8:47 a.m., Saturday July 11, 2009: Chris McGrath roars into the deserted parking lot of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) office off Spurgin Road in Missoula, and kicks open the driver door of his silver Dodge pickup. He's wearing sleek black sunglasses and a faded threadbare cap. The silver badge on his short-sleeve FWP uniform commands attention: "ex officio warden." A single leather case on his belt holds a small can of pepper spray.
Clouds cover the valley, but the temperature is rising noticeably and it looks like it'll be a busy day on Missoula's waterways. McGrath rifles around boxes of rescue gear and fishing pamphlets inside the truck's cab, looking for an industrial-sized green thermos. He gives himself a long pour of coffee.
Traffic on Interstate 90 is quiet as we head toward Bonner. Most of Missoula is either sleeping off a rowdy Friday night or miles up the Blackfoot River Corridor already. McGrath and his citation book will catch up with the latter eventually. The former will catch up with him by noon.
McGrath pulls off Highway 200 to fill up at the Town Pump. He waves to a river guide standing next to a 10,000 Waves van before getting back on the highway.
"I used to work there," he says, pulling a tin of chewing tobacco out of his jeans pocket. "I was a whitewater guide for five summers. Actually, the first time my current girlfriend and I lived together, we lived in a tent down near Red Lodge."
McGrath, 27, seems quiet at first but grows more talkative with each swig of coffee. Hunkered forward in his seat, he watches the road over one hand while stroking the corners of his black goatee with the other. This is his second summer with FWP as one of the few full-time rangers exclusive to the Blackfoot River and he approaches the job with a relaxed confidence. At his first stop at Angevine, McGrath makes small talk with an early-morning fisherman–whose license is in order–then jumps back into the truck.
The day sounded long when McGrath described it over the phone; now it sounds longer. Eighty-five miles of river, from Weigh Station to Brown's Lake, all fall under McGrath's charge. We'll stop at campsites and access points along the way, checking angling licenses and issuing warnings or citations to anyone abusing the resource. And out here, on a hot summer Saturday, things can get tricky fast.
"I should probably show you how to work the radio," he tells me, "in case anything happens to me."
Norman Maclean put the region's rivers in the most poetic perspective in the opening of his novella, A River Runs Through It, first published in 1976:
"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."
The Blackfoot River has long been a popular—and much valued—destination for whitewater fiends, ardent fly fishermen and casual hikers. But with increased use comes increased wear-and-tear. Litter, vandalism and illegal fishing practices undermine every aspect of the resource the FWP works hard to preserve. Officials like McGrath patrol the Blackfoot several days a week throughout the summer, by truck and raft, enforcing the rules and encouraging recreationists to be respectful.
In 2008, the number of vehicles recorded at the Johnsrud Park access site alone totaled 18,000 between May and August. Though cumulative vehicle numbers per season have declined since 2005, Johnsrud still receives more than 20,000 visits a year–over 60 percent of which are neither floaters nor anglers, but simply partiers. McGrath dishes out citations for glass bottles—outlawed on the river for the safety of both wildlife and users—and for negligence in paying camping fees, as well as for any commercial fishing outfits that don't have proper permits for river access.
"People would see right through it if I didn't say it was challenging," says Chet Crowser, Region 2 river recreation manager for FWP and McGrath's predecessor on the Blackfoot. "There are definitely days up there when it's the last place you really want to be. It's extremely dusty, it's hot, you're dealing with people who aren't really with it and are extremely intoxicated. It can get really overwhelming after a while."
Crowser, 30, worked the Blackfoot from 2005 to 2007, at a time when disorderly conduct hit its height. During that time, FWP and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents teamed up with an increasing Missoula County Sheriff's Department presence to crack down on violations. More patrols led to more citations and more arrests.
"It seems like when I started working there on the Blackfoot, things had ramped up to a level where you were expecting to see a very social atmosphere with a likelihood of drunkenness and disorderly conduct," Crowser says. "You were hard-pressed to find much in the way of families with small kids. You could, but it really wasn't a place you wanted to take kids."
That's something local authorities wanted to fix.
"There's just not enough space on that river for everyone that wants to use it," says Lieutenant Brad Giffin of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department. "When you leave big crowds of people like that alone and they think it's a no-enforcement zone, they just kind of go crazy."
