The Longest Haul
A pair of Montana anglers scout a recovering river, one free-floating mile at a time
By Brian Kevin
The lower Clark Fork winds past Montana's Cabinet Mountains (left); trout wranglers John Havlik (center) and Daniel Kiely (right).
Where are the anglers and what have they done with the governor? The question is on the lips of 50-plus tubers, kayakers, TV journos, VIPs, and rubberneckers gathered in a perspirous throng on the banks of the Clark Fork River, just outside Missoula, Montana. On the beach, coeds reapply sunscreen. Reporters use notebooks as fans. One poor young schmo from the local news station looks particularly miserable, slogging through the 95-degree heat in a long-sleeved oxford, awaiting the sound bite he showed up for two hours earlier. You can almost see the group's collective patience wilting in the midday sun.
Wherever he is, Montana governor Brian Schweitzer is in the company of Daniel Kiely and John Havlik, thirtysomething Missoula fishing buddies out to float all 320 miles of the Clark Fork, from its source in west-central Montana to its mouth at Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille. The purpose of their 19-day eco-PR spectacle: To examine firsthand whether one of Montana's most storied trout streams is indeed bouncing back following decades of mining contamination, nutrient pollution, and encroaching development. And to fish the holy hell out of it along the way.
The gov was to be today's guest of honor, floating with Kiely and Havlik toward Missoula and pausing here to rendezvous with the celebratory flotilla. But nobody's heard from him since 10 a.m., when he waved off his handlers at an access site upstream and stepped onto a fishing raft carrying two complete strangers, an abundance of trout flies, and a few coolers of beer. That was five hours ago, and the downstream crowd is getting anxious. This is not how Schwarzenegger rolls.
"Good morning, sunshine!" Although this is only our second-ever phone conversation, Kiely greets me like an old pal. I'm five minutes late for the put-in, speeding along a tangled network of ranch roads, desperately seeking the launch site for the first leg of a trip dubbed the Clark Fork 320.
Kiely tells me not to worry--they're a full hour behind. "We're already on river time," he says.
Kiely conceived the trip in his capacity as a board member of the Missoula-based nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition. Since 1985, the group has worked to restore and protect the Clark Fork River, Montana's largest by volume, carrying 16.5 million acre-feet of water each year. Kiely joined in 2004, after fleeing the ulcer-inducing life of a trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Today, one gets the impression that his job at a Missoula financial firm is mostly a cover for his fly-fishing habit.
He unveiled his 320 concept after the March 2008 removal of a small hydroelectric dam at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers, eight miles upstream from Missoula. Finally breached after 25 years of impact studies and administrative quibbling, the Milltown Dam and the 120 miles of Clark Fork River above it have long held the dubious honor of being one of the country's largest Superfund sites. The river's human-made ailments date back to 1908, when a 33-day downpour washed piles of tailings into the river from copper mines at Butte and millions of tons of copper, zinc, and arsenic settled behind the dam.
Seven decades of repeated "oopsies" contributed to the mess. At times during the mid-20th century, the Clark Fork literally ran red with mineral waste. Arsenic seeped into the groundwater at Milltown, while heavy metals in the upper river decimated fish populations and lingered in contaminated "slickens" along the banks. It was an ongoing toxic insult added to the initial injury of the dam's placement, which prevented trout from spawning in key tributaries upriver.
Both the Clark Fork Coalition and Sierra Club had pushed for the dam's removal. Though the Superfund cleanup continues, the dam's elimination restored the Blackfoot-Clark Fork confluence to a free-flowing state for the first time in a century. This got Kiely reconsidering a longtime daydream: to float-fish the whole river, source to mouth.
The coalition loved the idea. The group would bring in scientists and politicians to witness the river's rebound and learn about the work yet to be done. It would solicit big-money donors who'd pay to fish alongside the 320 boat and throw a party when the crew arrived in Missoula, with Governor Schweitzer aboard for a ride through the restored confluence. How better to promote a recovering river than with a giant, free-floating fishing trip?
Kiely's Jeep pulls up an hour after my panicked phone call, towing a 16-foot drift boat. Fishing guide Havlik rides shotgun, and Kiely's wife, Kay, is crammed in back amid coolers and dry bags. "Gentlemen," Kiely calls out with mock formality, "it's a beautiful day for fishing."
