from ‘Opportunity, Montana:
Big Copper, Bad Water, and the
Burial of an American Landscape’
Part 1, Headwater:
Montana seems to me to be what a small boy might think Texas is like from listening to Texans.
—John Steinbeck, “Travels with Charley”
The first time I saw the Clark Fork I wasn’t sure I’d found what I was looking for. I’d imagined something else.
When I announced I was moving to Montana a decade ago, my friends in Houston hummed bars of Frank Zappa: Movin’ to Montana soon / Gonna be a dental floss tycoon. My mother dropped exploratory references to the Unabomber, trying to act casual. I had never heard the song and I had no intention of blowing anybody up.
I packed a small green truck with two dogs and not much else. I’d sold most of my books and all of my records. I’d kept some clothes, a few keepsakes, a camera, some camping gear, a couple of paddles, and a life jacket. On top of the truck were two canoes and a kayak tied down with nylon straps that hummed in the wind and rubbed the paint off my hood in patches.
I left Houston headed due north, going the long way through the Great Plains, bisecting Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska—because I’d never seen Oklahoma or Kansas or Nebraska—and continuing up through Wyoming toward Montana via Yellowstone National Park. I’d used baling wire to mount a memento of home—a deformed steer skull, one horn curving up, the other curving down— to the truck’s grill. A Yellowstone ranger, concerned that fellow tourists might think I’d scavenged the skull from park grounds and follow suit, made me cover it with a plastic garbage bag.
I flirted through the window at 35 mph with a couple of 4-H queens driving an old GMC truck around some worn-out Wyoming farm town, burned my brake pads to smoke coming down out of the Bighorn Mountains, and saw a sign I’d never seen before and don’t mind if I never see again, a yellow rectangle on a steel swing-gate standing ready to block the highway: “Closed for Snow—Return to Cody.” It struck me at the time as the most tragicomic mandate a highway department could issue. I had just been through Cody, and nothing could make me want to go back.
Yellowstone delivered me into Montana alongside a splishy little stream running beside the road, pebble-bedded, cold, and clear, and a jagged horizon of mountains to awe any flatlander. I stopped next to a carved wooden sign reading “Welcome to Montana” to take my picture. It was a border crossing I wanted to remember.
I was on Interstate 90 northwest of Butte when I picked up the Clark Fork. I knew it was supposed to be the biggest river in the state, and one of the waters that ran through Missoula, where I was headed. The gazetteer showed it shadowing 90 for a while, but I had a hard time matching the squiggly blue line with the view out the window. That river looked not much bigger than a Texas ditch, and long stretches were lined with stone riprap to reinforce and define the channel, shaped to suit a highway surveyor’s transit. Sometimes it moved from one side of the road to the other when I couldn’t remember crossing it.
I’d picked Missoula off a map.
I’d gotten married and quickly divorced two years earlier, then been laid off from a longtime newspaper job. I didn’t have any family left in Houston. My mother had remarried and moved to Dallas. My sister had gone to school in Tennessee and followed a career to Atlanta. My dad was living north of Houston in Humble, where I rarely saw him, and usually regretted it when I did. I loved Houston, which is a thing only a Houstonian can or will say, but I wasn’t exactly in love with it anymore.
I lived off severance and unemployment for the allotted seven months, looking less for a new job than for someplace to go. I spent two months driving around the Southeast, camping at state parks, paddling Arkansas’s Buffalo River, Georgia’s Chattahoochee, North Carolina’s New, scouting a move. I had Asheville in mind, but when I got there the hippie egg joint downtown had no salt on the table and the local weekly paper was touting a Jimmy Buffett cover band as the best live music in town, so I kept driving. Nothing against Jimmy Buffett—I bought all his 8-tracks when the format died and they hit the discount racks—I just don’t like being around too large a crowd that likes him too.
On my way back to Houston, still undecided, I stopped in Atlanta to visit my sister, Cameron. She had a little girl, my first niece, three years old, and, with an understandable affinity for boyish names, Cameron had named her Nelson. A second baby girl on the way had the name Bradley Rivers waiting for her. Bradley was for me, and Rivers was a family name from my brother-in-law’s side, but I hogged pride in it whole. It’s a name I wish I’d had.
We considered my options. Cameron had spent a summer between college semesters working at a dude ranch on the Smith River in central Montana, and on the way there she’d flown into Missoula and visited Flathead Lake—the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—to the north. Now she offered up a coffee-table book of Montana landscape porn: snow-draped peaks, steep creeks, weathered homestead cabins, and bighorn sheep grazing alpine meadows.
