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Clark Fork cruise part V…

September 10, 2010

It’s been raining here in the Pintlars for almost two days straight, a nice steady patter somewhere between a drizzle and a downpour, and if there’s anything better than sitting on a cushy couch in a well-lit loft with windows looking out on the upper tips of fir trees with a mug of Irish Breakfast in one hand and a good book in the other, I don’t know if I even give a damn what it is. (On that note let me jump the tracks here to recommend Jill McGivering’s The Last Kestrel, which I’m sorry to have just finished. Jill was one of my fellow Fellows at the University of Michigan last year, a BBC war correspondent, and The Last Kestrel is her debut novel, set in Afghanistan. It’s published in Britain and not out in the states yet, but if you poke around you should be able to find someone selling a copy through Amazon. I did. It’s well worth the poking.)

Putting on the Clark Fork at Sager Lane.

But back to business: On Tuesday, before the rains came, I took the boat off the porch where I’ve been doing some fiberglass repairs to the bald spots I’ve dragged out of its ass and set out for the next leg of my canoe cruise down the 120 river miles of Clark Fork from Opportunity to Missoula—a mission I’m starting to think I probably won’t finish before winter settles in and makes it more trouble than it’s worth. Which is fine. Plenty more water, and correspondingly less ass-dragging, come spring.

In the meantime, I drove my bike down to Arrow Stone Park in Deer Lodge, locked it to a tree back in the riverbank scrub, and drove the truck and the boat back upstream to Sager Lane, where there’s a little bridge crossing the river just downstream of a short spiky dam that I was surprised to see wasn’t there this time. At first I thought the water was up and flowing over it, but on closer inspection the water wasn’t flowing over anything but riverbed. The dam, it turned out, must have some sort of mechanism for raising it or flattening it in the river. It was flat this time. I wonder where the lever is, and who decides when to pull it.

Bad news for downstreamers.

The river down to Deer Lodge isn’t all that different from the stretch above it, a cow-country stream meandering aimlessly between low banks and occasional short bluffs. And at first it looked normal enough that I started to think I was leaving the heavily or at least obviously contaminated part of the river. There was lots of wildlife, ducks, fish splashing, a huge squadron of geese flying upriver, and dozens of deer, many of them speckled fawns. Sometimes they surprised me, snorting in the brush to mark my passing, and sometimes I snuck up on them, upwind, and startled them into bounding flight. I saw the tail end of what was probably an otter sliding down a mud bank into the water, and several stands of mature (and live) cottonwoods, which have been rare on the upper part of the river.

But the farther downriver I went, the more I saw signs of the kind of contamination I’ve gotten used to: striated cutbanks with layered with dead soil, lifeless gray ravines draining into the mainstem, and slickens half-hidden behind brush up on the banks.

A copper-laden plateau standing in an eroded slicken.

And some of these slickens were nastier than anything I’d seen so far. These weren’t just the sickly gray dead zones, maybe crusted with a weird white rime, that I’d seen upstream. These were vast expanses stained blue-green with concentrated copper, portions of which were so reinforced with metal content that the slicks around them had eroded to leave miniature creepy green plateaus. They were covered with bleached deadfall and gullied out into the river. I found a few more of the green bones I’d seen on Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch the week before.

Blue-stained slicken.

Getting out of the boat to explore the biggest of these, I had the distinct feeling that I was walking where I shouldn’t be, and not just because I was in plain sight of a slow truck trundling down a ranch road across the river. That soil was nothing but poison, and when the state DEQ crews make it down this far, there’s no question they’ll be putting this acreage into trucks headed for Opportunity, just huge chunks of riverbank shoveled up and replaced. I’m looking forward to going out with one of those crews and watching it happen, but I’m glad I won’t be working on one.

It was something between a 2.5 and 3 hour float, maybe 8 miles to Deer Lodge. I’m guessing I’ve knocked out about 40 river miles of the 120 it’ll take me to get to Missoula. But Deer Lodge is a milestone, the first city of any sort the Clark Fork flows through and home—not coincidentally, given the river’s historical function as a geography of refuse—to the state penitentiary.

Coming into Deer Lodge.

The river flows under the interstate coming into town and begins to look like urban streams almost anywhere, channelled with scrap concrete rip-rap. I took out in an eddy at Arrow Stone Park, whose arrowhead logo is almost an exact match for the corporate logo used for years by the Anaconda Copper Company, whose waste I;ve paddling through for 40 miles now. I hid the canoe in some bushes, unlocked my bike, and rode the four and half miles upstream to the truck, drove back down, loaded up, and headed home.

From what I’ve heard, the heavy dirt-moving restorations of the next several years are going to pretty much stop at Deer Lodge, after which the slickens supposedly thin out, giving way to more minor in-place fixes down to Milltown, where the really mammoth resto job—the Milltown Dam site—is still underway. That should be a pretty stretch to float. Instead of crawling into the river under railroad trestles and stubby overpasses, there’ll be actual state-designated FAS (fishing access sites) to launch at.

Maybe I’ll go fishing.

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