Crazy just barely scratches the surface. Rangers and wardens still talk about "interesting" displays of public nudity, about wild costumes and wilder attitudes all occurring at a time of day they call the "tuber hatch."
Crowser remembers a New York City transit bus filled with speakers parked at Johnsrud. The revelers unloaded recliners and couches, propped open the windows of the bus, and launched a full-on party.
"It was definitely one of those occurrences at the height of that time when people were identifying that area as a place not to take families, and there were definitely families there looking at it like, 'This is not a controlled environment,'" says Crowser. "We're not there to be the fun police and crack down on everything. But we want it to be a safe environment for the whole gamut of people who love to use the Blackfoot."
Calm before the storm
9:35 a.m.: "Man, it's quiet."
Johnsrud Park is dead, no evidence of the party McGrath said went down the previous weekend. The Fourth of July saw hundreds of tubers crowding the beach, beers in nearly every hand. A sound system spat music so loud you could hear it from the highway a half-mile away, McGrath says. He and a few other rangers, some with FWP and some with BLM, spent a bulk of their afternoon just at Johnsrud, taming the throng as best they could. A few drunks got riled up when the officers requested the music be turned down and the confrontation neared a point McGrath considers uncomfortable. Wardens with FWP and BLM don't have authority to make arrests. Rangers like McGrath don't even carry pistols or batons.
"I do the best I can to avoid a bad situation," McGrath says. "Drunk people can get angry really fast. I don't carry anything but this can of pepper spray, and I will use it. But if I'm in danger, I'll back away and get the hell out. That's why we make sure to park our trucks so we can't get blocked in. You have to look out for number one first, your fellow rangers second, and the resource third."
Those words still hanging in the cab, McGrath radios Missoula County dispatch and gives them my name and my position with the Independent. Then he gets out to check the restroom.
"It's a mess," he says. "Can't leave it like that."
He takes a few minutes with a set of pinchers to bag a pile of used toilet paper, then throws the bag in the back of the truck. Down at the landing, three guys are busy inflating fishing rafts. McGrath gabs a moment, and a man in obnoxiously orange shorts recognizes him.
"You used to work at Bob Wards, didn't you?"
He did, but he stays focused on the licenses. They're all in check, but a duo at the other side of the site isn't so lucky. The younger of the two men hands McGrath a slip of paper.
"Huh, you don't look like a Diane," McGrath says, amused. The man tells McGrath he must have grabbed his wife's by mistake.
"Well, either you're going to have to call somebody and have them bring it out to you, or you're going to have to stow the pole in your truck," McGrath says, trying to sound congenial.
Just to make sure the man complies, McGrath sets to work pulling apart a stone fire ring set up on the beach. He takes his time, lugging the blackened rocks to the water and bagging the charred bits of log.
Back in the truck, McGrath watches the man glance back up the hill.
"Yeah, I'm up here," McGrath whispers. "Quit staring at me and bring your pole up." Finally the man hikes to his car and we take off.
11:13 a.m.: McGrath's coffee mug is running low. He says he prefers these early hours before the tuber hatch. As far as he's concerned, the less action the better.
"Mornings are definitely the best for me," McGrath says. "Everyone who's doing something wrong is hung-over, so they're not too fast."
But stopping to check in with the odd group of campers helps break the monotony. We drove through Thibodeau campground at a crawl a half hour ago to collect campsite payments from the tall iron deposit box. There, a woman with thick blonde curls beckoned McGrath to a set of five rubber tubes, four tied in a square around the fifth.
"Would you suggest we tie them together like this?" Christina Posey asked. Her daughter, 11-year-old Evelyn Sparks, lingered near their tents.
"If I were you, I wouldn't tie a bunch together like that," McGrath said. "You can get hung up on a rock, and if that happens someone's going to have to get out in the middle of the river. These ropes can get caught on rocks. It can get really dangerous really fast."
McGrath grew up in Helena, surrounded by politics and outdoor excursions. His father, Mike McGrath, served as Montana's attorney general for eight years and is now chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.
"The first time I camped out was on the Blackfoot," McGrath says. "I went on my first multi-day trip here."
The Blackfoot hasn't been the only river McGrath's floated. He worked six seasons as a whitewater rafting guide. Most of the gigs were with Missoula-based operations like 10,000 Waves, but McGrath spent one summer guiding trips in Oregon and California. A few years back he ran Beartooth Whitewater out of Red Lodge. Now he's right where he wants to be, patrolling a river he's known all his life.