He's a tall, clean-shaven guy with a loping grin and a mop of prematurely graying hair beneath a full-brimmed Orvis hat--the topmost component in a wardrobe of spotless, name-brand angling apparel. Havlik, similarly tall and genial, sports a baseball cap, board shorts, and skateboard shoes. He ribs Kiely for looking like a Patagonia model. "Function over fashion, my friend," Kiely says. "Function over fashion."
Kay is joining the float for the first two days. For the remainder, the drift boat's third seat will belong to various VIPs, who'll join them along the way. Havlik's on board for 15 days, missing the last 4 to return to his family and his construction company.
When the boat is in the water, Kiely produces a bottle of single malt and hands it to Havlik with ceremonial flair. Havlik breaks the seal and raises the bottle. "I have two rules on my trips," he explains. "Rule number one: Relax. Rule number two: Enjoy yourself."
Flatwater on the lower Clark Fork (left). From left, former Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal chair James Steele Jr., Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, John Havlik, and Daniel Kiely fish at the former Milltown Dam site.
"Oh man," says Havlik. "Look at those [expletive deleted] mountains."
The landscape surrounding the upper Clark Fork is all Rocky Mountain pastoral, a patchwork of ranchlands spreading out beneath the 10,000-foot peaks of the Flint Creek Range. It's hardly a wilderness stream, though. The river rarely strays a half mile from the interstate, and floaters are often in earshot of the light rumble that passes for traffic noise in western Montana. Diversion dams channel water into irrigation canals. As I paddle my kayak behind the drift boat, Kiely points out barren, blue-tinged riverfront moonscapes where accumulations of arsenic and other heavy metals have denuded vegetation.
Look south from along the upper river and you'll sometimes glimpse the 585-foot Anaconda Smelter Stack, a brick tower looming above the scrubby hills like something out of The Lord of the Rings. The stack, completed in 1919, burped plumes of contaminated ash over the valley for 60 years. Surrounding it is a cluster of dry basins called the Opportunity Settling Ponds. Once used to decant toxic particles from the smelter's wastewater, they're now the dump site for contaminated dirt dredged from the upper river as part of the Superfund cleanup. More than 3 million tons have been relocated from Milltown.
Despite the slickens' ominous presence, the anglers drift through Day 1 adhering to Havlik's two rules. He and Kay cheer when Kiely lands a 21-inch brownie. We all laugh when I flip my kayak on a sweeper. Havlik breaks into ear-splitting renditions of Michael Jackson songs. This outing may have a lofty public relations agenda, but I quickly realize that Havlik and Kiely see it first and foremost as a fishing trip among friends.
The Clark Fork makes a broad S-curve at Kohr's Bend, our put-in for Day 2. Sporadic access is one reason the upper Clark Fork hasn't become a major recreation corridor. Sporadic fish is another. It's true that savvy locals consider the river's first 50 miles a respectable brown trout fishery. Brushy undercut banks make excellent habitat, insect hatches can be prolific, and for a river that's suffered such severe ecological damage, the population is solid. Recent surveys have counted upward of 800 browns per mile in its highest reaches.
But fish kills can be catastrophic when heavy rains flush out the banks every few years, releasing torrents of pollutants. Before sedimentation ponds were installed in the 1950s, mining tailings almost wiped out trout here altogether, and state biologists still estimate that the upper Clark Fork fishes at just a 10th of its potential. The problem is exacerbated by the missing flora, mostly native willows and riparian shrubs, which enables high water to destroy the oxbows and cutbanks that trout depend on for habitat.
After 20 years of negotiations, current mine owner BP agreed in 2008 to spend $123 million to remove sediment and restore streamside vegetation. With that work under way, biologists believe the upper Clark Fork can regain its status as a top-notch trout stream.
In the meantime, it's at least a tranquil one. An hour downstream from Kohr's Bend, Daniel and Kay are casting silently while Havlik rows. A second drift boat is floating a half mile ahead, carrying a volunteer guide and two other coalition board members. The fishing's slow, but everyone's blissing on another perfect summer day. No one has said a word for a half hour when Havlik breaks the silence.
"Look at that lonely little [expletive deleted] cloud over there," he says, sighing. "That is one lonely little bastard."
