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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.