Down at Corrick's River Bend, McGrath bumps into Dave Shively, his old geography professor from the University of Montana. McGrath majored in history and political science, when he wasn't busy fishing or rafting rapids. Shively's name came up earlier in the truck, under the topic "favorite professors at UM."
"This morning I was looking for my wallet," Shively says, handing his license over to McGrath. "I was thinking, 'I need my license. I'm going to bump into somebody today.'"
Later, McGrath scribbles a note in a small notebook at one of the abandoned campsites, tears it out and leaves it next to a wine glass with a pink flamingo for a stem. The group paid for one camper unit for two nights, but they have four units on site.
"The 14 bucks they paid is not going to be enough to fix the impact of this large a group of people," McGrath says.
He pokes around another site. Nobody's home. The fire pit is full of blackened Coors Light cans. A bottle of R&R Canadian whiskey sits on the table next to McGrath as he writes another strongly worded message. The bottle's three-quarters empty.
"They won't be too happy about that note," he says as we head back to the rig. He takes pictures of the cars, so he has makes and license plates on file if he needs to write a ticket.
At the beach, Jana Hornibrook asks McGrath what the fish are biting on. Hornibrook, an East Missoula resident, calls the Blackfoot her "home river." She's already caught a nine-inch cutbow today.
"This is my favorite river to fish," she says. "It's close by, it's easy to walk. I have bad knees, so Rock Creek and others aren't so great for me."
As we head back through River Bend, past the empty campsites and McGrath's informal warnings, McGrath tells me about 15 elk that broke through the ice on this stretch of river sometime in the winter. Carcasses popped up on the banks near campgrounds periodically in late spring. McGrath and some FWP guys were asked to haul the bodies out to keep bear from feeding on them, not a task McGrath considers the most glorifying in a ranger's routine.
Minutes later, we sweep through the Roundup landing at the head of the corridor. McGrath spots a lady wandering on the fringes of the parking lot and asks if she lost anything. She says no, she's just looking for a place to pee. McGrath points to the outhouse not 15 feet away.
Sometimes, he says, he just can't understand what people are thinking.
Conservation and cracking down
One of the busiest stretches of the Blackfoot lies between Whittaker Bridge and Johnsrud Park. FWP's 2008 Blackfoot River Recreation Management report states 90 percent of visitors to the Whittaker landing were floaters. It's been a popular recreation corridor for decades, says Caroline Byrd, Western Montana program director with the Nature Conservancy. Byrd remembers kayaking there in the 1980s when "everybody knew every kayaker in town." Now Whittaker is the place on a hot Saturday to see swarms of tube-toting floaters descend like stoneflies.
"The biggest problem we have is Johnsrud Park and Whittaker Bridge," says Lt. Giffin with the Sheriff's Department. "The parking areas up there are not large enough to support the numbers of people who want to use the river. The weekdays, it's usually not too bad. But I'm not exaggerating when I say on the weekends there's between 500 and 1,000 people that want to use that stretch of river to float."
Without the Nature Conservancy, however, the story might go differently. The nonprofit bought much of that swath in the late 1990s from Plum Creek Timber, Byrd says, hoping to stave off development in the corridor. They gradually passed the land to the BLM for continued protection, as the Nature Conservancy itself has no field presence on the Blackfoot. The purchase is a prime example of the wide-ranging conservation efforts that have kept the Blackfoot River what it is: a lush, uncultivated area in need of supervision by officials like McGrath.
"On the Blackfoot," Byrd says, "there's this really unique and successful collaborative effort that's been going on for a long time in bringing together nonprofits, conservation organizations, agencies, land owners, businesses and having everyone sit down at a table and communicate."
Specifically, Byrd refers to the Blackfoot Challenge, a broad partnership of which FWP and the BLM are vital members. Contributions from partners differ. The Nature Conservancy focuses on purchasing land and securing conservation easements to maintain a verdant wilderness for recreationists to pass through.
"They've stemmed development that other valleys have been unable to beat away, with the Bitterroot being the obvious example," says Bruce Farling, executive director of Blackfoot Challenge partner Montana Trout Unlimited. "The Blackfoot's always been sort of a backyard party river for Missoula...It's one river that the people own."