While Kiely and Havlik release every fish they catch, river otters are not nearly as disciplined, and we glimpse a dozen of them during our first two days on the river. Feeding on trout, the otters are sort of a bellwether species; their numbers speak strongly to a river in recovery. We also drift past beavers the size of German shepherds and the occasional preening heron. The shoreline is busy with menageries of mule deer and pronghorn. For a river that early-1990s observers regularly characterized as "biologically dead," the upper Clark Fork looks quite alive from the cockpit of my kayak.
Mid-afternoon, we rendezvous with guide Josh Lauer to crack beers and talk trout. One of Lauer's passengers nabbed a native cutthroat earlier, which sets Kiely and Havlik all atwitter. Cutties are fussy about water quality, and in the Clark Fork's upper watershed, they mostly hang out in the colder, cleaner tributaries. Landing one in this stretch is like finding a genuine Armani jacket in a thrift store. Kiely, on the other hand, has had some hard luck. "My biggest fish all day was an LDR," he sighs. Seeing my confusion, he explains with a wink, "long-distance release--a technical term."
"We've got fishermen!" I hear somebody shout, and the beach crowd sends up a cheer. The kid from the news station slides back into his sport coat, looking relieved. Across the beach, well-bronzed Missoulians start readying their kayaks, rafts, and inner tubes.
It seems no watery tragedy has befallen Kiely, Havlik, and Governor Schweitzer after all. Instead, their multi-hour delay can be attributed to a more insidious menace: fishing. The 320 party spent their morning tossing line after lazy line into the seams and pockets of the Clark Fork. As the governor disembarks, I ask Kiely about the holdup. "What can I say?" he smiles. "We're on river time."
On the beach, though, Kiely and Havlik become savvy diplomats. I lurk nearby while Havlik does an interview with the kid in the sport coat. He refrains from dropping his customary F-bombs and delivers articulate quotes like he's reading a Teleprompter. "I truly believe that being a fishing guide is among the best jobs in the world," he says. "Every day on this recovering river is such a blessing." Meanwhile, Kiely handles the crowd like a nimble bride at a wedding reception, shaking hands and introducing Schweitzer to seemingly everyone.
"The best part of the day," Kiely says, "came just as we reached the confluence. Here's a spot no one's fished in a hundred years, and Governor Schweitzer pulls out an 18-inch native westslope cutthroat." The reporters scribble appreciatively while the governor stands by beaming.
Once the circus dies down, everyone takes to the river, and the Clark Fork becomes a big, freewheeling party of nonmotorized watercraft. For locals, floating the river is a sacred summertime ritual on par with tailgating for Grizzly football. And after the upper river's solitude, I'm glad to be reminded that the Clark Fork is more than just an ecosystem; it's also the social backdrop for a few dozen communities, a setting for generations of shared stories and good times.
At the coalition-sponsored after-party, I ask Kiely what it was like fishing with Schweitzer. He laughs and says, "Let's say he got a lot of help from John." But how amazing, I say, to have snagged a cutthroat right there at the confluence! Kiely sips his beer and smiles. "Well," he says after a pause, "that one was actually kind of an LDR."
With no VIP lined up for Day 12, I forgo the kayak in order to take the drift boat's third seat. It's my first real float-fishing trip, and Kiely and Havlik are psyched to play Obi-Wans to my Luke. "Today is the day you lose your trout virginity," Havlik tells me.
Much of the last four days consisted of what Kiely calls "urban-assault fishing," as the anglers floated through Missoula and neighboring towns--a rough stretch. Fishing near Missoula has long been hampered by nutrient pollution--high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous caused by human and bovine waste. The nutrients prompt algae blooms, which attract oxygen-devouring bacteria, and when oxygen levels drop, fish populations suffer. Here too, though, the Clark Fork is showing signs of a rebound. In 1998, the coalition and the Sierra Club helped broker a 10-year nutrient-reduction agreement among the river's primary polluters. By 2008, phosphorous discharge had shrunk by 72 percent from 1990 levels, with nitrogen discharge down by a third. For anglers, the decreases have meant clearer water and fatter, more abundant trout.
Today's float runs through a dramatic canyon stretch, and while Kiely and I fish, Havlik rows and offers tips on my cast. For all his indelicate verbal tendencies, he's an excellent guide--calm and focused, with the bedside manner of a country doctor. The fishing's slow, but I'm enjoying the scenery. My companions, however, are anxious to see me reel something in.
