On our fridge is a list of stuff we have on our adventure/outing to-do list. Some of it is pretty aspirational (travel to Ireland), but most is quite attainable (local trails, bike rides, paddling). One of them is to finish our top-to-bottom float of the Clark Fork River drainage. It’s a quest years in the making.
Decades ago we paddled Alberton Gorge, downstream of Missoula, a section notable for it’s whitewater quality, but until we moved to Butte our attention had been on other destinations. Then, a couple of years back we got skunked by low water on a Yampa River permit, and ended up paddling nearly 100 miles of the lower Clark Fork from Alberton, through the Alberton Gorge, and all the way down to the confluence with the Flathead River near Paradise, Montana. That, combined with our move to Butte, at the head of the drainage, got us thinking about putting it all together.
Since then we have been nibbling away at it. Over the past couple of summers we’ve been strapping boats on the rig, loading a shuttle bike, and taking on small chunks of the upper drainage – Warm Springs to Racetrack, for example . . . Garrison to Phosphate . . . Gold Creek to Drummond. Day outings with a frontage road or ranch road biking option for our shuttles. We got as far as Drummond, 60 miles downstream of home, where it got more and more difficult to pull off day outings and put together doable bike shuttles.
This past week we committed to the final 100-mile leg, taking the tandem canoe loaded with food and camping gear, and gave ourselves 5 days to pull it off.
Every river has its character – boisterous, sedate, waltzing, full-throated, lethargic – I’d call the Clark Fork a river in recovery (from us!). It runs alongside the interstate and railroad track. It courses through ranches, towns, industry, and rural lands. Most egregiously, it endured the onslaught of mining in upstream Butte, which was punctuated by whopping floods in 1908 that sluiced down unguessable quantities of mine waste and tailings in deposits as much as 10-feet deep, all the way to the Milltown Dam just upstream of Missoula. It was industrial pollution of gobsmacking proportions.
Mining ended in the 1980s and the entire drainage has been recovering (with some remedial help from us) ever since. And yet, paddling it, we often lost that sense of industrial shitshow in the cadence of the flow, in the spreading cottonwoood groves, in the riffles and channels, in the sounds of birds and chattering current. There are, to be sure, moments of confrontation with what we have done. ‘Slickens’, or dead zones, left behind by toxic mine wastes that still persist. Excavations and diversions and riprap and jetties constructed to manage and contain and deflect the river.
This past week we rode down the slide of gravity, heading for the confluence with the Columbia River far downstream in Idaho, past ranches, through Missoula, under highway bridges, camping next to the highway one night, and then serenaded by boisterous coyotes the next. Much like the Yellowstone River, that other Montana great watershed that runs the gauntlet of humanity going east, the Clark Fork perseveres, reasserts itself, finds a way through and around and despite us.
And we rode that watery rail of juxtaposition – wild and untamable, hemmed in and subdued, gritty and pure, frail and robust. Moments of danger, lovely moonrises, the cacophany of humanity, the serenity of purling river, hours of steady paddling, drifting along at the pace of current, under the gaze of bald eagle and osprey, in the company of fox and white-tail and coyote. Whispering past civilization, camping under the noses of motorists, passing college coeds on the riverbank, waving to trains, or ghosting through dawn mists.
From Montana Street in Butte, at the start of Silver Bow Creek, all the way to Paradise, we checked that box. (And yes, I know, the Clark Fork continues on into Idaho and beyond, but below the confluence with the Flathead, it turns into a massive flow, punctuated by dams and reservoirs. No thanks.)