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Clark Fork cruise, part III…

August 17, 2010

Dense, mature vegetation on the Clark Fork just downstream of Warm Springs Ponds.

Yesterday I took the canoe out to continue downstreaming on, finally, the Clark Fork River proper. It was a gorgeous, warm, blue-sky day, and good thing, because I spent pretty much all day on the water.

My put-in was the Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area access where I took out at the tail end of my paddle on the Mill-Willow Bypass a couple of weeks back, just across the highway from the Montana State Hospital (est. 1877), and just downstream from the spillway where water from the Warm Springs Ponds is poured back into the channel. Though the river is signed as the Clark Fork at several points upstream of here, this confluence is where the river concludes its artificially fragmentary state and starts to act like what you normally think of as a real river, uninterrupted by settling ponds and bypass channels.

The first bit was unexpectedly lush, the banks crowded with grasses and willows and mature 30-foot trees. And the channel, right off the bat, had a couple of splashy little rock gardens that I imagine were purposefully planted there to help aerate the flow coming out of the ponds. I don’t (yet) know to what extent this part of the river is natural or was re-engineered after the 1989 floods that flushed settling pond sediment into the channel and caused massive fish kills through this reach. The rivercourse looks much more natural here than the purposeful meanders of the Mill-Willow Bypass just upstream, but his first portion is still part of the Warm Springs complex, flowing just to the east of a series of birding-area/fishing ponds—there were four float fishermen out there when I drove by—dotted with little islands made of fill generated by dyke restoration work in the early 1990s, and I imagine this brief stretch of river has had substantial work done to it.

Exposed bank showing contaminated sediment cap on top of the original soil and erosion slump into the river.

That theory gains some credence not far downstream, where the channel again starts to show some telltale signs of contamination. The dense chlorophyll green starts to fade to a duller hue as the live plants become more and more interspersed with what I’ve decided to call ghost willows, the silver-gray standing remains of plants choked by arsenic contamination. The cutbanks begin again to show a couple of feet of normalish-looking soil capped by another couple of feet of sediment, either a rusty red color or the pallorous gray of a bleached corpse.

The banks here are flagged with pink or orange ribbons tied to shrubs or wooden stakes in the ground, and judging from their locations, I suspect they mark some survey of high-contamination areas. Many of these are pretty well hidden from the river channel, and steep banks kept me from climbing up to explore most of them. But at one point there was a decent landing place, and I got out to take a look, and found a huge slicken area, maybe 12,000 square feet of it, rimed with a crust of white mineral salts and the sickly blue sheen of copper contamination.

Huge slicken area on a riverbend.

The river itself seemed clean enough. The water flowed clear over a gloss of late-summer algae, and there was almost no litter. Aside from a few plastic water bottles caught up in little log jams at the bends, the only nonnatural objects I found were spent shotgun shells and golf balls. I saw three of the latter embedded in the bottom. I’d seen golf balls in the Mill-Willow bypass, too, and wondered if someone had been practicing their drives off the pond levee, but I’m pretty sure nobody is hucking golf balls on this stretch, running primarily through ranchland, where there’s no apparent public access. All I can figure is that the balls are entering the stream in Mill Creek, which runs through the—ahem—Anaconda Country Club golf course upstream in Opportunity. I wonder how many golf balls got flushed downstream when the Milltown Dam was removed, and how many got dug up with the toxic reservoir sediment and shipped back upstream and buried in Opportunity’s ponds.

Like I said, this is mostly a ranchland river in this stretch, and the farther downstream I went, the more evidence of cattle and fencing I saw. One of the big Superfundy challenges on the upper Clark Fork is that restoration remedies have to be enacted on private land and, this being Montana, it can require a bit of persuasion to get private landowners to let government agencies come in and tell them what to do. Missoula’s nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition is helping address that issue in a dozen different ways, including their purchase a few years back of Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch, where they’re modeling what modelers always call “best practices” to reduce agricultural nutrient loading to the river and minimize streambank damage by livestock. I’m supposed to get a tour of the ranch sometime in these next few weeks, and I won’t be surprised if I learn that I floated right through it.

Close-up of slicken area, showing white crust of mineral salts and blue tinge of copper contamination.

I don’t know how many miles I paddled—the Clark Fork’s so twisty here I bet the river miles are at least double the linear downstream miles—but I know it was four road miles from Warm Springs to the next access point, a little bridge crossing at Galen Road. A few days before, scouting my access points by car, I’d met a Montana Parks & Wildlife employee standing on that bridge with what looked like an old-school television antennae. She was radio-tracking tagged fish. The water was up after several days of rain, and she said the fish mortality was high. I asked her why and she said it usually was after rains. The extra water increased erosion of the banks, flushing sediment into the river, and the bank sediments are contaminated with copper. I read a report a few days ago that attributed 60 percent of the Clark Fork’s copper load to bank erosion.

And I could see it happening at cutbanks where the top layer of discolored soil was slumping over the bank like a carpet overhanging a step, just waiting for the next inch or two of undercut to topple it into the water.

Small dam just upstream of the Racetrack Road bridge access.

It was another two road miles, maybe four river miles, to my take-out off Racetrack Road, but before I got there I came across a hairy little dam I wasn’t expecting. I had passed half a dozen gated irrigation channels and a few small diversionary weirs (and one shore-to-shore steel cable designed to keep cattle from wandering past fencelines), but this dam, generating maybe a three-foot drop, spanned the entire river. I had to climb out of the canoe and stand in waist-deep water to lower the boat over the spillway, and knowing how contaminated sediment piles up behind dams, I wasn’t enormously comfortable standing in the ankle-deep muck behind the blockage. Once the canoe was over, I tied it off with a strap to a willow on the bank, climbed around the concrete bulwark on shore, waded back up belly-deep into the recirculating water, untied it, and walked it downstream to a shallow enough spot to climb back in.

Sign at the dead end of a road supposedly leading to a portion of the Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area, near Opportunity.

From there it wasn’t far to Racetrack, where I’d locked my bike to a fencepost. I hid the canoe in some brush and rode the bike—paddle and pedal—six miles back upstream on the Interstate feeder, back to the truck I’d left at Warm Springs, following the line of the railroad tracks that carried the Milltown sediments from Missoula to Opportunity, keeping the Anaconda smelter stack in my sights.

And a strange little postscript: Once I’d retrieved the canoe and packed everything to go home, I took a little detour off MT Hwy. 48, following a sign that said Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area (the WSWMA, perhaps obviously, isn’t entirely contiguous). That road dead-ended after about 100 yards into a closed gate and the sign above.

Cheap irony, or honest miscommunication: You decide.

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