It's late afternoon when it finally happens. I've laid a dry fly near the reeds on the right bank, and I hear Havlik exclaim, "Strike!" before I even feel my rod dip. Suddenly he and Kiely are talking at once, like hyperactive children competing to tell the same story. Then Havlik zeroes in with his all-knowing guide voice: "Let him run, Brian. Good. Watch your stance." I fumble with the reel for a minute or two, and suddenly Havlik is there with the net, scooping up the 15-inch rainbow. And that's that. Losing my trout virginity turns out to be a lot like losing my regular virginity--over before I really comprehend what's going on.
It's a beautiful fish, fully finned and lightly speckled, with a pale pink band across its midsection. Havlik holds it up for a photo, and I kiss it before he gently releases it back into the river.
As I watch my rainbow quick-flick away, I think about what a peculiar pursuit this is. We don't keep the fish. We don't eat the fish. In the end, I think, what keeps us casting isn't so much the search for fish as the search for stories. It's the same reason we go paddling or rafting, the same reason we work to restore rivers. Surging along with the Clark Fork's 16.5 million acre-feet are the stories of everyone who's ever fished on, paddled through, ranched near, or made a living off the river. They litter the current like a legion of lost flies, no two alike. And with every dip of the rod, we feel their pull.
The next time I see Kiely is at the Johnson Creek Recreation Area, where the river meets Lake Pend Oreille near Clark Fork, Idaho. I'm alone at the finish line, waiting. Havlik has gone back to his family and day job, so Kiely has spent the last four days with Lauer, the volunteer guide. To speed passage through a few reservoirs, they've been using Lauer's motorboat, and I hear them coming before I see them.
As the boat rounds the final bend, I spot Kiely at the bow, rod in hand, Patagonia shirt flapping. The lack of fanfare at the takeout is disappointing, but then I realize that this is as it should be--that what began 320 miles ago with just a couple of workaday fishing buddies should end that way as well.
Kiely calls out to me as Lauer kills the motor. "We've been wondering," he says. "What are the odds you've brought some beer?"
The odds, I tell him, are very good.
It's a beautiful day in northern Idaho. I retrieve a six-pack from my car while Kiely and Lauer set up lawn chairs. Two bald eagles drift in lazy circles overhead, the sky behind them the color of seawater. We spend the rest of the afternoon on the banks of the Clark Fork River, obeying rule number one.
Back From The Dead:
Resurrecting the Clark Fork River
The Sierra Club has been active for decades in the Clark Fork River's 22,000-square-mile watershed. In the 1990s, the Montana Chapter was part of a consortium of businesses, local governments, and nonprofit groups advocating for a voluntary nutrient-reduction agreement among wastewater polluters. In the 2000s, the Club joined Missoula's Clark Fork Coalition in garnering public support for the removal of the Milltown Dam.
Today the biggest threat to the lower Clark Fork is a proposed copper and silver mine 25 miles upstream from Lake Pend Oreille, along the Rock Creek tributary. There, adjacent to Montana's Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Revett Minerals would discharge more than 3 million gallons of wastewater into the river each day and pile 100 million tons of waste rock alongside the creek. The Sierra Club is a co-litigant in a Montana lawsuit that contends the state has not adequately studied the mine's potential effects on bull trout habitat.
The Club has also partnered with Trout Unlimited in streamside restoration projects on a handful of critical trout-habitat tributaries on the middle Clark Fork. The Sierra Club's Hunter-Angler Program outreach campaign has taken a particular interest in the proposed Great Burn Wilderness in Montana's Lolo National Forest, where the Fish Creek drainage is a stronghold for bull trout and native westslope cutthroat.
The Montana Chapter plans to lead several volunteer-service trips this summer to remove a half-dozen sediment-trapping culverts along the Great Burn's Wall Canyon Creek. The Club is also lobbying on behalf of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to protect 23,000 miles of streams and 533,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in the West--including Fish Creek and the middle and lower Clark Fork. For more information on Great Burn service trips, bull trout habitat, and other Sierra Club efforts in the Clark Fork watershed, visit the Sierra Club's Montana Chapter website, montana.sierraclub.org. --B.K.
Brian Kevin writes about travel, adventure, and culture from Missoula, Montana.
This story was funded by the Sierra Club's Hunter-Angler Program outreach campaign.
Photos, from top: Jim Streeter; Clark Fork Coalition (2); Michael Gallacher; Glenn Oakley.
Illustration by Josh Cochran.