Into the Canyon

Into the Canyon

So….did you find out this week whether or not you, someone in your family, or one of your nearest and dearest friends hit the jackpot and landed a date for a launch on the Smith River for this coming summer? Just asking.

 

This is the time of year when a common question among many Montanans of the outdoor adventure persuasion goes something like this: “ Did you get a Smith permit?” That question has become almost as familiar as the standard hunting season query:“Did you get your elk yet/”

 

When I started this blog, my pal Walleye announced quite publicly, well, to the few but loyal readers of this blog anyway, that there would be trouble if I used the new avenue of communication to inform readers about the deadlines for things like Smith River Float Permit applications. The idea, of course, was that there are already enough people vying for those precious permits, and there was no point in reminding the forgetful ones and limiting our chances for a permit at the same time.

 

Well, the deadline for those permit applications has now come and gone. Just today, before I began to tap out this missive, I checked the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website (or is it just the Montana State Parks website now? I forget), and discovered that the results are now available on line. So you can check, too.

 

Now that we are done with that, I think it will be okay to mention the Smith River in print again,  at least until the next application deadline in February 2016. That’s good because this is the time of year that Smith River dreams start to swirl in at night for those of us who have come to know and love that river.

Getting Ready-Camp Baker

Getting Ready-Camp Baker

 

It is 35 years ago now that I first floated the Smith, a river that I had only heard of in stories told in hushed and reverent tones by friends who had seen it and fished it themselves.

 

It was a much simpler time on Montana rivers back then, and especially on the Smith. There were no permits. There were no official camping spots. There was barbed wire strung across the river in a number of places over the sixty-mile float from the put-in at Camp Baker to the take-out at Eden Bridge.You didn’t have to check in or check out.People floated the river in whatever craft they could muster from Joh boats to military surplus rafts to the flimsy yellow “rubber ducky” rafts available at sporting goods stores in those days. Everything was makeshift.

 

On that first trip, I was working as a fishing guide for my pal Johnny, who happened to be co-owner of a fishing outfitting business. I had never been down the Smith before, but Johnny had been down it once, so I counted on him to keep me apprised of what to expect. It turned out that his memory wasn’t as good as I would have liked, so it was more of a case of the blind leading the blind. And it turned out to be a good learning experience for both of us.

 

We had scheduled that as a five-day trip, and each of us carried one customer, sitting on the front seat of the homemade wooden raft frames we used. All of our camping gear was piled high behind the rowing seat. We carried no camp chairs, no tables, no dining flies or big kitchen boxes. We slept on the ground in two-person tents and cooked cans of beans and Dinty Moore beef stew on our Coleman stove. There was nothing fancy about it.

First Night-Upper Rock Garden

First Night-Upper Rock Garden

 

Except for the river that is.

 

That first trip was a voyage into wonderland for me. As we slipped those miles further and further into the canyon, the world we had left behind almost ceased to exist. The canyon walls looming overhead, colors of the rock constantly changing with the light, eagles, hawks and falcons soaring overhead. I was nearly slack-jawed with awe for the whole trip. I tried to act like this sort of thing was old hat to me, but couldn’t hide how moved I was by the beauty of the place. I guess it didn’t matter because my customer, and Johnny’s customer were both blown away, too.

 

We barely noticed the occasional cabins, the fences across the river, the old ranch buildings, and other signs of human activity that occur there. And on that first trip, we didn’t know about the signs of Native American activity there, the cave paintings and pictographs on canyon and cliff walls that we became familiar with later.

 

The river itself, sometimes seeming to be a ribbon of molten silver in just the right light, otherwise a crystal clear stream, carved its way through the canyon, filled with places for trout to hide, and flies to be cast.

Looking Down On Indian Springs

Looking Down On Indian Springs

 

I don’t know now how many times I have made that float. I guided on the river for quite a few years before I ever had time during the summer to float it for my own recreation. And I have tried to take advantage of every opportunity that has come up to float it since I last took a customer down the river. So I guess I have been down way more than my fair share.

 

In all those years, and all those times down the river, no matter how nasty the weather, how bad the fishing, or how challenging the human companionship may have been from time to time, I have never failed to be awed and transported by the Smith. It’s one of those special places on the planet that just does that to people.

 

It has been that way for several generations now of my family, and my friends and their families. With my pals Homer and Erwin and Johnny, and many other leathery old hands, I spent all those years guiding on the river, and many more just enjoying it with family and friends. In recent years, another generation, my son Sander, and Homer’s kids, Malcolm and Metta have all toiled on the river as camp cooks, freighters and camp tenders, and guides themselves. The same, I imagine, is true for many other Montana families who have known the Smith, or other places that link us all to each other and to the natural world.

Three Generations

Three Generations

 

It is by now ancient history that once fly fishing and fly fishing in Montana in particular became a growth industry, the Smith became more generally known to Montanans and others from far and wide, and it suddenly was in danger of being loved to death. Overuse, conflicts with the many private landowners along the river, conflicts among river users, increased commercial use, and other factors all led to the regulated system of management and use we see today. There was no choice if the river was to be protected and the rights of the private landowners were to be respected.

 

And every February, we pay our money and we take our chances on the permit lottery.

 

But, it doesn’t end with that for those who love the Smith and those who recognize that we must protect that river and the many other irreplaceable natural treasures that we are so blessed with in Montana. That means we must never be complacent and assume that those places are safe and protected and in good hands. Rather, it is our obligation to be ever vigilant.

Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden

 

Now, a new menace looms over the headwaters of the Smith River in the form of a copper mine proposed for construction in the Sheep Creek drainage in the upper reaches of the river, near the put-in at Camp Baker. The legacy of hard rock mining in Montana is by and large not pretty when it comes to the environmental devastation left behind. Far too often, even in relatively modern times, with assurances and promises that especially our precious cold water resources and the living things they sustain will be protected, they have been instead despoiled, often almost beyond restoration. Required reclamation bonding proves meaningless when the mines close, the mining companies disappear, and the costs of whatever reclamation is possible far outstrip the bonds and have to be covered by the taxpayers of Montana. It has happened time and time again. And a stream, poisoned by heavy metals and toxic wastes of mining can take years or even generations to recover, if recovery is possible. History should have taught us something about this.

 

It never rains on the Smith

It never rains on the Smith

But, even as this mine has been proposed in the headwaters of one of our Montana treasures, and the promises keep coming that the mine will be safe and environmentally benign, and Montanans are again lulled to sleep with those assurances, the mining industry has recently lobbied against the stronger bonding requirements that might have provided important incentives for mining companies to keep their promises to the people of Montana. That should tell us something. There is good reason to fear for the future of the Smith River.

 

To really get the scoop on the proposed mine and the threat it poses for the Smith River, take the time to get informed, and then think about getting involved with the effort yourself. Check out the Montana Trout Unlimited website dedicated to the protection of the Smith at www.smithriverwatch.org.

 

By the way, and I know you are wondering about this, no, I did not draw a Smith River permit this year. I will have to rely on the kindness of others if I hope to see that wonderful river up close this year.

 

If you were among the fortunate ones, cherish that permit, and do what you can to protect the river.

Last Day-Going Out

Last Day-Going Out

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Perfectly said! Thank you.

  2. Love this! Thank you for being a voice for the voiceless.

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