Free Flow

Originally published in the Whitefish Review, Summer 2008.  Alternate version published in Forever Wild: Journeys Through the North Fork.  This is the shorter, Whitefish Review version.

The river here is small. Much smaller than where my friends and I have rafted farther downstream. We follow game trails along the river’s edge, where fresh wolf and bear scat dot the ancient paths. While not as dramatic as the landscape to the south, this northern stretch feels old beyond our reckoning. There are no roads here; the river exists separate from our world. Many miles to the south, rafters, fishermen, and recreationists ply the river. The winding, rutted Outside North Fork Road, Route 486, follows its twists and turns to the Canadian Border. We’ve hiked many miles to get here and will have to hike the same to get back.

My girlfriend and I have come here as volunteers. On this first trip, we are collecting sediment samples from the river bed and from various tributary creeks and streams that feed it as it winds south towards America. In this foreign land, we are very much visitors. We startle a moose and her calf, and they run crashing through the underbrush. We can feel other eyes watching our movements as we splash in the water. Our bear spray stays firmly attached to our belts and we call, “Hey Bear!” as we ply the forest highways, walking deeper into this lost world.

Beneath this river bed lies high grade, metallurgical coal. We are on Crown Land, in southeastern British Columbia and it’s hard not to feel like we’re trespassing. British Columbia has received yet another proposal to mine this coal, trapped under the forest, in the mountains, beneath the river bed. Our little band of conservationists is collecting base-line data to be used in court battles to prevent the tearing open of this land.

There are other important wildlife resources here. Grizzly bears cross the border to the States. Wolf, moose, elk, mountain lion, lynx, and bobcat glide silently through these woods too. The river is their natural highway, the easiest path for them to follow as they move through this land. Each deserves its own study, but our resources are limited, and we focus our attentions on the fish and the sediment, hoping our data will never have to be used. Hoping our efforts will be for naught. We work in the shadow of the mountain that the company wants to raze, dumping the earth into the creeks, into the river.

They plan to move twenty tons of coal a day, their belching diesel trucks lumbering down the wash-board dirt roads that serve hunters and the few recreationalists that venture here. One truck every twenty minutes, every hour, every day for twenty years.  It took us an hour and a half to negotiate the twisted dirt road that passes some miles from where this mountain stands. There are no roads to its base; they will be built if the permit is approved.

This land is not especially beautiful. No majestic mountain peaks soar above the river’s gentle course. No glaciers wink down from their lofty heights. It is lovely, remote, rugged—home to unknown numbers of animals and plants—but it is not spectacular like Glacier or Waterton National Parks. No millions drive through here each year, craning their necks to see mountain goats and waterfalls. No funds exist to help preserve what wildness is here. This land exists as it does by default. There has always been enough somewhere else that this may be left alone. Forgotten by most, this land lies fallow, a rich, diverse catalogue of life, serving humanity passively, yet critically.

The North Fork of the Flathead River begins here where we stand. The samples we draw come from its very waters. Rain, snow, melt and thaw combine here in this valley and course their way thirty miles or so to the American border and from there, form the western boundary of Glacier National Park for sixty more miles until they converge at Blankenship Bridge with the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Another eight or ten miles farther, the South Fork of the Flathead joins them and together they flow, wide and cold, into Flathead Lake. The Middle Fork forms the southern border of Glacier National Park, running from the Continental Divide west.  The South Fork drains the giant Bob Marshall Wilderness and is trapped briefly behind the Hungry Horse Dam, before finally meeting her wild sisters. From the output at the south end of Flathead Lake, the River twists seventy-five more miles, finally joining the Clark Fork River and flowing with this great Montana water to Idaho and Lake Pend de Orielle.

Together, these silty, aquamarine rivers drain millions of acres of the most pristine and wild country left in our battered and broken landscape. North of Flathead Lake, every mile of this great system is preserved and protected, except of course the thirty shallow miles of the North Fork that lie in Canada. Only these forgotten twists are susceptible to the miner’s shovel, the logger’s saw, the developer’s pavement. And it is here that we struggle with heavy packs and heavy hearts, hoping our work will never be used in defense of this magic water, hoping our efforts are futile and these studies we conduct will wither over time on the bookshelves of history, needless and unnecessary.

