Waterways of the Flathead Watershed

Figure 4.0: Flathead Lake. Source: Lori Curtis

The Flathead Watershed is part of the extraordinary water source in the Crown of the Continent that drains into three of the earth’s five oceans, the Pacific, the Arctic, and the Atlantic. Because this is the only location in North America that sends water to three oceans, it is often referred to as the “headwaters of North America.” The rare “triple divide” where precipitation drains to all three oceans is Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park.  At 8,020 feet (2,444 m), this peak serves as one of two major hydrologic apexes of the North American continent. The other is Snow Dome in Jasper National Park on the border between Alberta and British Columbia. A third “triple divide” near Hibbing, Minnesota drains precipitation to two oceans—the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean through the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes.

“In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed
and the first of that which comes, so with time present.”

- Leonardo da Vinci, from his notebooks, translated by Edward McCurdy 

Figure 4.1: Triple Divide Peak. Source: Vernon, summitpost.org

Precipitation on the western side of Triple Divide Peak flows through a number of creeks into the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, which in turn flows into the Clark Fork River, Pend Oreille River, and the Columbia River, eventually emptying into the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, Oregon. On the northeastern slope of the peak, water flows through numerous creeks toward St. Mary Lake which feeds St. Mary River, then in turn flows into Oldman River, Saskatchewan River, and Nelson River which spills into Hudson Bay, making its way to the Arctic Ocean.

The southeastern slopes flow into Atlantic Creek, which enters the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek, the Marias River, then the Missouri River—formed by the confluence of the Gallatin, Jefferson, and Madison Rivers at Three Forks—then joins the Mississippi River in St. Louis before emptying into the warm Gulf of Mexico, ultimately reaching the Atlantic Ocean. A person can climb up Triple Divide Peak and literally reach their limbs over all three drainages.

For more information, send email to info@flatheadwatershed.org or info@flatheadcore.org.
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