For more than a century, the Clark Fork has been a waterway divided. Anglers fished its upper reaches from the Deer Lodge Valley to Turah. Whitewater fiends reveled in its lower course through the Alberton Gorge. But riding the seven miles from Turah through Milltown remained physically impossible. Even after Milltown Dam was breached in 2008—a feat that took 22 years of blood, sweat and lobbying on the part of conservationists and officials—a legal closure through the former reservoir persisted.
The river’s confluence with the Blackfoot has since gone from dam site to demolition site to industrial wasteland, no fit place for floaters and anglers. Mounting public attention to a $115 million cleanup and reclamation project built up a sense of expectation in western Montana that, someday soon, we’d see a once-nasty waterway reborn. But visibility remained largely limited to what passing motorists could glimpse from Interstate 90. This single seven-mile stretch of the Clark Fork has proven a constant reminder of western Montana’s mining legacy—or, more pointedly, the mess former barons of industry left in their wake.
All that goes a long way in explaining the bustle at the Turah boat ramp the morning of May 1. Four rigs are already waiting to put in when my group, including Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bruce Farling and fishing-guide-turned-Indy-writer Jamie Rogers, rolls up. Dozens of people mill about the parking lot in waders, stringing fly rods and counting cans of beer.
“Take a number,” Bruce jokes as we find our spot in the queue.
Bruce hops out of the truck to say hey to allies from the 25-year battle to reclaim this stretch to Milltown. We begin hearing mixed reviews on the condition of the river. Several individuals say we’ll have a smooth ride, but rumor circulates of a tricky logjam that will require rope-lining. Pat Saffel, region 2 fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, confirms the latter point. He scouted this stretch last week with FWP river ranger Chet Crowser, and while snow flurries have since caused the upper Clark Fork to rise, he doubts the logjam is any easier to navigate. Saffel adds a volunteer from the Whitewater Rescue Institute is stationed at the spot today to aid passing floaters.
The crowd calms just long enough for Lt. Gov. John Walsh, Department of Environmental Quality Director Tracy Stone-Manning and a few others to rattle through some celebratory speechifying. As boats begin drifting away from shore, the pop of a champagne cork echos across the landing. Members of the Clark Fork Coalition loudly toast victory after a quarter century spent fighting to reverse the river’s unfortunate legacy.
The back-pats and bubbly aren’t the only reason everyone’s here, though. During the morning’s speeches, someone utters the phrase “rivers, like us, are at once fragile and resilient.” We’re here to see for ourselves how resilient.
About an hour into our float we get an early answer. My strike indicator dives below a riffle. I set the hook and reel a beautifully speckled cutthroat-rainbow hybrid to the surface.
“First fish caught on the Clark Fork!” Jamie shouts. “Well, legally anyway,” he adds by way of a disclaimer. We laugh, knowing full well that this stretch has been fished illegally before. But today’s a day of firsts, and even a 10-inch cutbow is enough to elicit cheers from everyone in earshot.
Half an hour later, I catch a disappointment. A foot-long whitefish bites on my rubber legs. Whitefish, while native, are widely considered “trash fish” in the fly-fishing community. Jamie’s quick to toss it back, looking up and down the river like a child trying to bury the evidence before the watchful eyes of a parent catch the transgression. Above us, the mountains loom snowcapped and cold. I take another pull of Eddy Out to soothe the indignity.
Downstream of Turah and that tricky logjam, the Clark Fork peels off in occasional side channels. Farmhouses and outlying buildings dot the banks. Every so often the rush of a semi on the interstate drowns out the rumble of the river. But the waterway itself remains wild here–steeply cut banks lined with reed canarygrass and interrupted at every bend by jumbled gravel bars.
I ask Bruce if he ever imagined that this stretch would open to public use.
“Never,” he answers, casting his line overhead to the other side of the skiff in one swift motion. “Removing the dam? Restoring the river? If you’d asked me 25 years ago, I’m not sure I would have said yes.”
Bruce first laid eyes on the Clark Fork when he came to Missoula as a teen. But the river has been a constant part of his professional life since the late ’80s, back when he was a member of the Clark Fork Coalition. He remembers the first conversations about what to do about the Milltown Dam. Montana Power Company lobbied heavily to keep the structure in place. Bruce and others couldn’t understand why.
