The banks of the Clark Fork River near Reserve Street in Missoula were dotted with tents and tarps less than two weeks ago. Grassy berms and scrub-choked flats here have long served as a camp for a segment of the area's homeless, who are relatively undisturbed on this small stretch of riverfront property.
Now the muddy Clark Fork, which crested to flood stage on May 25, has temporarily reclaimed its channels beneath the Reserve Street Bridge. Only a single green tent remains visible to passing drivers, isolated at the highest point of what's now an island. The usual cast of campers is nowhere in sight.
Outside the Missoula County Courthouse, Cock-Eyed Joe offers word from the street on what went down when the waters rose. Folks had no choice but to relocate as their established camp spots washed out. The self-nicknamed Stinky Mike moved up under the bridge to stay dry, Joe says. A gal named Dawn had to move as well, and apparently lost some of her belongings to the river.
Joe's been homeless in Missoula for nearly 10 years. By his recollection, this is the worst flooding the Reserve Street camp's ever seen. "Teepee Len's staying at the Pov right now," he says. "It's just been in the last week or so. Water's getting up high."
Homeowners just downstream on Tower Street weren't able to pull up stakes as the Clark Fork climbed its banks. Volunteers spent the past week filling sandbags and distributing them to flooding or already-flooded homes. Water covered the pavement a foot deep in some places. The situation drew so much public attention that Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen issued a press release asking non-residents to steer clear of the area. Looky-loos were causing traffic jams. "Hundreds of vehicles are flooding the area to get a look," Ibsen said last Friday.
The flooding of the Reserve Street homeless camp may be just a footnote on the Clark Fork. As the river subsides, campers will return to the banks and quickly rebuild what they had, Joe says. "It's a good spot. Cops don't mess with ya...And there's plenty of firewood out there."