The environmental consulting firm producing an environmental impact statement claim that these tributary creeks are “non fish bearing.” On our second trip, a month after we collected water samples, we return with Montana Fish Wildlife and Park employees to march up and down these creeks, carrying heavy shocking equipment, and find lots of fish—Bull trout, protected both in the US and in British Columbia, westslope cutthroat trout, sculpin, and others. Thirty, forty, fifty specimens in each one-hundred step section of water we measure.

The Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks crew based in Whitefish are a rugged, intense group. This is a little intimidating to my girlfriend and me, two waiters from the decidedly non-competitive food service industry. The shocking packs we carry weigh about thirty pounds. They hold heavy deep cycle batteries, like car batteries, and have an awkward harness system that doesn’t seem to fit any body type well. A twisted wire cable drops from the bottom of the pack and follows in the water behind the person stumbling down the river bed, and a curled wire like an old phone cord attached to a pole with a round metal halo rises from the top of the pack. This apparatus shocks the fish. It also shocks anything else in the water and we cry “Probe out!” if we fail to catch the stunned fish in a net and grab for them with our bare hands. Or at least we’re supposed to.

It’s a pretty straightforward operation. One person carries the pack and shocking pole. Two others walk backwards, downstream, carrying nets and catching the stunned fish before they are carried out of the electric waters and regain their consciousness. A couple more people carry five-gallon buckets filled with water to collect the fish after the netting. They will be counted, documented, and some will have a fin sample snipped and recorded.

Walking downstream with a thirty-pound backpack is difficult. Walking backwards, downstream, with a net or a bucket is yet more difficult. Walking downstream, backwards, carrying a net or bucket, when the sole of your wader is completely torn and your stocking foot keeps sliding through onto the slippery, rocky river bed is yet more difficult. Add to this scenario a tired, wet girlfriend to whom you plan to propose in a few short weeks and whom you are desperately hoping will say yes, and whose idea of volunteering is vastly different than stumbling down river beds in remote bear country, and it might become apparent why my smile is a little forced this late afternoon.

I first notice the hole just a mile into our day. It is small, just a neat little tear on the inside ankle of the waders the Fish and Parks guy had given me. I didn’t actually notice it until we splashed through some large puddles and I felt the first tell-tale wetness in my sock. I try, unsuccessfully, to push it out of my mind, to concentrate on the natural splendor that surrounded me, but it is wet and uncomfortable.

After an hour or so of marching, we stop for some water and a snack on a hillside, over-looking the river. I mention the hole in my wader.

“Bummer!” Fish Guy says and gnaws at his sandwich. The other Fish Guys nod and grunt their agreement that yes, it is a bummer indeed. The hole has grown larger since my initial discovery. I pull duct tape out of my pack and try to patch things up.

“If it’s wet, it’ll never work. You’ll just end up wasting the tape.”

“Well, I’ll give it a try.” And I blow onto the rubber boot, trying to dry it. The air hisses from my pursed lips, air that had it run through my voice box as words, would have sounded a little angry.

They were right. The tape held for about ten steps. I picked it up off the forest floor. In truth, their response was fair. I am here of my own free will; they weren’t responsible for my predicament. I plod down the path.

By lunch the wader has pretty much torn apart. Water pours from the gaping hole each time I lift my foot from the frigid river. It is alternatively annoying, uncomfortable, dangerous, hilarious, and painful. I immerse myself in the work and smile, wanting to prove that food service employees are just as tough as any Fish Wildlife and Parks employee. My wife-to-be offers her consolations, apologizing sweetly for a turn of events she has no control over. Most everyone else ignores me. At least it is sunny and warm.

This river is as close to a natural, wild, and free river as we have left in this broken country. This river knows no political bounds. It knows no industrial development. It cares nothing for the desires of men and machines. The river seeks the sea and nothing more.

We are finished for the day and marching back to our encampment. The sun is low on the horizon and I know it’s getting late. Summer nights drag their feet in this country, often not arriving until 10 or 11 pm. We are tired, my wife-to-be and I.  Nearly the entire sole of my wader has ripped out. My stocking foot protrudes from the ineffective rubber boot, an ill equipped explorer, hell bent on finding the rockiest, wettest, sharpest, most tiresome route through this terra incognito.

I glance at my would-be wife; her countenance is not encouraging. I glance ahead at the slowest Fish Guy we’d been following. I don’t see him.  I glance again at the twisted wreckage of my boot and plod along.

