Bull River Kayaking and Trail Run through Grizzly Bear Territory

As early as we could after work on Friday, we headed to Montana to see if we could get site 6 at Bull River Campground. This site was indicated in the Moon Guide to Idaho/Montana/Wyoming Camping as being the most private and had an awesome description.

Less than 3 scenic hours away from our homes, we pulled into Bull River Campground, just northwest of Noxon, Montana. We were not only pleasantly surprised to see that site 6 was available, but it also happened to be as great as promised. We set up camp then took off to explore the campground. Our plan for the next day was to wake up early to take a trail run up the Cabinet Mountains.

Site 6

The next morning, we headed out to find Engle Lake trail. We missed the turn and went the wrong way for about 30 minutes, but it was beautiful, so we didn’t mind. Eventually we found the trailhead, which was a much higher elevation than our campground. This ended up being a good thing, because it was hot that weekend, and we planned on trail running 6 miles, so the cooler temperature was a relief. Before I go into my trail run description, let me first explain that I’m pretty terrified of being in grizzly bear territory. I’m sure this is quite normal for most people, but David doesn’t seem to share this fear. He’s a great guy to be with in the wilderness, because he definitely knows his way around out there, but I couldn’t help feeling something just short of terror as we were stepping out of the car into the middle of nowhere with no defense but our running shoes.

Trying to find the trail run

We started on our trail, which was to be uphill with a 1,000 ft elevation gain in the first mile. We didn’t know how far we’d make it, but our goal was to run 3 miles to Engle Lake then 3 miles back. Neither one of us has broken down and bought a Garmin GPS watch yet, so we don’t know how far we ran before we decided we better turn around. As we were running uphill through the trees, it was surprising to me how many things took on the shape as a bear. And every sound I heard, including my own stomach growling from hunger, sounded like a bear. I voiced my concerns to David, who would respond with an encouraging comment such as “bears aren’t up here right now because there aren’t any berries this high yet”. It would make me feel secure for a moment until I’d counter with “what if the bear is dumb?” and then David would respond with “then he’d be really hungry”. It went on like this back and forth the entire way up the mountain. About 45 minutes into the run we ran into a dad and his 2 young girls who were planning on staying the night at Engle Lake. My first thought was of relief, because I figured no one would bring 2 kids into such a dangerous situation, so maybe it was all in my head. But then I noticed the dad had bear spray AND a bear gun attached to his belt. We eventually left them, much to my disappointment, and continued our run uphill. We finally caught sight of the lake from up above and decided at that point to turn back because it was taking longer than we expected and we hadn’t brought any water. I could not get back to the truck quickly enough.

Driving back, we stopped in Noxon for a beer at a cool biker bar. It was a pretty interesting place but had horrible beer and very slow service. There was a sign posted at the door that no guns were allowed inside the bar. After our bad beer, we decided to head back to the campground and put the kayaks in the water and maybe even David could get in a swim.

We put our kayaks in the river right at the campground and headed north. We continued north until the rapids became too much, which was a nice distance for the amount of time we had. Turning around and heading back south on the river, we passed the campground and went under the highway bridge into the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir. We found a safe place for David to shore his kayak, and he went for a swim while I cooled off in the water. Paddling back to the campground was great. After a pretty hot and sweaty day, we were feeling refreshed and relatively clean.

Having arrived back at the campground, David took off to go get firewood. He was unlucky enough to step on a hornets nest and managed to get stung 5 times. Sort of ironic that I was worried about bears, and the real threat is bees and mosquitoes. Still managing to bring back a pickup load full of wood for our fire, David cooked our steak over the fire. We ate well that night, and drank good beer, and I fully appreciated life and the safety of our camp, trying not to remember that David had said that all the bears were down in the valley where we happened to be at that moment.

We woke up Sunday morning not believing that it was already time to pack up and start thinking about going home. On the other hand, we also felt like we’d been there awhile for all the things we’d experienced in less than 36 hours. Our plan for our last day was to kayak the Bull River from milepost 11.5 to milepost 7. We packed up our stuff and headed north on Highway 56. We discovered a better place to take out, the Bullhorn Lodge, where the owner very nicely agreed to let us leave a bicycle for our shuttle and use his property as our take out.

The turnout at milepost 11.5 was easy to find, and it was easy enough to get our kayaks in the river from there. This was a very nice paddle, and happened to be the most rapids we’ve ever seen in a class 1 river, although this is also only the 2nd year we’ve had the kayaks, so we don’t have a lot to base it on. The section of the Bull River we paddled reminded us somewhat of the McCall Meanders but without any of the people and with much larger mountains. It had that same windy, lagoon-type character to it. Two hours and 15 minutes later, we arrived at the lodge, where David grabbed his bike and rode back to our truck while I stayed with our kayaks.

Our take-out

We returned home after enjoying a mosquito-free meal at Spuds in Sandpoint and got home just as it was getting dark. We are so lucky that we live so close to such amazing places!

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