While the Nature Conservancy's purchase of the Whittaker-Johnsrud stretch wasn't directly responsible for the increase in river recreation, Byrd says it did ensure the area's continued availability for public access and enjoyment. The kind of unruly and disrespectful behavior McGrath often encounters is anything but appreciative of these efforts.
But experts say recreationists seem to have responded to stepped-up patrols. It's been a group effort, with no one agency having the resources to enforce river regulations on its own.
"The first year we were up there, we had a lot of arrests," Giffin says, "for MIP [Minor in Possession], disorderly conduct, drunk driving, littering. It was pretty rampant. The years following that, it declined because people recognized we were up there."
Crowser says by his second year as a Blackfoot ranger, enforcement officials had really "turned the corner on a lot of that stuff." Traffic counts at Johnsrud were still high, according to the FWP's 2008 report, and aluminum can litter was on the rise. But the number of participants in Blackfoot River cleanup efforts had increased. There remained a certain amount of questionable behavior, but anecdotal evidence from men like Crowser indicates their attempts to calm the river were gaining ground.
"It was still busy," he continues. "We saw our use numbers continue to be high. But the likelihood of disorderly types of behavior, public safety concerns, was on the decline. Then, the last year in the position, we were actually starting to get calls both to the sheriff's office and FWP from families saying, 'Hey, I can take my family back there again. It's still busy, but I'm not as concerned about safety.'"
The tuber hatch
2:03 p.m.: After patrolling the river up to Clearwater Junction, we head back down the corridor the way we came. Now the landing at Whittaker Bridge looks like a beach scene from Jaws, with hoards of tubers pushing and nudging their way into the Blackfoot.
McGrath stops to issue a Fishing Access Site ticket to a commercial guide. That particular company, which McGrath declines to name, has been a repeat problem this season.
Above the landing, BLM Warden Tony Lue paces in the dirt. His belt is weightier than McGrath's, with a gun, badge and spare ammunition. Lue says he's worked the Blackfoot since 1999. Back then he was one of the few officials patrolling the Blackfoot with much authority. Now the sheriff's department is a regular presence.
"It used to be a lot more of a party atmosphere, a lot wilder," Lue says. "Lots of drinking, lots of drug use, lots of college students swearing. Now it's a lot more tame. Lots of families. That's an encouraging sign. They feel more part of the river."
FWP Warden Aaron Berg agrees. He shows up in plain clothes, with two ammo clips and a pair of handcuffs attached to his belt. Berg grew up in Turah, just east of Bonner, and remembers floating and fishing the Blackfoot as a teenager in the 1990s. Back then, he says, you might easily find yourself the only person on the river.
"When I used to recreate up here as a kid, you didn't see aluminum cans littering the shore and the bottom of the river," Berg says. "I've got a personal stake in keeping this river nice for me and for my kid."
But when he started patrolling with FWP, "families were non-existent, as far as families with children. The place was just too obnoxious for kids to be in."
"I actually ended up pulling out my collapsible baton because people were after us," Berg says of an incident that erupted at Johnsrud. "It's a mob mentality. You get a bunch of intoxicated people in 100-degree heat, all dehydrated, and things get real grumpy. One person starts and the whole group gets empowered."
As the tuber hatch thins out, McGrath and the group head back to their vehicles and head to Johnsrud.
"It's a social scene," Berg says. "People think, 'It's July, the river is where we go.' And it's fine if they remember to follow the rules. But if they break the rules they should expect to be hearing from somebody."
The scene downriver isn't as bad as it could be. McGrath credits an overcast day, and the fact we spent an hour at Whittaker Bridge. Berg calls in the sheriff's deputy to issue a Minor in Possession to a girl with a glass bottle. She's cooperative, so FWP backs off the glass bottle citation.
On the beach, a bachelorette party lounges around holding a large inflatable penis. They've dubbed it "Ron Jeremy" in black Sharpee. One of the girls lost it during their float to Johnsrud, but someone returned it.
"We might have to put a phone number on it in case we lose it again," she says. McGrath jokes that might not be such a good idea.
It turns out the lady who found Ron Jeremy is Christina Posey, the woman with five inner tubes at Thibodeau, who's now kicking back with her 11-year-old daughter, Evelyn Sparks, by the river. Sparks can't stop talking about their float, about the bald eagle they saw and the leech Posey found on her leg. She's up from San Diego for the summer to spend time with her mother, who moved to Missoula in May. She seems unfazed by the inflatable find.