“Where are you going?” she calls, “The path is over here.” We had separated a few paces ago, and she is now twenty yards to my left. “But there’s a path here too.” I protest, and I lie, “I think Fish Guy’s right up there, I just saw him.”

“I haven’t seen him for a while.” Her voice is quiet.

“I’m sure they’re just up there.” I point reassuringly in the general direction we’ve been walking.

“Where’s the river?” she asks.  I look around, no river, no Fish Guy, just trees and a faint path on the forest floor, some wildflowers scattered about.  “It must be just down here.” I say turning and pointing again, this time to my right. My heart is beating faster than when I was slogging through the forest. I quickly review the situation: I have brought the person of my greatest desires, my heart’s one true love, to a remote, bear infested foreign land to help save this place; we’ve fallen far behind the group; and I’ve lost the river, the only landmark with which we have any relationship. Well, I think, time for a brave face.

“Hello!” She cries out to the forest. “You left us! Hello!”

They don’t answer.  By now, they’re probably fifteen minutes ahead of us. The wind has picked up a bit, and the forest seems to absorb sound like acoustic paneling.  We’re alone, lost, and in truth, the few things I’m confident of are that not only will I never marry this sweet, gentle creature whom I have doomed to these unforgiving woods, but her tragic demise will curse my soul and I shall never marry anyone, and eventually die, lonely and confused.

Together we march forward. Eventually, after an hour of crashing through the forest, trying to find the river, the right trail, the group, some familiar landmark in a vast sea of sameness, we hear a call through the forest. We are saved.

The river sings us to sleep that night. My girlfriend is still mad. She will not work again tomorrow, but will sit, instead, beside the river and read. We sleep soundly, profoundly glad to be in our warm sleeping bags, cocooned in a tent, bellies full and contented.  The fear we felt, wandering the forest alone and lost was real. We will not forget it for a long time. Truthfully, we were in little actual danger, perhaps an uncomfortable night spent huddled together under a tree, hunger gnawing at our bellies. But we would have been found, or we would have found the river the next morning. Still, the couple of hours we spent cold and tired, so close, but so far from the comforts of camp, have shaken us. She will never forgive the Fish Guys.

But to the river, we will return many times. Not as scientists, but as lovers, and we will drive the bumpy dirt road to within a few miles of the Canadian border. I will propose marriage on a gravel beach at the head of lake that drains into the North Fork. She will say yes. We will return again to canoe the American stretches of the river. We will see a black bear on the bank; ospreys and bald eagles will fish for their dinner while we fish for ours.  We will camp on its shores and watch the sun rise over what Blackfeet Indians called the backbone of the world.

We awake to sunshine. It is cool, but my down vest keeps me warm. I walk up the road away from camp, eyes blinking in the crispness of morning. I am proud to be here. Proud to have found such a wonderful woman to come here with me. Proud to be doing what we’re doing. We have twice taken time from work, traveled into Canada to tromp through the woods, playing scientist to save one of the last wild river systems in our country. It’s meaningful, delightful, and thrilling. It’s tiring, dirty, frustrating, and we so hope, pointless. If this data is never used, the mine company will have withdrawn its permit request or the B.C. government will have denied it. It will mean the letters I wrote helped sway a provincial government. It will mean the small amount of cash I donated helped the groups fighting this project succeed. Most likely though, this data will be used, forming the compelling arguments for courtroom drama and litigious maneuvers. This data could save this river.

Or it won’t. Industry will win; the coal beds will be developed; the methane gas reserves drilled; the moose, bears, lynx and cougar will be cut down by the giant trucks; the river will be fouled and sediment will spoil the spawning beds of the trout and the osprey and eagles will starve.

Standing by the river the last morning we are there, I have no idea what will happen—the marriage or the fate of this waterway are all many months in the future. I am still tired from the day before, still fearful there is no replacement wader, and I will be forced to work in my sneakers. I am also still relishing this opportunity to play scientist, to feel proud and glad to be here helping, working, saving.  I look down at the camp; the Fish Guys are up, their voices break the morning’s spell. As I walk back towards breakfast and coffee and the woman who will be my wife, I try to push these thoughts from my mind.  Instead, I pause one last time, before the day begins, and simply watch. The river—pure, clean, and free by default, breaks the sunshine into a thousand shards of fluttering light.

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