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"If there is something magic on this planet, it is contained in water."
                                      - Loren Eiseley

Montana's rivers: Most people carry an "escape'' dream, an idyllic plan for the time when life becomes too harried or complicated. For some, the dream takes them on a long wilderness trek. Others hope to sail off to sea. For many, the fantasy is simpler. Put a canoe or raft in the nearest river, lie back, let the sun warm the body, trail a hand in the water, and drift away.

It's a dream that started with the excursions of early river explorers like Lewis and Clark and John Wesley Powell. It's been kept alive by writers like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Bernard DeVoto, and now it's being relived by modern river runners.

Montana's rivers have a special kind of historical significance, as the waterways played a key role in the Treasure State's early development. In early times the rivers carried only Indians and intrepid explorers. Later, they brought miners, cowboys, sodbusters, soldiers, and shopkeepers. Indian bullboats and French pirogues were gradually replaced by flatboats and even steamships. It was only with the coming of the railroads in the late 1800s that Montana's rivers faded in importance.

One reason the rivers were so important is that they are easily navigated. Despite the cold waters and rapid flow, most Montana rivers can be floated by people with only moderate river skills. Those who have seen Montana's towering mountains often find this hard to believe, as did Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He noted in his journal of 1805:

I can scarcely form an idea of a river running to great extent through such a rough mountainous country without having it's stream intersepted by some difficult and dangerous rappids or falls, we daily pass a great number of small rappids or riffles which descend one to or 3 feet in 150 yards but we are rarely incommoded with fixed or standing rocks and altho' strong rapid water are nevertheless quite practicable & by no means dangerous.
The majority of Montana's rivers lie in the mountainous western portion of the state, where they flow down broad valleys between mountain ranges. In arid eastern Montana where only a few major rivers flow, the streams are generally broad and flat as they cut through open grassland and sagebrush country. While the sparkling western streams may be more spectacular, the eastern rivers have a quiet beauty and offer better opportunities for solitude.

On most Montana rivers, whitewater sections occur primarily in narrow canyons and last only a few miles. While much of the whitewater is extremely challenging, most runs can be covered in a day. Unlike some western states, Montana has few rivers suitable for extended whitewater trips.

Montana rivers have a distinctly different appeal. They offer a deep sense of history and adventure still easily felt. In many instances, floaters can follow the river routes of early explorers, and, if diligent enough, can seek out the same campsites that were used long ago. The countryside surrounding some rivers has changed only slightly since the days of westward expansion; floaters may travel for a week and see only a few bridges and farmhouses.

As the rivers wind through secluded canyons, heavily timbered bottom lands, or isolated marshes, one can observe eagles, deer, bighorn sheep, osprey, bear, and waterfowl. More than anything else, wildlife sightings define Montana float trips. Watching an osprey catch a fish, floating past a great blue heron rookery, or seeing a deer with newborn fawns creates memories long remembered. Quiet floaters often won't disturb wildlife as they drift by, allowing excellent opportunities for observation and photography.

Outstanding trout fishing lures many people to Montana rivers. Fisheries biologists report that some streams contain more than a ton of trout for each mile of stream; other rivers hold a trout two pounds or larger for every 10 feet of streambank, and a four-pounder or larger for every 20 feet. Montana has about 450 miles of blue-ribbon trout water, and most of it can be floated.

Canoes and rafts allow a quiet approach and can take anglers to secluded portions of rivers not often visited on foot. Float anglers often become addicted to this style of angling.

We write this book in hopes that everyone who experiences Montana's rivers will become addicted to them. Anyone who has floated a free river, relished its natural beauty, fished for its wild trout, or challenged its whitewater should become an advocate for its protection. Hopefully, getting to know Montana's sparkling streams will give people a personal stake in the rivers' future.

