Changing channel 

Love songs to a beloved river we all have in common

Rivers give themselves to wild passion like nothing else in Montana. Big lakes we love in a way that reflects their attributes, wise and placid; remote mountain lakes like secrets to be kept or only whispered. But rivers, perhaps because they are young and won’t sit still and have something of the flirt about them in the way they pass by teasing, without returning our gaze, get into us and make us crazy for them to love us back.

I’m speaking for myself, at least. We first begin to covet what we see every day, and the part of the Clark Fork I know best is the one I see every day from the Higgins Avenue Bridge. It approaches the bridge most of the year with a faintly mocking solemnity on the east side and then it scuttles off chattering on the west. Which of the two—the oily smoothness or the rocky chatter—is more the product of all the monkeying that has been done with its riverbed, I don’t know. I suspect there was some of both before they moved the channel to make Caras Park, but today the two moods seem to be rigidly demarcated by this one bridge.

It’s certainly not the most beautiful part of the river, this stretch of a couple of miles, which historically served as a self-emptying landfill and open sewer for anything Missoula decided it didn’t want or need anymore. It wasn’t even that long ago that pickup trucks would back right up to the water’s edge near the bridge on Orange Street and dump their rubbish right down the bank. Even today, when there’s ice in the little lagoon on the south side of the river by the old Milwaukee station, you can often see a beer bottle that some butthead has tossed over the side, either right on top or frozen into the ice at neck level. Take away the ice and you’ve still got concrete blocks bristling with rebar, sometimes a shopping cart or the yellow frame of a public bike glowing faintly through water that seems to ferment every year from the gunmetal gray of an overcast winter day into summer’s murky green.

In many ways, the story of the Clark Fork in Missoula is as much a story of bridges and all the things you can see from them as the water itself. In fact, for those of us who try to be river lovers as best we can from the city limits, let me coin a term for this point of view: gephyrocentric potamophilia, a love for rivers—this river—that hinges primarily on crossing bridges. It’s a perverse phrase for a perverse urban condition, but then the Clark Fork is nothing if not aching with its historic burden of people and cities. What Montana lacks in population, we’ve always outstripped in demands made on the river and the quantity and quality and sheer duration of the waste we’ve always expected it to wash away somewhere. A bridge like this one, then, is probably as good a place as any to reflect on the relationship between a city and its river. As mentioned, it’s a view that many of us have in common.

Not that all such reflections should be tarnished with shame and regret. On balmy spring and summer nights, people line the bridge to admire the sunset and the waters lit with fleeting color. In fact, one of the pleasant obligations of living in Missoula is that if you’re planning an activity that requires walking across the bridge on a summer evening, you have to pad your walking time to allow for friends you’ll want to stop and chat with over a common sunset. That is, a sunset in common.

Reading The River We Carry With Us is another of those pleasant obligations, or at least it should be. It’s a collection of love songs—or one big love song, if you like—to a river in common, seen from many views, and it’s damned difficult not to fall under its spell. The anthology is divided into five sections devoted to the Upper Clark Fork of Butte and Anaconda, the Blackfoot, Missoula and the Middle Clark Fork, the Bitterroot and the Flathead, Lower Clark Fork and Lake Pend Oreille. Science, prose, poetry, suggestion—every piece is a ringing voice in a larger chorus. Much of it has appeared elsewhere, in some cases to great acclaim, but here it really feels at home. If the meeting of so many like minds yields a little repetition from time to time, the shared affection for the river more than makes up for it. There is wild passion, yes, imaginative and above all respectful.

The roster of contributors here, living and posthumous, should speak for itself: Norman MacLean, David James Duncan, Annick Smith, William Kittredge, Ian Frazier, Richard Manning, James Lee Burke, Richard Hugo, Debra Earling, Rick Bass and nearly two dozen others. There are voices from the past and voices from the present, litanies of waste and neglect, and psalms of hope.

The view from the bridge has become a part not just of my everyday thoughts but of my memory. It brings new worries to me even as it washes old ones downstream. I remember walking south across the bridge in the spring of 1999, practically aloft on the smell of balm oozing from the poplar buds and wondering if the world was really going to disintegrate at the end of the year. The Y2K bug is now just another pop culture oddment, but now when I smell that smell—my favorite, and it always has been—it still puts me in the mind of those worries and worries still to come.

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