Every single person who enjoys the outdoors has an implicit contract with nature, and we need to hold up our end of things. If we are going to use her for scenic inspiration, fun and recreation, exercise, personal renewal and challenge or any other purpose, then we owe it to her to support her health. That includes her mountains and rivers, the wildlife, and much more.
Modern technology gives us tools that allow us to rip away mountaintops, dig 3000 foot deep holes like the Berkeley Pit, stop the world’s largest rivers and flood canyons and valleys. When you have such power to change things, it becomes important to start thinking very carefully about what you want to change, and why.
We were bequeathed astonishing beauty and wilderness; what we do with it reflects who we are, and what we value.
Every kayaker depends on clean water and free flowing rivers to enjoy the sport. Although the number of people in the sport has grown by at least 200% in the last 20 years, river conservation and access organizations like American Whitewater and American Rivers have had their memberships grow only about 10%. Most kayakers and rafters do not belong to or support the very organizations that help keep our rivers clean and the fisheries healthy, allow river runners access to the water, fight unneeded dams that destroy sections of beautiful river, ensure dam releases on sections that are dewatered, and generally fight for everything that kayakers need and use.
Is your fun worth some time and money invested in conserving the rivers you use? I hope so. Become a member of these organizations and support them. Find the organizations in your local area that deal with local access and river stewardship and support them.
- American Whitewater
- American Rivers
- Sacred Headwaters
- Save Our Wild Salmon
- Friends of the Cheat River
There are many others.
The Clark Fork River Reborn
Last winter nature treated us to record snowpack and a spring runoff that reached flood stage for nearly two months. At the Clark’s Fork River in Missoula, hundreds of people gathered on the bridges in town to stare wide-eyed at the water rushing by, carrying full sized trees and debris. There was worry that there might be major landslides upstream because this was the first runoff since the Milltown dam had been removed.
Built in 1906 at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clarks Fork rivers, that dam’s original purpose was to store water in the Milltown reservoir and generate power. Ironically, the flood of 1908 filled the basin behind it with sediment that never allowed the dam to do much of either.
It stood athwart the river seven miles upstream from Missoula for over 100 years accumulating sediments toxic with arsenic, cadmium, lead, copper and zinc, all washed down from mining and smelting that had been going on since the mid-1800s in Butte and Anaconda. Poisoned from practically the headwaters down by the traditional extraction industries that ruled the west, the toxins killed thousands of fish and gradually seeped into the aquifer and started showing up in Missoula’s wells downstream.
Restoration projects have been under way on this 110 mile stretch of river, which forms the largest superfund site in the US. The headwaters were rerouted into holding ponds and bird habitat. Over 6 million cubic yards of tainted mud were removed from the Milltown reservoir’s bottom. The Milltown dam and a 120 year old dam just upstream on the Blackfoot river at a timber mill were removed in the summer of 2011 and the rivers joined again. With the spring flood of 2011, nature had her way with both rivers for the first time in over a century.
As the water dropped and cleared up through the summer and into the fall, changes to the river became more and more obvious. Recently I snuck through the former reservoir section at the confluence that is still off limits to river travel.
With the removal of the dams, both rivers sped up and cut down 20 to 30 feet into cobble and sediment layers that had not seen substantial current for a century. The cutting of the riverbed on the lower Blackfoot was perhaps the most dramatic. Over about the distance of mile, it completely changed multiple bends, rearranged the river bottom, dropped the water level, undercut banks, and laid bare old bedrock ledges and huge boulders long covered. It unearthed thousands of logs buried from the huge log drives at the turn of the century, where all cut timber was pushed into the river and spring floods transported them downstream to the Bonner mill in gigantic matchsticked log jams filling the river for miles. Buried for all this time, thousands of them reappeared and were pushed up to 60 miles downstream, through and below Missoula along different parts of the banks and underwater.
The stretch of the Clark Fork from above the dam site down into Missoula was transformed as well. Huge new expanses of cobble bars appeared right where the Milltown dam powerhouse, spillway, and concrete rip-rap used to be. Sections of riverbed that had only scoured larger cobbles, thick muddy sediments, or algae-plumes in late summer, were replaced by acres of fine sand and perfectly sorted, multi-colored gravel beds. The river looks like a clean mountain stream instead of the largest EPA superfund site in the US. Paddling along in disbelief, I saw Great Blue Herons, osprey, deer, and a bear drinking in the river, and around one corner, two baby bald eagles shrieking in joy as they learned to fly in the blustery afternoon winds. Before our eyes, the river is reborn.
Printed in Canoe and Kayak Magazine (2011)
River Conservation Benefit:
February, 2011 Hood River Oregon Premier of Wildwater, also showing The Greatest Migration, Seasons: Spring with Kate Wagner, Run Rogue Run, and