“It only generated two megawatts,” he says. “It had no storage capacity.” According to the Clark Fork Coalition, the power generation alone wasn’t enough to cover the salaries of the two-person team that operated the dam.
If the dam had breached, it would have released 6.6 million cubic yards of toxic mine tailings into the lower Clark Fork, devastating the fishery downstream. It was a constant fear that nearly came true in 1996, when a massive ice jam moved down the Blackfoot past Milltown and spurred regulators to release more water to halt a catastrophe. The maneuver prevented a breach, but the added release carried sediment from the reservoir downstream. The subsequent increase in copper deposits reduced the rainbow and brown trout populations below the dam by more than half.
“The thing just made no sense,” Bruce says.
If there’s one person Bruce credits for our trip today, it’s John Wardell, the former regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency. Up until the ice jam incident, Bruce explains, no one had really taken the subject of dam removal seriously. Wardell was one of the first officials who appeared sold on a more permanent fix for the Clark Fork. Alongside the Montana DEQ, Wardell’s office finally announced in 2003 that Milltown Dam would be removed completely.
Now the well-water in Milltown—once polluted by arsenic deposits—is clean again. Fish are able to travel upstream to the Blackfoot and upper Clark Fork. And we’re able to fish from a boat south of Turah. But part of the day is bittersweet for Bruce. Wardell died in a climbing accident near Libby in August 2009, just over a year after Milltown Dam was breached but a month before the last trainload of toxic sediment had left the former reservoir.
With the dam already gone and the remediation well underway, what exactly does the opening of this stretch of river mean for folks around here?
“Closure,” Bruce says.
Our skiff rounds another bend and the scenery changes abruptly. Cottonwoods thin out. The brush isn’t as robust. The very course of the river seems almost too clean and perfect. A sign comes into view: “Environmentally sensitive area ... Please keep out.”
The Clark Fork may be on the mend, but downstream of its meeting with Crystal Creek, where the wide-open plain of the old reservoir begins, evidence of the past is still abundant. From here to the confluence, the river is essentially manmade.
“There was actually a lot of discussion on how the river should look here,” Bruce says as Jamie steers us past a manmade logjam along the embankment. “No one really knew what it looked like before, whether it was a kind of wide marshland or a main channel.” The state’s Natural Resource Damage Program—funded by settlement money from a lawsuit against the Atlantic Richfield Company—wound up releasing a conceptual design for the restoration in 2005 that outlined a winding main channel and a floodplain full of fluvial backwaters. The plan called for extensive sculpturing of the riverbed and reintroduction of native vegetation throughout the old reservoir site.
All told, implementation of the restoration project alone cost around $13.5 million. The riverbank here remains closed this summer to give the vegetation time to stabilize. Cottonwood saplings in protective mesh cages and long rolls of coconut fiber packed with willow shoots now dominate an otherwise scrubby, rocky expanse just off the interstate. In time, it’s hoped the transition from Turah to here will become less dramatic.
“Hey, Bruce,” someone shouts from a nearby raft. “We heard you caught a bull trout?” Word of our catches apparently spread downstream fast.
“Nope,” Bruce yells back. Not long after, with the confluence coming into view, he hauls in his own first catch of the day. It’s a good-sized rainbow, but the fight proves tough. Jamie laughs when it comes to the surface tail-first; Bruce’s hook caught somewhere in the fish’s rear end.
“Must not have liked the fly,” Jamie says while Bruce struggles to free the fish. “I think he was trying to smack it away.”
We pull our lines in as we approach the massive ripple marking the Blackfoot’s entrance into the channel. Several rafts are pulled up on the bank just below us, so we bail out to stretch our legs. The DEQ’s Tracy Stone-Manning strolls over, looking out across the floodplain.
“What a gorgeous stretch of river,” she says to Bruce. They’ve known each other for roughly 25 years, and as with everyone else on the river today, the Clark Fork is a powerful connecting thread. Stone-Manning used to be director of the Clark Fork Coalition; Bruce used to be the group’s conservation director.
