Four Seasons on the West Fork of the Bitterroot River

by Christine Seashore

From a cobble beach near Mile Marker 5, I gazed into a pool of the Bitterroot River's West Fork where a rock ledge nearly spans the river's width.

My reflection stared back at me and I reflected on the rivers' four seasons. Although the West Fork is a visitor's paradise, those of us lucky enough to live along its banks have a deeper relationship. We observe the river in all its forms. In May, the rock ledge creates a standing wave of re-circulating water that pulls my orange kayak back upstream. In August, drifting arcs of fishing line ply the pool for cutthroat trout. December nights freeze the quiet water into crystal flags that create a masterpiece of frozen terraces. But of all the West Fork's seasons, fall is my favorite.

Fall In October I can see the skeleton of the river. After the water from Painted Rocks Reservoir is shut off, the West Fork trickles through its rocky bed, and I have x-ray vision to see its essence. Six inches of the rock ledge stand above the water's surface. Sharp, fissured Eocene volcanic rock contrasts with the smooth, rounded stones that have rolled downstream during thousands of spring runoffs. A lanky willow sapling grows from the ledge; its golden leaves shimmer in the afternoon light as it whips back and forth with the breeze. The water, too lazy to carry much sediment, is clear enough to see submerged rocks coated with patches of olive-colored fuzz. I sniff the musky scent of desiccated salmon flies and rotting leaves. The West Fork has retreated three feet below its high water mark and I walk through yellowed grasses and brilliant bushes down to tiers of boulders enclosing bands of still, copper-colored water. Tiny fingerlings dart from my shadow.

I balance on rocks splotched with black and green lichens, and jump from stone to stone out to the ledge for a better look. A blue heron swoops overhead. He's looking for a pool deep enough to hold dinner. Winter The weather radio had warned that a Siberian Express could persist for another 4 days, so my husband Jon and I gave up the hassle of driving anywhere, even the short 20-minute trip into Darby. We work at home, so we stuffed more wood into the stove and retreated to our separate spaces. Jon walked to his office a hundred yards downhill from the house and I set up my laptop near the stove. I heard the sound of someone using a ski pole to click out of cross-country ski bindings, and knew that it wasn't Jon returning for his reading glasses.

Through the front window, I saw our neighbor, Charlie, his beard encrusted in frost. I slipped on my down parka and stepped outside. Jon must have seen this apparition pass his office because he soon joined us. We invited Charlie inside for a cup of tea, but he answered, "Get your skis and let's go!" He stood in a beam of sunshine and explained that it was the first time in his ten years on the West Fork that the river was frozen enough for skiing. We put on our skis, and I felt the hairs in my nostrils twitch in the polar air.

Six inches of powder snow on top of two months' of winter whiteness squeaked under our skis. It was unusual to have a February cold snap freeze the West Fork, but I could hear only a slight gurgle of the river entombed under eight inches of ice. Jon slid carefully out from the bank to test the ice with his weight. He put his thumb up, and Charlie and I joined him on the river. The tourmaline and jade-tinged ice was dusted with just enough snow to kick and glide downstream. I took long strides with each pole plant and warmed up from the exertion. The river was familiar but magically different. Around a bend, we spotted a blue heron trying to break a hole in the ice with its beak. The weary heron ignored our approach.

The sun was low in the sky and we stopped to discuss the bird's fate. The Siberian Express had caught him off guard. Perhaps as the river had frozen, the heron had been unable to fish and became weaker and weaker and was too cold and hungry to fly away. We all agreed that the heron was very close to death, and feared that if we intervened, the bird might struggle and suffer more. Half an hour later, we retraced our tracks upstream. In the dusky light I was relieved to see the heron peacefully frozen to the river's surface.

Spring When the first warm nights of May had melted the snow blanket from the Bitterroot Mountains, I heard the rushing of Christisen Creek. The creek, which flows past our house, played a tune that was impossible to ignore. As I hung the wash on the clothesline, the rushing water practically screamed at me, "Look around, it's spring!" Dogwood and serviceberry bushes flaunted fat buds and I spied the first trillium blooms under the spruce tree. The quiet spell of winter was broken, and life rushed headlong like Christisen Creek gushing toward the West Fork. High water on West Fork is an ephemeral spring ritual.

Every year as soon as there is enough runoff for kayaking, we launch from the Forest Service boat ramp two miles above Boulder Creek. I practiced a few Eskimo rolls in an eddy and frigid water trickled down my neck. I stroked hard to warm up, and flecks of sparkled mica in my wake. Sunlight filtered through the turbid, emerald water blurring the outlines of underwater boulders. Below the Steep Creek Bridge, a line of boulders tossed our kayaks up and down like cars on a roller coaster. Downstream of the Piquette Creek Bridge, I watched an osprey fly from its nest in the top of a ponderosa snag. I floated with the current until I reached the slow water above the wave created by the Mile Marker 5 ledge. Jon and three other kayakers waited, bouncing and paddling intermittently to keep their position and watch the dynamics of the wave. Jon stroked out to line up the nose of his kayak at just the right angle to the current. Then he ferried into the white crease of the wave's edge. The turbulence threatened to capsize him, but his momentum carried him to the upstream-flowing wave and he surfed out to its center.

I grabbed a willow to stabilize myself and watched Jon slice back and forth on the fast-moving water. After a minute, Jon cut too close to the choppy eddy line and was washed far downstream in an instant. Summer One hot afternoon in August took me back to my Utah childhood. "Let's go tube the West Fork," I urged Jon when he came up from his office. It was too hot to work in the garden, cut firewood, or take a hike. We rummaged through the shed and found two old inner tubes, blew them up, and walked down to the river. From the bank, we plopped into the tubes and cast off. Flowing current wrapped the boulders with gentle white crests, but most of the river was flat and clear. Golden sunlight made a yellow lens for the washed colors of black and white speckled granite, pink sandstone, and gray and white gneiss on the streambed. Willows, alder, and dogwood were fully leafed; their greenness interrupted by brilliant blooms of wild rose and fireweed. The rocks and boulders that made rapids in May now stood above the current.

The water line divided their dark-lichened upper surfaces from their light-colored undersides. I bobbed, using my hands as flippers to ride slow moving water that gently cascaded into the next pool. A kingfisher fished on a logjam just below Christisen Creek. My adult body quickly destroyed my childhood fantasy; I was too heavy to float over above the riffled gravel bars. Jon and I pulled up to a dark, flat rock midstream to reconsider our afternoon plan. We dozed on the sun-warmed slab until we heard the sound of oars dipping and the zzzzz of fishing line retracting. I looked up and saw river guide, Joe Biner, snug his raft into the eddy above our rock.

We watched his clients cast into the pool and didn't have to ask, "How's the fishing?" The West Fork was alive with rainbow-colored streaks darting through the water. I thought that fall was my favorite season, but maybe that's not true; in nature it is impossible to have favorites. You cannot take one segment out of context.

Even though I love autumn's skeletal look, without the full palette of winter, spring, summer and fall, the view is incomplete.