Leave no trace:If floaters are careful, rivers can be floated again and again without showing signs of use. Your attentiveness to caring for the river could preclude the need for permit systems that limit use. Floaters on overnight trips should be especially mindful of their activities. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Wash yourself and your dishes away from the campsite and at least 100 feet from the river. Use biodegradable, non-phosphate soaps or detergents. Bury your dishwater, food drainings, and wet garbage in your latrine.
  • Bury human wastes at least 100 feet above the river's high-water mark. Campers should dig a latrine.
  • Don't destroy vegetation at your campsite. Use only dead wood for firewood, and don't dig trenches or build shelters, bough beds, or lean-tos.
  • Don't build a new fire ring if an old one is available. Keep your fire small, and before leaving, scatter the rocks and leftover firewood. Throw the ashes in the river and reclaim the fire scar with topsoil. (When building a fire, set aside the sod and topsoil for reclaiming the fire pit.) Use a portable stove or build your fire in a fire pan (an old garbage can lid works fine) whenever possible; you won't blacken rocks and can dump your ashes in the river more easily.
  • Erase all traces of your presence when you break camp. Remove all foil, glass, and unburned paper and plastic from the fire and pack it out. Remember, cigarette butts and pull tabs are litter, too.
  • Pick up and pack out garbage that less sensitive visitors have left along the shores or in the river.
Floating and the law: Landmark changes have taken place regarding Montana's stream access laws. These changes were initiated by lawsuits involving access disputes on the Beaverhead and Dearborn rivers. In 1984 the Montana Supreme Court ruled the public has a right to recreational use of the state's waters up to the high-water mark.

Then in 1985, the Montana Legislature passed a stream access law that even more narrowly defines the rules. The law provides that rivers and streams capable of recreational use may be so used by the public regardless of streambed ownership. The law does require, however, that certain activities require landowner permission.

The law defines "recreational use" as floating, fishing, hunting, swimming, and other water-related pleasure activities. It defines the ordinary high-water mark as the line the water impresses on land by covering it for a sufficient time to cause different characteristics below the line, such as deprivation of the soil of substantially all its terrestrial vegetation and destruction of its value for agricultural vegetation.

The law divides the state's rivers and streams into two categories, Class I and Class II. These classes are not be confused with the international system of rating rivers and streams according to difficulty and recommended skill level. That system is throughly explained in How to Use This Guide.

Class I are those streams which are capable of recreational use and have been declared navigable or which are capable of certain kinds of commercial activity, including commercial outfitting. Class II rivers are all others. For the most part, the rivers discussed in this section are Class I streams, with the exception of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone, Clearwater, Judith, Milk, Powder, Red Rock, Ruby, Stillwater, and Whitefish. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has made a preliminary classification of the state's rivers that speaks to specific river segments. All paddlers would do well to review details on the classifications and the regulations regarding each.

Recreationists should also be aware of trespass legislation passed by the Montana Legislature in 1985. This law states that lands can be closed to the public either by verbal communication or by actual posting. Do not trespass on posted land. When in doubt, ask permission. A special brochure is available from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that provides some of the finer points on stream access.

One aspect of stream access remains controversial. Some private landowners on the Blackfoot and Ruby rivers have challenged whether rights-of-way associated with county bridges constitute legal access to streams and rivers. The State of Montana has argued that they do, and floaters typically use county bridges without seeking permission. Paddlers will want to keep abreast of future developments.

Have a safe trip: Although few people like to talk about it, floating in Montana can be dangerous. Not only are many streams powerful and fast, but they are also quite cold, even in summer. Hypothermia can be as serious a danger as drowning. With proper caution and good clothing, however, these problems can be overcome.

Several persons die in Montana each year due to floating-related accidents. Statistics show that the overwhelming number of floating deaths occur in May and June when rivers are running at three to four times their normal flow. Beginners should be extremely wary about taking trips during the high-water period or in cold weather. Know your limitations and respect the rivers.

Excerpted from Paddling Montana by Hank Fisher
(Copyright 2000, Falcon Publishing, Inc.).

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