"Down in California, that cliff would be covered in graffiti," Posey says, indicating the rocks across the Blackfoot. "The river? There'd be junk floating in it. You wouldn't want to swim in it. This is just beautiful."
Wouldn't trade a day
The first time Bruce Farling caught a fish on the Blackfoot was 1972. He doesn't remember what kind, but he's sure it was a trout. With Trout Unlimited, his work maintaining abundant fisheries has kept him close to those same waters year-in and year-out. Yes, he's seen the crowds. Yes, the river's a summer party bonanza. But there's a broader awareness these days of the rules, he says, and if you can't stand the crowds, it's easy to find a calmer piece of the Blackfoot.
"I don't go to Johnsrud on a hot day in the summer," Farling says, "but I don't begrudge people who do, who go up there and have a good time. Christ, when it's 90 or 100 degrees, when you have a river in your backyard and the public is allowed to use the public's river, I have no problem with it. People just have to practice some self-constraint in terms of how they behave and how they affect other people's experience up there. That's what Fish, Wildlife and Parks is struggling with right now."
Crowser is proud of the strides Blackfoot River enforcement has made–and continues to make. Although he doesn't have specific statistics for this stretch of the Blackfoot, he says officials agree that violations are down. It's a nice boost to an already rewarding job.
"If it's not during those particularly busy times, if the water and the air temperatures don't happen to be just perfect, it can be a great place to go fish or hang out or whatever you want to do," Crowser says. "Working there and calling that your office is a pretty desirable thing at those times."
Crowser feels firmly settled in his current office position. A native of Rapid City, S.D., Crowser went to the University of Idaho before working a number of rivers in Idaho. Most of those were wilder—rapids, not parties—than the Blackfoot.
"This is the career that I've worked for a while to be working in," Crowser says. "I'm committed to that. I'm working right now on finishing up a draft recreation management plan for the Blackfoot. We've been working as an agency with a citizen's advisory committee for about two years...Those kinds of things are really cool, and of course they're a little bit visionary. They'll be in place for a long time and I'd like to be here to see how the implementation goes. I love rivers. I float on them as much as I can, even though I work on them. I wouldn't trade a day fishing even on the places I work."
The way McGrath talks about his job as a ranger, you'd think he was Crowser's clone. He relishes long hours near a cool river chatting with recreationists about the pursuits he loves, and wouldn't trade it for anything.
Nature of the beast
7:39 p.m.: Two students stand stoop-shouldered and damp by the side of the highway near K. Ross Toole. This is our last big stop on the way to town, and the approach is telling. As McGrath pulls down the hill, someone rushes back along the trail toward the river.
"Person running back into the trees," McGrath mutters. "That's a great sign. Guess we're getting out again."
McGrath's patrol log sums up the ensuing scene: "Guy passed out—student in boat." We meet a UM student from Indiana who says his name is David. There's a large blue raft sitting in the middle of the trail. In it, a kid we're introduced to as Reid is passed out with his legs up over the gunwale. There's a bloodied scrape on his forehead and a long scratch under one eye. The right side of his face, turned down in the raft, is gradually swelling, the skin on his cheek purpling. David shakes him.
"Reid, wake up and talk to the Fish and Wildlife officer. Reid..."
Reid only mumbles.
"You better get some water in him. Some bread of some kind and some water," McGrath suggests.
Watching the whole scene from 20 feet away is a family of five. The mom holds a baby while a boy and a girl sit in small folding chairs, happily munching a peanut butter and jelly dinner.
"It's a bit sketchy to say the least," the mom says.
McGrath heads back to the truck, contemplating radioing the sheriff about the drunk student.
"Bet that'll make a perfect ending to your story," he says. "Everyone telling you all day how great the river is now, how much it's improved. Then the last time we stop, the last damn time, there's a guy passed out drunk and a family with a bunch of little kids watching."
McGrath said it best earlier—that the definition of fun on the river changes dramatically depending on who you ask. That's just the nature of the beast. McGrath's job, like the Blackfoot itself, is fluid, unpredictable, lacking in guarantees. Progress in enforcement isn't a complete lack of disorderly conduct but a greater respect among river users for the resource, for those patrolling it and for others seeking to enjoy it. Most people are courteous, McGrath insists. They're cooperative and friendly, even the drunks. But on a hot day, when cool water screams relief to anyone in a bikini or waders, all bets are off on the Blackfoot.