On a recent Saturday afternoon just east of Missoula, the Clark Fork River is a parade of tubers. Inner tube flotillas glide past, one after another. Many floaters hold beers. One twenty-something man hollers to anyone within earshot to look for a sandal he's lost. Another cries out in jest as three merganser ducks flap past on their way upstream.
It's a common scene, and increasingly so. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reports that over the last couple of summers, floaters have been flocking to this stretch of the Clark Fork between East Missoula and downtown.
"I don't know exactly what really prompted the shift," says Chet Crowser, FWP's regional river recreation manager, "but it seems like a couple of years ago, we saw more people starting to utilize [East Missoula's Sha-Ron Fishing Access Site], especially, and floating into town. It's always been a popular spot...but the float access has definitely picked up."
Crowser suspects that has something to do with Missoula's new downtown boat take-out at Silver Park. He also thinks the removal of the Milltown Dam, just upstream at the confluence with the Blackfoot River, has "helped people pay more attention to the river ... In conjunction with Brennan's Wave and some of the kayak events, people are recognizing the river more." And that section will only become more popular, he says, when the confluence with the Blackfoot opens to the public next year.
The trend hasn't caused many problems so far, Crowser says, just car congestion at put-ins and take-outs. "I wouldn't say that litter is exponentially worse. If you get higher volumes of people, of course you're going to have some incidental trash...but it's not like we're going down and picking up heaps of bags like we used to at Johnsrud [Park, on the Blackfoot,] at the end of a busy weekend."
As for alcohol consumption on the river, that's not under FWP's jurisdiction. Nor the city's: Missoula's open container law doesn't apply below the high water mark. "Our only concern would be that people are behaving responsibly and safely," says Sgt. Travis Welsh of the Missoula Police Department.