Cameron found a map and we sat on the floor and drew a red circle around Missoula. There was plenty of moving water and a university there, and surely no Jimmy Buffett cover bands so far from any beach.
Six months later, when I crossed the Montana state line, I still didn’t know anything about Montana except what the picture books showed, so I expected an uninterrupted trove of scenic superlatives. The rivers would all come crashing down out of real mountains, sudsy with whitewater and lined with browsing bears, grazing elk, and free-range bison. A few weeks after I arrived I found a job editing a weekly newspaper, the Missoula Independent, and began to see past the surface.
I wrote and assigned and edited stories about purple-state Democrats, federal land management controversies, and the local development battles endemic to those parts of the Rocky Mountain West where settlement had stuck. I acculturated to a seasonal news cycle in which every spring someone drowned during runoff, trapped in a log jam that hadn’t been there the day before or cracking their skull on rocks ill-pillowed by big water. Every summer, a season I used to associate with hurricanes, marked the nervous start of a new wildfire watch, when hundreds or thousands of acres might spark into flame from lightning or campfire coals, pouring soot into the valleys like black fog. Every fall generated videos of a stockpiling bear wandering into town or falling tranquilized out of a tree onto a makeshift trampoline. Every winter the city’s ski hounds counted the accumulating snowpack like gold coins, alert for powder days unsullied by the climatic inversions that sometimes capped the valley in smog.
I played at poker tables with hippies who hung Tibetan prayer flags from their front porches and hunted elk with arrows in the fall. I poached weekend potlucks where the tables were laid with fresh salmon from someone’s recent trip to Alaska and morel mushrooms someone else had picked from the charred floor of last year’s burn.
I spent my weekends, evenings, and weeks off floating the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, the Missouri, the Smith, the Ruby, the Madison, the Flathead, and the Clark Fork, in inner tubes, kayaks, canoes, and rafts. Some of these rivers did come crashing down out of real mountains, sudsy with whitewater. Others meandered quietly. They all ran muddy come spring. And I finally saw a bear, a cinnamon-colored cub wading Rattlesnake Creek just a few yards from the 1950s-era Sears kit log cabin I rented one year.
Writer Caroline Patterson describes Missoula as “drunk with rivers.” The vocabulary of moving water suffuses the lingo here, and it’s a rare conversation that doesn’t include the abbreviation “cfs”—cubic feet per second—the rate of river flow. Montana’s rivers freeze up in winter, surge with snowmelt in spring, and ebb in late summer when irrigators drain them to water parched crops. Fly fishers and kayakers watch the water gauges like osprey, Missoula’s ubiquitous fish hawks.
I gradually began to gather that the Clark Fork wasn’t quite what I’d thought it was. The river I had shadowed on my drive in had long been choked by the detritus of a century’s worth of copper mining upstream. The “Treasure State” of Montana’s license plates was sourced in metal, and it had been mined for a century in Butte and refined at an enormous smelter nearby in a town called Anaconda. Butte copper had wired America, strung across the country to deliver residential electricity and telephone connections, feeding power to unbridled industrial growth and cladding the bullets that won two world wars. That copper was in my cell phone and my laptop and my refrigerator. It wired the pickup I drove upstream to launch my canoe.
The Clark Fork I found bore little resemblance to the river that Meriwether Lewis named for his partner William Clark in 1806. Upstream at Butte, untold tons of ore-bearing rock had been crushed to liberate millions of pounds of the red metal it held, and the waste rock, leaky with poisons, still littered the watershed, moving downriver with every rain. Over the course of a century, millions of tons of it had washed up behind the Milltown Dam, an aging powerhouse built in 1908 that pinched the river just east of Missoula. Among those sediments were mine tailings laden with copper, arsenic, cadmium, and lead, toxic heavy metals and refining by-products that were eventually discovered seeping into area wells.
In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency had defined the river’s upper reaches as the largest Superfund site in the United States, a cluster of interrelated environmental catastrophes and corollary cleanups blossoming upstream to their source in Butte. Arguments over the best way to deal with the contamination lasted for two decades and generated sophisticated public relations campaigns. ARCO, the oil company that inherited the site when it bought the Anaconda Mining Company in 1977, wanted to leave the dam in place, arguing that removing it would just stir up trouble downstream. A local nonprofit called the Clark Fork Coalition advocated taking the dam out and removing the sediments—a more permanent and much more expensive solution.
Cleanup negotiations were never far from the front page. Environmentalists plastered Missoula with bumper stickers saying “Remove the Dam, Restore the River.” Contrarians produced “Remove Missoula, Restore the Valley.”
