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Rebirth of a river

A blue-winged olive points the way

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Twenty-two years ago I got a call from David Quammen, a Bozeman resident and contributing editor to Outside Magazine. The Anaconda smelter had suddenly shut down in 1980 and ARCO ceased mining in Butte a couple years later. Both became part of the nation’s single largest Superfund site and Quammen wanted to know what using the upper Clark Fork River as an industrial sewer for almost a century had done to the waterway. So we donned wet suits and masks and jumped in the river, where he saw the results with his own eyes.

“We snorkeled a long section of the Clark Fork,” wrote Quammen. “Here the water was turbid, visibility was poor. The rocks of the stream bed were largely cemented together with silt, leaving no habitat for stoneflies or Arctopsyche. I didn’t see a single fish. I didn’t see a single insect.”

Two decades later, I got another call, this time from Matt Vincent, a Butte writer and head of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Project, which is funded by the Natural Resource Damage Program. Vincent had read Quammen’s story and wanted to know if I would consider snorkeling the same section of the river with him to see if there were any noticeable changes in its condition.

Late last week we relived the Quammen trip and met at Garrison Junction to once again don wetsuits and masks for an up-close look at the old Clark Fork.

The change in the river’s condition was nothing short of astounding. The cessation of virtually unregulated industrial dumping combined with significant investment in maintaining and improving the river’s tributaries are bringing this once-dead river back to life.

When Quammen and I snorkeled it, the river bed was uniformly covered with fine gray sediment that looked as if someone had poured cement over everything. There were no plants and, as he wrote, no fish or insects.

This time around, the bottom of the river was largely free of fine sediment, the color of individual rocks shone through, sand bars gleamed gold and large banks of aquatic plants—real plants, not just the slimy algae of yesteryear—anchored the bottom and provided food and shelter for myriad insects.

Tiny baetis mayflies, better known to anglers as blue-winged olives, dotted the surface of the river. That, in and of itself, is almost miraculous, because these flies are usually found on Montana’s blue-ribbon trout streams, our world-famous free-stone rivers known for their clean water and wild trout. Two decades ago, the few insects that could survive the Clark Fork’s toxic waters were primarily a single, metal-tolerant specie of caddis fly.

Drifting along in a state of amazement, I thought I saw the flash of a fish darting out from behind a rock as my shadow passed over, but wondered if it had been my imagination. Then again, given the return of the plants and insects, perhaps some hardy whitefish had found a way to survive in these formerly deadly waters.

During a pause in our downstream journey, I was overjoyed to find damsel flies and dragonflies clinging to the grasses at the river’s edge. Like the blue-winged olives, their presence was proof positive that the quality of the river had improved so dramatically that it could now support the life cycle of large aquatic flies, most of which is lived out foraging in the interstices between the rocks at the bottom of the river—the same interstices which had formerly been filled with ugly gray sediment.

We ended the float at the Sawmill Road bridge at Garrison where I actually saw a fish rise to take a dry fly off the surface. To quell my incredulity, I put on waders, took fly rod in hand, and went to see what kind of fish it might be.

A short cast later, I got my answer—and you could have knocked me over with a feather. There on the end of my line, having rushed up to gulp the fly, was a fat, healthy-looking, 8-inch brown trout. Yes, I said “trout”—here in the upper Clark Fork. A second cast brought yet another brown trout, sending me into a state of environmental euphoria as Matt and I toasted the river’s ongoing recovery with a cold brew.

Sometimes the long battle to maintain and restore the environment seems fruitless. We “environmentalists” are often cursed by those who see the world as existing only for the benefit of man’s varied and sundry pursuits—most of which seem to revolve around profit-taking, regardless of the long-term impacts to the earth. Dead rivers, polluted air and toxic waste dumps, we are told, are the price we pay for “progress.”

But then something like a brown trout in the upper Clark Fork comes along to validate decades of environmental struggle. Has progress stopped in the upper Clark Fork? Hardly. Near where we entered the river, massive construction activities were taking place at a new high-end recreational subdivision at the foot of the Flint Range. Gone is the continuous toxic plume from the smelter’s stack. Gone is the daily load of sediment dumped into the headwaters. Qualities formerly taken for granted—clean air, abundant wildlife and the twisting silver thread of a living river—are the new draws for this once-ravaged area.

But of course the restoration of the upper Clark Fork is far from over. Despite the encouraging signs, there’s still a lot of work to be done to halt ongoing pollution. What has changed, and will continue to change, is the perception of the river as a thing of value in and of itself.

Given the progress two decades have brought, it is conceivable that the once-dead upper Clark Fork could someday become one of Montana’s world-famous blue- ribbon trout streams—and in these dark days, that is reason to rejoice.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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