Sustainable Missoula: Thankful for the river
Sam Dwyer/Clark Fork Coalition
Standing in the water under the Maclay Bridge where North Avenue crosses the Bitterroot River, the sun shining at an afternoon angle that’s not too hot, a light breeze blowing, insects buzzing, and the shadows of some big fish lazing in the eddy in front of me, I am grateful.
I remember a moment from June, on a Freeflow Institute float with local writer Chris La Tray, learning to say, “Miigwech!” in Ojibwe before we got on the water. Thank you! Over the summer, I’ve learned some ways to show my gratitude respectfully, building a healthy relationship with the river so we can help each other.
My three-year-old son is pretty ecstatic to be playing in the pile of soft white sand near the shore. We biked over to this access spot to show off the river to a friend from out of town. It’s a lot quieter here than more popular spots on the Clark Fork, like Sha-Ron in East Missoula.
There’s no parking here during the summer so only a few people who have walked or biked from the neighborhood are on this little beach. Three young women sunbathe. An older couple wades in. Downstream another family swims. We hear a splash as a teenager plunges into the water from the one-lane bridge above. The vibe is mellow.
Like most of us who live in Missoula, I am in love with its natural beauty. I live here for the trails, rivers, creeks, mountains, and forests. They are a cherished part of my community. And I’ve noticed that many of my favorite spots are everyone’s favorite spots.
As our population grows, we feel “overrun,” like our outdoor spaces are being “loved to death.” Who hasn’t felt a bit of despair circling a parking lot in vain then nudging our car off the shoulder of the highway and trudging back to the water, hot inner tube slapping the side of our leg, skin crisping in the heat, traffic blowing past?
But the vast majority of us are newcomers to this place—even if we were born here. Unless you are Native American and can trace your ancestry to the end of the last ice age, it doesn’t do much good to grumble about the new riff raff moving into town. What matters is welcoming everyone into our culture of respect and responsibility for the place we now share. I’m thankful for the people who have generously educated me.
Working at the Clark Fork Coalition has taught me a lot about the complex river systems we live in and the ways we can respect and beneficially coexist with the river. Here are some things I’ve learned.
I’m not really an angler, so information about how high water temperatures affect fish is new to me. This summer, I’ve learned many parts of the Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and even the Blackfoot have “hoot owl” restriction for anglers to protect fish by only fishing in the cool hours of the morning. But you don’t have to wait for Fish, Wildlife and Parks to announce closures. Carry a thermometer to check water temperatures for yourself. If it’s over 68 degrees Fahrenheit, fishing can wait. Or, explore cooler, higher elevation streams or lakes instead.
In retrospect, those fish in the eddy that don’t move when we splash into the warm water for a swim probably aren’t so much fearless as listless. I wish them a bit of peace and cool weather in the near future.
Finding less busy spots on the river to spread out our use helps mitigate the effects of recreation. By spreading out, we can lessen the pressure on the ecosystem, giving riparian plants and wildlife time to recover from human use. But only use designated trails. Don’t use—or make your own—bandit trails. Those illicit dirt tracks cutting down a steep bank to the water cause erosion that can degrade water quality and habitat.
Back on the Bitterroot, we look up into the trees along the bank and spot a bald eagle in the branches. Did you know the Ojibwe word for bald eagle is migizi? I learned that sometimes migizi is just a bald eagle doing its bald eagle thing, but sometimes migizi is there to teach us about love.
I don’t know enough of the Ojibwe stories or culture to explain, but when La Tray told us about migizi, I thought of the notable number of eagles I saw along the river after my grandpa died. I don’t know exactly what the connection is, but my heart lifts when I see this eagle in the tree, gazing down at the slow fish, and I know a deep love for this place.
Under the bridge, we sit on our towels and drink water from reusable metal bottles. Learning not to bring glass bottles was one of the first “river tips” I learned as a young adult. Too many bare feet to risk broken glass. And even first-time river users are pretty savvy about bringing a trash bag—those orange mesh ones are great. There wasn’t much litter on this little beach. We pick up a couple of beer cans and throw them in the back of the bike trailer for the ride home. We were thankful for our time on the river and happy to leave it a little cleaner than we found it.
Sam Dwyer is the digital content manager with the Clark Fork Coalition. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – most weeks by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.
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It’s Farmers’ Market Season! Support local food & farmers. Missoula Farmers Market (N. HIggins) and the Clark Fork River Market run on Saturdays through October, with a Tuesday evening market July – September. Look for the Wildfire Smoke Ready booths this week!
August 13. Montana Renewable Energy Association’s Clean Energy Fair in Butte. Details here.
August 18. Garden City Harvest’s Garden Party. Tickets and details here.
August 26-27. River City ROOTS festival. Plan to volunteer to “green” this annual free music festival - the best event of the year! Details to be posted here.
Sept. 17. Climate Smart’s 4th annual Climate and Clean Energy Expo at Caras Park. More here and save the date.
Sept 17. Home ReSources Spontaneous Construction. Missoula’s festival of creative reinvention! Reuse. Compete. Create. Enjoy! More info and team registration here.
Sept 27. Book club & author discussion: Saving Us by Katherine Hayhoe. 5:30 - 7:00pm. Hosted by Families for a Livable Climate. All are invited to read Saving Us: A climate scientist's case for hope and healing in a divided world, and then join us for a discussion, and Q&A with climate scientist, author, and expert climate communicator Katherine Hayhoe.
Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.