Come summertime, I would drag an inner tube to the river just below the dam and joined thousands of floaters spinning downstream into Missoula, partly to support the cleanup, but mostly because it was another excuse to get on the water.
Finally, in 2008, the dam came down. Governmental potentates presided, environmentalists celebrated. The Clark Fork would be rerouted into an artificial bypass channel, the artificial lake behind the dam allowed to dry up, and contractors would begin removing three million tons of contaminated sediment from the reservoir bed. Soon the river would be restored to the engineers’ best guess at its natural channel, and the tributary Blackfoot River would flow freely into the Clark Fork, instead of stagnating upstream of the dam, for the first time in a hundred years. Within a decade, it is hoped, the arsenic plume contaminating Milltown’s water will disperse, and without the weight of the reservoir pushing contaminants down into the aquifer, the health of Milltown’s drinking water, and Missoula’s aquifer, will be restored.
Thus began the multigenerational work of remanufacturing a river.
Nobody’s ever rebuilt a 120-mile river before. Nobody knows what it’s supposed to look like. The goal is a naturally functioning river. How do you design one of those?
That question was the current connecting the myriad topics tackled at the 2010 Clark Fork Symposium at the University of Montana in Missoula, two seminar- and workshop-packed days during which a parade of federal bureaucrats, state functionaries, nonprofit administrators, academics, environmentalists, landowners, biologists, chemists, and entrepreneurs dissected the river into its component issues: migratory riverbed corridors, stream-bank erosion, dissolved copper content, arsenic contamination, fish kills, phosphorous loading trends, brown trout populations, algae blooms, gradient scouring, and a dozen other esoteric fields of inquiry.
Outside the conference rooms, adjacent to a university parking lot, the Clark Fork itself flowed past perturbed, over a rubbled weir dam diverting water to an irrigation ditch, around an island dog-walking sanctuary Missoulians call the Bark Park, beneath a suspension footbridge, and past the DoubleTree Hotel’s Finn & Porter restaurant, where diners are regularly treated to the graceful casts of a fully bedecked fly fisherman on the rock beach below. Local rumor holds that hotel management hires fly fishers to work that precise spot, where Rattlesnake Creek pours into the river from the north, to provide out-of-town visitors—graduation-weekend parents, trout-seeking tourists, symposium attendees—with the expected ambience. The rumor is almost certainly untrue. Fishing is a pastime in Missoula, rarely a profession.
The symposium offered a field trip to the site of the former Milltown Dam, a few miles upstream. Several dozen of us stood on a bluff and looked down at a muddy expanse of brown dirt where Milltown Reservoir used to be, complete with cottonwood stumps left behind more than a century ago when the trees had been cut before the river bottom was first submerged behind the dam. Those logs had been turned into lumber at the nearby mill in Bonner, the mill the dam was built to power, itself finally shuttered in the face of cheap Canadian competition the year before the dam came out. The timbers had been carried on trains back upstream to Butte and used to frame the ten thousand miles of mining tunnels there. The trees eventually ended up underwater anyway; the Butte mines have been flooded since 1980, when the massive pumps that kept the tunnels dry, deep beneath the water table, were turned off.
Mining is the process of turning the earth inside out. Buried rock is dragged to the surface; mountainside trees go underground.
By the time the symposium rolled around in the spring of 2010, temporary rail tracks transected the former reservoir and bright yellow front loaders fringed the site. The river ran in a stone-caged channel around its northern perimeter, awaiting release into the not-yet-recontoured bed in which it would lie, along the northerly bend beneath the cliff where we stood. A restoration specialist commented approvingly on the unexpected wealth of original seed bank unearthed by the project. The stumps had been a happy surprise.
I had canoed that poisoned reservoir several years before, slipping after the sounds of a heron rookery there, the paddle stirring shallow silts into dark clouds in the water. I’d wondered then about the tall blue cylinder rising above the northern shore like a Claes Oldenburg lipstick. I didn’t learn until later that it held drinking water for the residents of Milltown whose wells had been tainted by the arsenic seeping out of those same silts into the aquifer below.
When one of our group asked if all the effort had been successful, our guide replied that it would take at least another twenty-five years to know.
