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maiden voyage

July 20, 2010

My maiden put-in at MT HWY 1, where the sign identifies the stream as Silver Bow Creek.

Wednesday, July 14 — Today I started a multi-part series of canoe trips from the uppermost Clark Fork River, which begins flowing under that name between Interstate 90 and the little town of Opportunity, Montana, all the way down, past the restored confluence with the Blackfoot River and the site of the now-removed Milltown dam, into Missoula. It’s about 120 river miles, and in the upper portion especially, the river is less an integrated whole than a hodgepodge of parts.

There are no maintained access sites as such on this part of the river, so after some exploring by truck I decided to put in at a little bridge crossing (pictured at left) where the Pintlar Scenic Route, aka Montana Highway 1, crosses what the sign calls “Silver Bow Creek,” just west of Interstate 90, which roughly parallels the streambed. Silver Bow, flowing out of Butte, is a main tributary of the Clark Fork, and a dramatically degraded stream in its own right—the result of a century’s worth of unregulated copper mining waste—that’s currently undergoing a multi-stage Superfund remediation.

A typical stretch of the upper Clark Fork River as it passes by Opportunity, Montana.

Less than a mile downstream from the Highway 12 crossing, the river passes beneath a similar little bridge crossing, this one carrying Stewart Street as it extends out of Opportunity toward its intersection with I-90. The sign on this crossing says “Clark Fork River.” It’s hard to say with any certainty where any particular river starts, but in my mission to paddle the Clark Fork from beginning to, well, Missoula (the river doesn’t end, i.e. get absorbed into the Columbia, until well into Idaho), I’ve started at the top.

The river here is shallow and twisty, about 20 feet wide, and though there were a few scrapey spots, there was always a channel deep enough to float the boat, and I never had to get out and drag. For which I was glad, since the water quality—despite apparent clarity—is unknown. In any case, it flows out of a cluster of Superfund sites, and is upstream of the primary treatment facility for Clark Fork water, at Warm Springs Ponds.

Arsenic-infused dead zone, or "slicken," along the upper Clark Fork River.

This stretch of river has yet to undergo any kind of restoration, and all along the banks you can see evidence of its past. Bleached white ghost willows (above) still shadow the bends, standing dead where toxic tailings sediments settled out of historical floods onto the floodplain, saturating the soil with arsenic and other heavy metals. Outer-bend cutbanks show the 2-3 feet of dark soil rising from the river bed capped with another 3 feet of red-tinged sediments piled on top. Scrappy plants lend a scrubby scrim of greenery, but large swaths of riverbank are lifeless moonscapes (at left) called “slickens,” where the soil toxicity is so high that biology can’t gain any purchase at all.

From my take-out at the Interstate 90 crossing, looking upstream.

I saw a deer on a sandbar, some ducks, some swallows.

I doubt I paddled much more than three miles before I came to the three low bridges that carry I-90, the feeder road, and a rail line ascross the fledgling little river, where I’d locked my bike for the ride back upstream to get my truck (at right). Another couple hundred yards on, the river gets sucked through an unpaddleable intake into Warm Springs Ponds, about which more later.

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