Canoeing Montana's Clark Fork River
A waterway's poisoned past, present cleanup, and, above all, its natural beauty.
The old prison at Deer Lodge was closed in 1979 and was reincarnated as a modern facility five miles west and farther from the river. The defunct original eats up two city blocks, a redbrick, inmate-built inner sanctum surrounded by a perimeter wall of sandstone four and a half feet thick, cornered with turrets that make it look like a medieval castle. Today the complex is a museum with a split personality, dedicated in equal parts to tours of the old stone fortress, now separated from Main Street by nothing but a sidewalk, and to an incongruous collection of classic cars accumulated by Sherm Anderson, who makes his hobby money operating Sun Mountain Lumber, a lumber mill just across the river from the old prison's back wall.
I pass between banks striated with rusty chemical orange slumping over eroded undercuts and nudge my way past glossy pillows of water hiding grassy root balls under the surface. Downwind of the lumber mill, with thousands of cut and trimmed logs stacked just back from the bank, the smell of sawn wood asserts itself and lingers around the next bend. On one bank a retired orange-and-black locomotive stands static on an isolated spur. On the other, edging a junkyard profusion of abandoned car parts and rusting construction equipment, a psychedelic school bus rots behind a barn. After I pass an RV park hosting a white-haired man looking at a laptop outside his Storm model travel trailer, I am out of town.
It's a blue-sky day with what Bob liked to call photographers' clouds and a tailwind pushing the canoe perpendicular to the banks. I spend a lot of time trying to pry myself straight with the paddle. There are too many shallow spots to just drift sideways. I glide over a chunk of white corrugated fiberglass paneling and past a corroded gas tank half-buried on shore and come to the river's first literal warning sign, in red and white lettering on a black and white background, stuck into the soil and framed with weeds blowing in the breeze.
HAZARDOUS MINE WASTE MATERIALS PRESENT
Ingestion, inhalation, or physical contact
with mine waste soils located next to the
Clark Fork River may be harmful to your
health. Avoid contact or, during high winds,
inhalation of any exposed sand-like soils
near the River that have little vegetation
or contain a white, blue, or green salt
appearance on the surface. For more
information please contact the
National Park Service at (406) 846-2070.
"Sand-like." I am standing in just such a slicken as the sign describes in a strong downstream wind. This slicken is an acre or so. Opportunity sits next door to four thousand of these. This modest dead zone, more stunted than truly lifeless, probably owes its warning labels to its presence on the Grant-Kohrs Ranch, a 1,600-acre national historic site operated by the National Park Service on Deer Lodge's outskirts. In its heyday, the ranch's ten-million-acre empire skirted nothing; mere townships skirted it. Today it's a working ranch and interpretive site. The Park Service, unlike other entities up and down the river, has a budget for signs. I'll pass two more before I'm done for the day, and a couple more unsigned slickens, with their familiar blue and green pimples, forming raw gullies where runoff sluices into the river. A few feature wooden stakes flagged with pink nylon ribbon, presumably to direct the crews that will be following me downstream over the next several years, digging the bad patches out.
I also pass ducks, a goose, a plenitude of splashing fish, a deer, and what is likely either a mink or an otter. I hear him slide and I see the mud he trails cloud the water at the bottom of the bank. Later I scare two giant bald eagles off their perch in a lone cottonwood and watch them soar off downstream.
It's becoming easier to take the poison part for granted and ignore it in favor of the more immediate sensory experience. The distinct but conjoined sounds of rippling water and wind gusting dry grass is momentarily exquisite. The hills, starting to close in here at the tail end of the valley, are arranged in soft undulations and shadowed with the contours of weathered mudslides. Bright light gives depth and volume to their monochromatic swell, and for a minute I entertain the fancy that I could grab the hills' skin like the hem of a bedspread and unfurl it into the sky, snapping off the slickened soil and toppling the dwarfish pinyons, and let it waft back to rest refreshed.
Take away the fences, the concrete rubble, the mine waste, and the occasional noise blown over from the interstate and I could almost convince myself that I'm paddling through virgin Montana prairie, but then I don't know what virgin prairie would look like. The pinyons that look to me to be stunted by mine waste could just be the offspring of a naturally dry microclimate, growing exactly the way nature intended. The relative lack of river-bottom cottonwoods may be nothing more than the spotty expression of thin and naturally alkaline soils. Whatever "natural state" means, there's no sorting it out now.
Around another bend a four-cow crew of Black Anguses panics at my approach, deciding for some reason they'd feel safer on the other side of the river. They crash from their low beach across a shallow spot and up onto a high bench, lowing at me with what sounds like menace and probably would be, if they knew about the open bag of jerky between my knees.