Back at the conference, guest speaker Rick Bass tried to envision a more satisfying response. Like me, Bass grew up in Houston, and his book, “Winter,” had helped spark my own flight north. Thirty years ago Bass packed his bags and moved to the remote Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana, and he’s been there ever since, tramping the mountains and forging himself into a fierce defender of his adopted home. He delivered the conference keynote, admitting that he’s not particularly a river person. He prefers the forested high ground. Bass noted the pleasing geographical irony that the hard-used Clark Fork flows north of the town of Wisdom, and south of Paradise. He described Milltown, site of the just-removed dam, as “the place where the wound was,” where soon “there won’t even be a scar.”
“We haven’t been here very long,” he said, speaking of Anglos, “and in that time we’ve done enormous damage.”
The symposium closed on Friday, and on Saturday I went paddling on Missoula’s other river, the Bitterroot. While the Clark Fork carries the brunt of mining’s burden, and the Blackfoot slowly recovers from clear-cutting, the Bitterroot suffers only from too much love, an abuse easy to forgive. Trophy homes occasionally crowd the banks, and stretches are lined with cabled assemblages of old cars, strung along the bends in a vain attempt to prevent erosion, but for long stretches the Bitterroot is as pretty as any postcard.
The Bitterroot is the first river I canoed when I moved to Missoula. It had been late September, a few weeks after I’d arrived, and something about the way the light deepened the shallow water and framed the mountains in sheets of laundered blue made me think this was where I was supposed to be. The scenery is spectacular down near Stevensville where I was drifting, where the river never wanders far from some fresh panorama of the sawtoothed Bitterroots looming to the west.
I knew from my guidebook that mountain man Old Bill Williams had yelped “Thar floats my stick!” when he found a stream he liked, and I’ve whispered that exclamation many times on the Bitterroot. It’s where I take new friends who want an introduction to paddling, or first dates. The Bitterroot is where I went when Bob died, two years after I’d left Houston.
I don’t know what else to call him. “Father” sounds too formal, and “Dad” is too familial. His birth certificate says Bobby Ray Tyer, an informality he considered hickish. He did business as Robert Ray Tyer, accommodating the professional world’s assumptions, just as he taught himself to talk about sports, which he disliked, to get along with businessmen who felt otherwise. He considered Bobby—any name ending in an “ee” sound—an inappropriate diminutive for an adult, and to my knowledge he let no one but his mother and his wife call him that, and it rankled him even then. Everyone else called him Bob. I’ll call him Bob.
He’d been dead for days when I got the call from my aunt back in Texas. Bob and I hadn’t spoken for almost five years. He’d been recently engaged again after two failed marriages, and he and his new wife-to-be were paddling a canoe on a golf course pond near the house they were about to buy in Humble, Texas, when his back seized up and he went clammy and cold. He let his fiancée paddle him back to shore and the episode passed, but it put enough fear into him to go to the local hospital for tests. They kept him overnight and didn’t find anything wrong. The next day, as a nurse wheeled him out of an elevator back toward his room after another inconclusive test, his heart blew up. They couldn’t revive him. I’m told he died more or less instantly.
He was just sixty. He still looked, I imagined, like he always had: two parts Glen Campbell to one part Johnny Cash. He’d tried a beard once, during a bout of considered nonconformism, but found it wanting. He’d been a sideburned, strong-jawed American striver, and when I thought of him I thought of a salesman.
I flew back to Houston to meet Cameron, who flew in from Atlanta, to deal with what could be dealt with. He didn’t leave a will—“fuck ’em,” one of his estranged friends told me he’d said when it had been suggested that he should get one in order—but I eventually ended up with his effects anyway, for lack of other takers.
Cameron and I inherited his one-man company, despite the fact that neither of us had been in touch with him for years, and despite our mutual lack of interest in running it. He called the company AerResearch, and what he did was design, sell, and install aeration systems for municipal wastewater treatment plants. To oversimplify: he pumped bubbles into sewage lagoons to efficiently oxygenate shit-eating bacteria. We finally sold the company and a few patents that came with it to another man who oxygenated shit-eating bacteria. He was our only suitor and claimed to be Bob’s best friend. He never paid up and we didn’t pursue it. It wasn’t our money anyway.
I knew from his tackle boxes, shipped by his fiancée in hastily taped cardboard, that he’d taken up fly-fishing. I also got the canoe, the sixteen-foot aluminum Grumman he’d been paddling when he started to die. I abandoned that in Texas with friends. No reason to waste a perfectly good boat, but there’s no way I’m paddling it. I’m not superstitious, but narrative inevitability is self-propelling.
It was weeks after his death before I got back to Montana and had a chance to take my own boat out on the Bitterroot. There’s a sewage treatment plant on the bank near the takeout at a parking lot in Lolo, not far upstream of the Bitterroot’s confluence with the Clark Fork. I might have scattered his ashes as I drifted past, if I’d had any, but by the time I thought to ask, they’d already been buried in Texas.
He didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him. He said he loved me, as a father surely feels he must, but always in the context of correcting me, as if to establish his judgmental bona fides. I can’t say that I loved him, but I owe him, which may be more binding.
I let the canoe spin down the current and tried to imagine having a son, and discovering that he disappoints me. What could you do with a realization like that? Bob’s solution had been to enlist me as an ally. He spent the last conversation we had explaining his disappointment in me in detail. “I want you to understand,” he told me. He wanted my approval for his disapproval.
I couldn’t give him that, even if I’d wanted to. There was no room in that box to shape a life of my own. I left Texas and six generations of fathers to find that room.
Leaving home always includes the prospect of return, but when Bob died the prospect vanished. There could be no rapprochement now, no forgiveness, no homecoming. Return to what?
In the aftermath of Bob’s death—there’d been no funeral, no wake—I flew back to Missoula. Nonstops to Montana are rare. You have to connect through Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake City, or Minneapolis. There’s not enough market to justify the direct flight.
The Montana Office of Tourism knows this, and an advertisement in the in-flight magazine tried to turn the inconvenience into a lure. The full-page come-on featured an aerial photo of one of Yellowstone National Park’s boardwalk-rimmed thermal pools in vivid shades of iridescent blue, green, and orange, with a tagline selling the counterintuitive draw “There’s Nothing Here”—a simultaneous acknowledgement of and corrective to flyover sensibilities. “Nothing but living color everywhere you least expect it. An otherworldly landscape filled with bears and wolves. Where abundant herds of bison and elk follow the earth’s ancient rhythms. With nothing on the fringe but charming towns full of creature comforts.”
Don’t expect truth in advertising. Ninety-six percent of Yellowstone is in neighboring Wyoming, and wildlife in Montana is an intricately managed resource. Of the fewer than a thousand endangered grizzlies hemmed into the margins of Montana’s 147,046 square miles, about a dozen are killed every year by people, poached with rifles or run down by trains. A third of those are classified as “management removals,” which is to say that state wildlife personnel take the bears out any time they become too comfortable in the company of human communities, as they’re increasingly forced to do. A fed bear, local public service bulletins warn, is a dead bear.
Wolves, controversially reintroduced in the 1990s and still a reliable argument starter anywhere in the state, were delisted as an endangered species in 2011, and are now closely supervised by the state with a toolkit full of hunting licenses and trapping permits. Wolves kill calves, so ranchers kill wolves. Meanwhile, binocular-bearing ecotourists watch wolf puppies frolic in distant meadows and subsidize ranchers for the calves that wolf pups grow up to kill.
Montana’s most abundant herds of bison are hybridized with cattle and belong to one-time media mogul Ted Turner, the nation’s second-largest private landowner and proprietor of several Montana ranches, including the 166,000-acre Flying D southwest of Bozeman. Turner serves bison burgers at his sixteen-state chain of Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants. As a sideline, his Montana Hunting Company charges trophy hunters $14,000 to bag elk on state trust land bordering his 22,000-acre Bar None Ranch.
Montana’s genetically pure buffalo are largely confined to one national wildlife refuge and Yellowstone National Park. At the park, the state’s Department of Livestock agents routinely haze the beasts with ATVs and helicopters when they stray past the borders into cattle country. Politically powerful ranchers fear the spread of brucellosis, a stillbirth-causing disease carried by the bison, so every year the state slaughters hundreds of buffalo stubborn enough to roam, and the gun-toting Democrat in the governor’s office instituted a lottery-driven buffalo hunt for sportsmen. Hook-and-bullet advocates like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Trout Unlimited never tire of reminding newcomers of the paradox, unsatisfying but true, that there’s no more powerful lobby of support for wildlife and habitat conservation than hunters and fishermen, who can’t kill what’s been driven extinct. Value attaches to what we can use. There’s a growing consensus that the only way to preserve Montana’s most iconic megafauna—the Montana quarter, in an unintentional instance of truth in advertising, features a bison skull—is to eat them. Buffalo, fortunately, makes excellent jerky.
Ancient rhythms and creature comforts. Welcome to Montana.
Excerpted from “Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape” by Brad Tyer. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
Brad Tyer has run rivers and practiced journalism in Texas, Oregon, Michigan, and Montana. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Texas Monthly, High Country News, Publishers Weekly and The Drake, among other publications. He currently works as managing editor of The Texas Observer in Austin.