really cool rapid called airplane. It was a thirty foot long slide into a 90* turn down another slide and over several small ledges. It was good fun and would get only better with more water.

Up next was Tijuana Crack Whore. This slide dropped into a crack about two feet deep and just big enough for a boat. Get your arms up or you’ll smack your elbows. At higher flows the move is to kick your boat sideways down the slide and “grind” the crack and straighten out before the bottom to avoid getting stuck in the holes. Matt was the only one that ran this as I didn’t like the sound of smacking my elbows on rocks. You had to drop into the crack at this flow.

Matt Sylvester on Crack 

After this were several fun slides a quick portage around a piece of wood and then Brave Bear. It is a slide into ledge into slide into airplane turn into dry boof over a pocket ledge into slide into ledge into slide into hole into slide with a run out of some more slides. It was crazy fun. Matt went first and I ran safety. His line went great with a little bit of an off line moment on a ledge when he didn’t get enough speed coming off of a pillow. At these flows the holes aren’t too much of an issue because you are carrying so much speed. He pluged the pocket of the hole and blasted right through though. It looks scary and the holes looked stompy and bad if you were to get caught in them. I guess they get very beefy at higher water but there are other lines that open up as the ledges get more water over them.

Mike Copeland on Brave Bear

In total there were 7 big drops on this run with some smaller slides tossed in. Only one was a boulder garden, the rest were ledges and slides. Super fun and super clean. I can’t wait to go back in with more water.

After this, we hiked back down the trail to the car and headed back to Idaho and Big Sands takeout to meet up with some Montana paddlers (Todd Richie, Andy Lichtenheld, and Karl Moser) for some more steep creeking fun.

We arrive at camp to find Matt’s friends already there with a blazing fire. After some food and drink and story telling we all grabbed our sleeping bags to catch a little sleep around the fire.

Sunday morning we drive to the trailhead for Big Sands and begin the 2 mile hike in. The hike in wasn’t bad other than the down timber and hard to see trail through the extensive burn area. But after an hour we arrived at the creek, hot and ready for some creeking.  

Todd at the trailhead, Big Sands


The creek started off meandering through a recent burn area before the first class 4 rapid that ends in an undercut wall. The second rapid was a six foot slot into a big pool, both were fun drops but it wasn’t even a taste of what was to come.  

The first significant rapid was just around the corner. It was a steep series of ledges with several pin spots and sives throughout and a hole at the bottom. Everyone had good lines with only a little carnage.

Speaking of carnage, we decided we were going to play the “ice cream game” while on the creek. If you don't know what the ice cream game is, you’re missing out. The rules to the game are simple, whoever flips the most has to buy the group ice cream at the end of the day. If a person flips in a rapid no one else runs, it doesn’t count as other people have to run the same rapid. Its great fun and keeps you even more motivated not to flip over on low volume steep creeks. (not that busting your face isn’t reason enough…)


ICE CREAM!!! – A quick flip on the chute…

So anyways, the tally for the ice cream game after the first two rapids was two flips, neither by me. I could taste the ice cream already and was really looking forward to a Big Ed ice cream sandwich at the Lochsa Lodge when we got done.

Some carnage on the first major rapid

When we get to the second big rapid, there was a little more carnage and I was a little worried about this ice cream game, it wasn’t looking as promising as before. There was a 3 way tie with one flip each and a VERY debatable high brace that some in the group felt was a roll. But since it’s on the honor system, it was deemed a high brace no matter what the rest of us thought.

Matt Sylvester on the S-turn drop

The next big rapid was a series of twisty drops leading into a ledge with a very unpleasant hole backed up by a sieve rock pile on the left. Everyone was running on the right where the hole wasn’t as bad but struggling to get a boof as they lost all their speed on an eddy line at the lip.

Scouting the third big rapid

Karl and I talked about going center and getting a boof over the hole instead of going right. I filmed everyone run the rapid. Finally my time had come to go and as I drove through the technical lead-in, missed a boof over a hole and got slowed up as my bow popped up and got pushed hard left with no forward speed into the big ledge. I drove back center hard at the last second and dropped over the ledge with zero speed and a very poor boof.

Mike Copeland missing the line

I had to paddle hard upon landing to keep from being sucked back into the pourover and getting worked in a very bad place. I made it out, continued through the rapid over the series of holes and ledges, avoiding sives and pin rocks leading into the eddy at the bottom about a quarter mile downstream. Close but no ice cream on that drop…

Matt Sylvester in the crux of the rapid 


Todd in the crux of the rapid

Andy Lichtenheld just downstream in the same rapid 

The next major drop was pancake which was ugly. All the flow dropped off of a ten to fifteen foot ledge onto a flat rock shelf. Maybe with more water but you’d have to be very precise on your boof. We all walked this and looked at the last rapid. It was big and when we first saw it, my first thought was “this isn’t runnable.” As we walked down stream each of the ledges and slides didn’t look so bad. It was a very steep rapid with 10 foot ledges with moving pools and sieves. The safety on the drop wasn’t easy to set either with most of the bad places in the middle of the creek or walled out. After scouting Todd and Andy went first Blue Angel style bombing down ledge after ledge boofing the larger holes.

The top part of the hardest rapid of the day 

The second ledge

Matt, Karl, and I went next. I was last and got caught in an eddy just above the second ledge that required a boof. When I pealed out of the eddy I couldn’t get enough speed to drive onto the slanting rock shelf and boof the hole and had to boof the worst part of the hole and paddle hard once I landed.

After that was another ledge backed up by a rock requiring a precise boof into the boil followed by two or three holes that tried to rob your speed and spin you sidewise into the big hole at the bottom of the series.

Third Ledge

Matt and Karl enjoy a quite moment on Big Sands

Everyone did well in this rapid with only one flip. The ice cream game had a 4 way tie and with the hardest rapids behind us it was looking like it would stay that way.

But to our surprise and joy there were a half dozen class 4 to 4+ rapids remaining including one that ended in a big undercut on the left wall at the bottom. I got pushed into this wall and instead of taking a hard shot against the rock, I just went with it and pulled a quick roll. Damn! I'm behind now. 

We continued downstream enjoying the rapids in this section when Todd probed a horizon line and found some wood and was quick enough to wave us off and signal us to walk around. We all got around okay and continued down to the takeout with some more fun rapids and then about a mile of class 2-3 on White Sands Creek.

At this, Matt and I loaded up our gear and headed back home from a great weekend of some steep creeking. I still owe ice cream to Andy, Karl and Todd. I guess that means I’ll just have to head up to Montana for some creeking. Dang.

Here are a few parting shots taken throughout the trip. It was a good one.

Andy Lichtenheld on Big Sands Creek

Matt Sylvester hitting yet another boof

Matt Sylvester on Big Sands Creek


Karl Moser sticking a boof on Big Sands Creek

Mike Copeland on Big Sands

I would like to say a big thank you to the crew on Big Sands. It was an amazing trip and I'm looking forward to boating with all of you again.

For more photos please visit the S&W Gallery