Canoeing Montana's Clark Fork River
A waterway's poisoned past, present cleanup, and, above all, its natural beauty.
I'd been off the Clark Fork for a year. It started snowing at my cabin in early November, and I'd hung my canoe from the side of the porch with bungee cords and huddled up for the winter. When the new year came I took a temporary job teaching rudimentary writing skills to high school kids in rural eastern Oregon that took me away from Montana for two months.
When I got back, the snow had already started to thaw, and it kept thawing, in a quick and steady melt-off that turned Missoula's rivers to boiling mud.
There are several sorts of spring, water-wise. High-altitude temperatures can remain cold and the ice pack frozen well into what's supposed to be spring, delaying the front end of canoeing season, or the thaw can come fast and furious, melting everything at once, flash-flooding the rivers and flushing out in a matter of days. The latter means a short rush of too-dangerous deluge followed by a long summer of low water. The thaw can also start early and pace itself in sustained release, which means a long spring and decent chunk of summer when the water is just right for boating.
The water in the spring of 2011 was sustained, and it was high, but the twisty little upper Clark Fork, all sharp turns and undercuts, isn't anyone's idea of whitewater fun. That water is narrow enough to pin a tree trunk from bank to bank, and canoeing full-to-the-banks, pushy water, with nowhere to turn and a woody sieve between you and your destination is a good way to die an unpleasant death.
Instead I paddled a rocky section of the cold Blackfoot at 10,000 cfs--3,000 is more what I'm used to. I joined friends for a highwater float on the wider Clark Fork in Missoula, below the dam site, traveling in twenty minutes what usually takes an hour. We took out at the rock beach below the Finn & Porter restaurant (the water was too turbid to draw the otherwise de rigueur fly fisher), and walked up to the porch for a beer. Missoula's nice like that.
Long as it was, water-wise, spring turned into summer with seeming suddenness. Four full seasons cramp each other, no matter how you slice them. I took a few more trips down the Blackfoot, and a few on the Clark Fork through downtown. On a whim, I decided one day to float a section of the Bitterroot. I was sitting still in the middle of a wide spot in the river when a robin swooped upriver and landed on my head. I was surprised, and my fluster flustered the bird, which took off as soon as it realized where it was. I guess I looked like a log.
In mid-July I went with Quinlan and his wife, Jori, to the Canadian border and spent three days spinning down the North Fork of the Flathead River, the western borderline of Glacier National Park. We've done that every July for six years now and I look forward to it like I used to look forward to Christmas.
For Labor Day weekend I joined friends on an overnight on the main Flathead, below Flathead Lake, through Flathead Indian Reservation lands. We did nothing but drift, eating shore lunches of fresh-caught smallmouth bass fried in cornmeal and drizzled with lemon.
It was early October, after a month of trying and failing to interest a shuttle-driving second to join me, before I strapped the canoe on the truck and went back to the river I'd come for. I put in at the Arrow Stone Park in Deer Lodge, the county seat, where I'd taken out at the end of my last float the fall before. The sign at the road carries a cutout of an arrowhead almost exactly like the one the Anaconda Company used as its corporate logo. A couple of hundred yards downstream, someone had propped a sheet of plywood on an upturned crate to make a ramp for launching bicycles Jackass-style into the river's adjacent pool.
The first two miles sneak through the town of Deer Lodge and behind Montana's mothballed territorial prison, established in 1871, just a year after William A. Clark moved here to launch his banking career. Clark would later fund construction of a thousand-seat theater in the prison, just as he would build an amusement park in Butte called Columbia Gardens, where miners and their families rode Clark's trolley to congregate on weekends for rollercoaster rides and popcorn. Clark seems to have had almost a fetish for keeping the serfs entertained.