I let my attention drift for a moment, staring across the river to the 500-acre plot of land where FWP hopes to open the Milltown State Park next year. The site will include a boat landing, giving floaters the option to take out at the confluence and cut the last few miles to Sha-Ron in East Missoula. Now it’s just a huge storage barn sitting in a grassy field.
“…Now if they could just get those damn things fixed,” Bruce says. I look back to see him pointing at the interstate bridge piers, hulking square slabs of concrete in the middle of the Blackfoot just a few dozen yards upstream. The lower Blackfoot remains closed this summer until a host of hazards can be removed or mitigated. Local whitewater experts conducted a public safety test last year and lost a dummy beneath one of those piers.
“They’re working on mitigating that I believe,” Stone-Manning says. “It’s crazy that they never found that dummy.”
“You could get through it with a raft pretty easy,” Bruce adds. “But if you were on one of those rubber duckies, phew, you could get in a lot of trouble.”
Earlier in the day, back at Turah, there was considerable talk about all the work left to be done in the Clark Fork basin. Fixing the lowest reach of the Blackfoot is near the top of that list. People have marked today’s opening with plenty of champagne, beer and congratulations. But until the Blackfoot is whole once more as well, this project will continue to feel incomplete.
“Set! Set, set, set! Alex, set!”
Jamie hasn’t stopped hollering that word all day. Every time my strike indicator dips, he shifts into fishing guide mode and shouts for me to set the hook aggressively. I shouldn’t be surprised. He worked as a guide for six years. It must be hard to fight a reflex like that.
The sun came out again shortly after we left the confluence. So did the more disheartening signs of man’s presence. We passed a sunken bicycle before Milltown was even out of view. Now the banks are dotted with rusted car parts and garbage. It’s still great to be on the river, but the fish have even stopped biting. Bruce switches to dry flies and trades me the stern of the boat for the bow. Still no luck. We drift lazily passed a raft fishing a riffle below a small outcropping of rock.
Bruce continues to give us snippets of river lessons as we near Sha-Ron. He points to a slab of concrete on the north bank below Highway 200. “That’s the outlet for Marshall Creek right there,” he says. “It used to just be a culvert. But we fixed it to include the fish ladder. See, the fish go up the left side there, then up the right where those pools are.”
The concrete is covered in graffiti. One portion says “happy floating.”
By the time we pull into the Sha-Ron access site, we’ve been on the river four and a half hours. There are houses right up to the riverbank now. I can hear a dog barking in the neighborhood. Pretty soon the landing will be crowded with tubers putting in to float the Clark Fork into town. They should stick to that stretch. What we just floated was long and pretty gnarly, certainly no place for a “rubber ducky,” as Bruce calls them.
It’s hard not to look back on the day without being impressed. At least for my nearly nine years in Missoula, I’ve always thought of the Blackfoot as our pristine neighborhood waterway. I’ve fished around Warm Springs, tromped over the vile turquoise-and-yellow soil at the EPA’s Superfund site near Opportunity, heard stories from locals about Silver Bow Creek and even the Clark Fork itself running red with toxins. Meriwether Lewis named the river for his famed counterpart, William Clark, on his return journey from the Pacific. It’ll never again be what it was when Lewis set eyes on it in 1806. But the legacy is changing with the riverbanks.
I shuttle Jamie and a Clark Fork Coalition board member named Jim Flynn back up to Turah to get their rigs, then stand around the Sha-Ron parking lot with Bruce. The bull trout rumor has spread. People keep asking him if it’s true he caught one.
“Nah,” he tells Peter Nielsen, another former director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “Just hooked a rainbow in the ass. Almost seems more poetic.”
Everyone else is beaming from the ride. Bruce seems comparatively mellow for a guy who just floated a previously unfloatable stretch of river that he’s spent years working to fix. The Clark Fork’s come a long way in two decades. Hell, some of the biggest strides occurred in the last five years. The dam’s gone. The EPA hauled away 2.2 million cubic yards of tainted sediment. Crews redirected the river along a new course. Nonprofits continue to raise funds and organize scores of volunteers to help the cleanup and recovery effort. I ask Bruce, who’s been on the frontlines of this for nearly a quarter century, for his most profound reflection on the day.
“My most profound thought, huh?” He hums for a minute, sliding out of his waders. “It’s about damn time.”