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Sustainable Missoula: Discovering the river magic

Exploring the boundary between ice and water (photo by Ben Fassnacht)

It was the second week of January 2021, a sunny day with a winter temperature hovering at 29 degrees. One of those crisp, cold winter days expected in January here in Missoula. No new snow. I pondered the fate of our rivers next summer if weather patterns continue with this unseasonably dry and warm January.

The snowpack in the mountains that feeds our rivers and creeks during the hot summer months is low. A recent ski day at Snowbowl showed rocks and small trees still bare. And rivers and streams need that snow to melt into cold water for the fish and wildlife to thrive. It is those cold rivers for fishing, floating, and swimming that we love. These rare gems of three rivers in our valley – the Bitterroot, the Clark Fork, and The Blackfoot – bring the tourists in droves to our mountain town each spring and summer, driving a recreation economy anchored to our cold, clear rivers and creeks.

On that January day, I was headed to meet my son, Ben, and my grandchildren, Hana and Anders, at the Clark Fork River just below Bernice’s Bakery and west along the Riverfront Trail. They wanted to try the family science project that Watershed Education Network (WEN) is piloting this winter as an option for getting kids of all ages out exploring river and creek spots.

The tailgate of the pickup was down as I pulled in, Ben filling out the Family Science paperwork and the kids were digging boots into pockets of ice and snow – masked and bundled up for the day. It is a rare treat to join my son and grandchildren on the river’s edge. It seems like only a few years ago I was hauling Ben and his brother, Max, to the river for our field excursions.

I heard a shout, “Hi Grandma!” and we were off to check out the frozen channel along the Riverfront Trail. Winding between the willows and making our way down a steep bank – there was the gray-blue frozen channel, with a jumble of logs and brush on the other side from floods in years past. “Wow,” both Hana and Anders said together. They each reached for a rock to throw out onto the ice. Hana’s rock made a rhythmic thump-thump over the ice… and she whispered, “That sounded like a heartbeat.” Anders found a heart-shaped rock to save for his Mom.

We wandered down to where the channel along the Riverfront Trail flows back into the Clark

Fork – complete with a sandy beach loaded with slabs of ice from freezing then thawing, which pushed the big hunks of ice along the shore. The ice jam near shore was a kid-exploring paradise – logs over shallow water with icy layers and edges, holes in big ice slabs to put curious noses in, crystalline ice designs with different shapes and architecture from ice needles stacked on top of each other to lacy ice collars on boulders strewn in the shallows. Mallards made their living dipping for algae and bugs just off one of the big ice slabs so Hana and Anders could get a close view of the deep green mallard head staying dry after he dove for his food.

After some serious ice exploring, Ben pointed up to the sky. We all looked up just in time to see the great blue heron flying over the river, circling above the cottonwoods and landing somewhere on the island across from where we stood. It was a magical sight. That heron sighting started the list of our observations at the river.

We dug into the Family Science kit and Hana and Anders wanted to use the magnifying lenses to look up close at the ice up. Hana spied the thermometer and wanted take the water temperature in three different spots, and ice formed around the bright yellow string when we left it in a while along ice forming near slowly moving water.

As I wandered away, Ben was sharing ideas for artwork and journaling they could do when they got back home for hot chocolate. I worked my way over the logs piled high, watching for the ice and water and felt so very lucky to take in a beautiful afternoon on rivers’ edge, exploring with my family. As I wandered back I caught the sight of their jackets through the brush on the island

– exploring a new spot and heard Anders’ eager voice, “Wow, look at that”! I learned later they found freshly chewed branches with the telltale signs of beaver teeth.

Rivers are life! It is truly a gift to experience this river Magic, especially with the curiosity and sense of adventure that children bring. Warmer temperatures and dry conditions leave the fate of the river uncertain, but fostering our connection with the land through joyful experiences (such as the one my family shared at the river) will hopefully spark a desire to preserve this river Magic for generations to come.

Learn more by visiting MontanaWatershed.org.

Deb Fassnacht is the Executive Director of Watershed Education Network. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

Now through April. Montana Legislature is in session. Get the awesome “How to be Involved Guide” from Montana Free Press. To follow efforts for clean energy, climate, conservation and sustainability, consider connecting with (and getting the low down and action alerts from):

· Montana Renewable Energy Association

· Montana Environmental Information Center

· Montana Conservation Voters

· Northern Plains Resource Council

Through April. Missoula Valley Winter Market. Located in the Southgate Mall (in former Lucky’s Market). Market hours: Saturdays, 9am-2pm through April 17.

Through April 22. Thursdays, 7pm. Seeking Sustainability Lecture Series. In 2020, this lecture series celebrated 50 years of Earth Day by focusing on Missoula’s sustainability efforts & featuring 60 speakers. In 2021 many of those speakers will return to give updates on how their programs have adapted to the crises we face. Check out this year’s schedule HERE. 2020 recordings are available HERE.

February 8 – March 29. Mondays 6 – 7:30 pm. My Grandmother’s Hands Practice Group. This invitation is for white identifying folks in Missoula or the surrounding areas to join an 8-week virtual community practice group to examine white-body supremacy and create a new type of lasting relationship rooted in racial justice and accountability. More info HERE.

February 11. (Virtual) Board of County Commissioners meeting (2 pm) to vote on making existing cryptocurrency zoning regulations permanent. Learn more about why cryptocurrency mining operations need regulations (hint – they use a crazy amount of electricity!) and how to make comments HERE.

February 11, 6-7:30pm. Intro to Beekeeping Virtual Workshop. Interested in beekeeping but don’t know where to BEEgin? This is the class for you! Join Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) to learn some of the basics of beekeeping including setup, costs, ethics, and where to purchase supplies. Purchase tickets and reserve your spot HERE.

February 13 – June 19 (dates added periodically). Virtual Fixit Clinics. Want to try fixing from home? Present your broken item to a global team of expert community repairers and get suggestions for things to try. After all items are presented, participants move to Zoom breakout rooms to implement the suggestions and, hopefully, fix the items.

February 18, 4-5:30pm. Leave it Wild: Urban and residential spaces. Join Families for a Livable Climate and Stories for Action from this free happy hour event to find out how actions taken on your front step and in Montana towns can have a great impact on waterways, biodiversity, climate action and community. Register HERE.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.