Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

By ANNIE GRAHAM

I like my family adventures to be well contained and manageable for kids. To me, there’s nothing worse than trying to drag a kid on a hike, kicking and screaming, while trying to convince him that he’s enjoying himself and he will appreciate it at some point in the distant future. I’m telling you this because when I talk about the “Graham family adventures”, I want you to understand that these are adventures with a high probability for a successful family trip and a low probability of tantrums.  We’re not headed out into the wilderness with a hatchet and a book of matches – we’re doing things that ANY family can do. If we can take our six children (all with varied personalities and needs) on a canoe trip, then so can you. And with that… let me tell you about our latest adventure: The Clearwater Canoe Trail.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

It’s hard to believe that Seeley lake is just an hour from Missoula. In the summer, Seeley has such a relaxed, resort town feel to it. You just breathe easier when you get there – it feels like vacation, even if you aren’t technically on one. I’ve taken my family on many hiking adventures around Seeley lake, but we’ve never attempted the Clearwater Canoe Trail. Now that we’ve done it, I can’t believe we’ve been missing out on it all these years. This is the perfect adventure for kids. It is calm, it is peaceful, and most important: it is easy. If it were any easier, it would be a Disney ride. I am not kidding.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

We don’t own canoes, so our first order of business was to rent some. I’m sure that there are tons of great rental places in Seeley, but we were thrilled with the one that we randomly picked out of the phone book. Seeley Sports Rental is a small shop right off the main strip as you head into town. I think they can rent you just about anything (from a snowmobile to a lawn mower), but we just had our eyes on the canoes. We rented two canoes with paddles and life jackets for $25 a piece and then we got the good news. For an extra $15 (total) they would drop the canoes at the top of the canoe trail and pick them up at the bottom. Now, if you are thrifty and willing to put a canoe on the top of your car, then this option is not for you. But if you are like us and have the potential for major kid drama to erupt in the car as the grown ups attempt to figure out how to secure a canoe to the roof, that $15 is well worth it.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

So, we left the rental place and followed the guy hauling our canoes up to the turn off for the canoe trail. The turn off is only a couple of miles north of Seeley on the left hand side, maybe a 10 minute drive but probably less. The trailhead is pretty small and there is only parking for six cars. There is a bathroom, but nothing else, so come prepared (bring water and snacks!). We unloaded the canoes and donned our life jackets. We threw a backpack with lunch and a few water bottles into the canoes, added some kids, then launched them into the gently flowing Clearwater river.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

 

Paddling was pretty much optional or sometimes navigational. The current told us where to go – we just had to keep the canoe in the middle of the river. Soon, we were surrounded by the sounds of birds chirping and water moving. The kids were happy because it didn’t take much effort to make our way down the river. The grown ups were happy because the kids were happy. The river snaked through a beautiful wetlands, curving about every 20 or 30 feet, keeping things exciting. Our trip down the river lasted about an hour and a half before we found ourselves in Seeley lake. The end of the trail is a short trip across a few hundred feet of the lake to the Seeley Lake Ranger Station. On windy days, they advise that you stay close to the shore.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

We landed at the Ranger Station and pulled our canoes up onto the beach. Then, my husband and I walked the canoes up a short path to the boat pick up area while the kids played and swam in the lake. The first half of our trip was done. Now, for the mile and a half long hike back up to the car.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

We first hiked to the wildlife viewing blinds for lunch. This is a great place to stop, but make sure you are wearing plenty of bug stuff because the skeeters are hungry too. The blind has holes that the kids can look through and count the different birds that they see.  There is also an interpretive sign that gives you some interesting information about the area in particular and wetlands in general.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

After that, we hiked the rest of the way up the trail. One of my sons had brought his camera along and was photographing different plants and animals that he saw along the trail. Photography is such an amazing learning tool. It helps kids to slow down, consider their surroundings, and really think about what they’re trying to capture. I rarely see a kid just snapping pictures. They are often moving around their subject, examining the background and trying to get the picture that is just right. And their perspective on “just right” is amazing to me, because a lot of times it is very different than what I would have seen. Trips like this are times when a child’s cell phone can be a positive and useful thing, instead of a source of distraction and conflict. They can use their phone’s camera to express themselves and to connect with the beauty around them. BUT, if you are going to bring a cell phone (or any camera) on a canoe trip, I would recommend getting a water proof case. I speak from experience. Lifeproof makes a great one and yes, it’s a little pricey, but less pricey than replacing a whole entire iPhone.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

We arrived back at the parking lot after a painless 45 minute hike. We stopped along the way several times, and spent about 10 minutes following the mud print tracks of what we think was a mountain lion. The kids were so excited at the very idea that a mountain lion had been in the same place as us, they yelled out to each other every time they found a new track. When we got back to the car, we called the rental place and told them that the canoes were ready to be picked up. And that was it – easy, simple, manageable. A successful adventure.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

No, wait… I forgot the most important part. A trip to Seeley Lake is never complete without a stop at the Ice Cream Place. This outdoor food stand is on the northern edge of town (on your left as you’re driving back from the Clearwater Canoe Trail). They serve great burgers and fries, milkshakes, and of course, ice cream. It is particularly yummy after a long day out in the sun.

Some of the images on this post appear courtesy of my son, the budding photographer.

Family Adventure: Exploring the Clearwater Canoe Trail

Clearwater Canoe Trail Tips

  1. Bring bug stuff. Bugs like rivers. Especially this one.
  2. Pack a lunch and make a day out of it. Or, at the very least, bring snacks. Your kids will appreciate a mid-hike lunch/snack break.
  3. Call ahead and reserve a rental. You’d be bummed if you got there and there were no canoes to be found.
  4. Bring water to the trailhead. There is no place to fill up once you get there.

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Learn it BioAnnie Graham and Brandon Kendall are convinced that education can be fun, exciting, and meaningful. Brandon has been a teacher in Missoula for the better part of a decade. Annie is a proud parent of six children and a home school teacher. Check out their blog for fun (and educational) adventures around Missoula. Visit their Learning With Meaning website for ideas on dynamic and project based learning at home and in theclassroom.