Open water

Floating a new Clark Fork for the first time


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“Set! Set, set, set! Alex, set!”

Jamie hasn’t stopped hollering that word all day. Every time my strike indicator dips, he shifts into fishing guide mode and shouts for me to set the hook aggressively. I shouldn’t be surprised. He worked as a guide for six years. It must be hard to fight a reflex like that.

Missoula Independent news
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Jamie Rogers holds the “first fish” legally caught on the reopened stretch of river.

The sun came out again shortly after we left the confluence. So did the more disheartening signs of man’s presence. We passed a sunken bicycle before Milltown was even out of view. Now the banks are dotted with rusted car parts and garbage. It’s still great to be on the river, but the fish have even stopped biting. Bruce switches to dry flies and trades me the stern of the boat for the bow. Still no luck. We drift lazily passed a raft fishing a riffle below a small outcropping of rock.

Bruce continues to give us snippets of river lessons as we near Sha-Ron. He points to a slab of concrete on the north bank below Highway 200. “That’s the outlet for Marshall Creek right there,” he says. “It used to just be a culvert. But we fixed it to include the fish ladder. See, the fish go up the left side there, then up the right where those pools are.”

The concrete is covered in graffiti. One portion says “happy floating.”

By the time we pull into the Sha-Ron access site, we’ve been on the river four and a half hours. There are houses right up to the riverbank now. I can hear a dog barking in the neighborhood. Pretty soon the landing will be crowded with tubers putting in to float the Clark Fork into town. They should stick to that stretch. What we just floated was long and pretty gnarly, certainly no place for a “rubber ducky,” as Bruce calls them.

Missoula Independent news
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Riverbanks and rapids on the Clark Fork downstream of Crystal Creek were actually sculpted by engineers to steer the river’s course through its confluence with the Blackfoot.

It’s hard not to look back on the day without being impressed. At least for my nearly nine years in Missoula, I’ve always thought of the Blackfoot as our pristine neighborhood waterway. I’ve fished around Warm Springs, tromped over the vile turquoise-and-yellow soil at the EPA’s Superfund site near Opportunity, heard stories from locals about Silver Bow Creek and even the Clark Fork itself running red with toxins. Meriwether Lewis named the river for his famed counterpart, William Clark, on his return journey from the Pacific. It’ll never again be what it was when Lewis set eyes on it in 1806. But the legacy is changing with the riverbanks.

I shuttle Jamie and a Clark Fork Coalition board member named Jim Flynn back up to Turah to get their rigs, then stand around the Sha-Ron parking lot with Bruce. The bull trout rumor has spread. People keep asking him if it’s true he caught one.

“Nah,” he tells Peter Nielsen, another former director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “Just hooked a rainbow in the ass. Almost seems more poetic.”

Missoula Independent news
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Past and present members of the Clark Fork Coalition—including Montana DEQ Director Tracy Stone-Manning, right—raise cups of champagne in celebration of the re-opening.

Everyone else is beaming from the ride. Bruce seems comparatively mellow for a guy who just floated a previously unfloatable stretch of river that he’s spent years working to fix. The Clark Fork’s come a long way in two decades. Hell, some of the biggest strides occurred in the last five years. The dam’s gone. The EPA hauled away 2.2 million cubic yards of tainted sediment. Crews redirected the river along a new course. Nonprofits continue to raise funds and organize scores of volunteers to help the cleanup and recovery effort. I ask Bruce, who’s been on the frontlines of this for nearly a quarter century, for his most profound reflection on the day.

“My most profound thought, huh?” He hums for a minute, sliding out of his waders. “It’s about damn time.”


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