Tearing down Milltown Dam
Trout may live where Milltown Dam once stood
BY DAVID REESE
Gov. Brian Schweitzer waded through the shallow water, stepped into his blue raft and with the buzz of summer surrounding us, floated into history.
Schweitzer was among about 15 people who floated the upper Clark Fork in July under a sweltering heat, floating his way down the river through Milltown and part of the nation’s largest Superfund site.
His was the first boat to have floated through the canyon where the Milltown Dam once held back the waters of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers, about eight miles upstream from Missoula. Still a work in progress, the Milltown Dam area is not open to the public, but Schweitzer and his entourage were given the go-ahead and were the first ones to be able to witness, firsthand, how the reclamation is progressing.
The 100-year-old dam was removed in March 2008 and much has changed since then, when Schweitzer watched the first waters trickle over the dirt as an excavator tore away the last huge chunk of concrete.
Looking at the dam site now, you'd hardly believe Milltown Dam ever existed. But memories are hard to erase. I remember as a teenager, wading along the boulders below the dam, throwing hook, line and sinker into the swirling waters. Above the dam, on a high overlook, is where we'd shoot clay pigeons after school. It was last March, when Schweitzer spoke to the hundreds of people gathered to watch the final breaching of the dam. He spoke about Montana’s reclamation economy, and how reclaiming the river corridor from decades of copper mining upstream in Butte would revitalize not just the environment, but our economy as well.
Schweitzer’s raft stopped just below the overlook, in about the exact place where the concrete and wood dam once stood. They popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate their being the first floaters through the dam site, and threw their fly lines into the water. The water looked “fishy,” I thought, much better than when it was full of riprap and rebar. Now it had plenty of riffles and runs where trout may lie. Schweitzer hooked a good-sized trout, fought it briefly and almost landed it before it broke free.
A few miles downstream, we met up with Schweitzer and his group, and joined about 300 other people, including Missoula mayor John Engen, who were celebrating the annual community float on the Clark Fork River. People showed up in myriad floating equipment, from inner tubes to kayaks, some towing coolers of beer. It was a languid, lazy float down to Missoula, and there was a gentle buzz of summertime. With the river carrying all of us, we felt as one, all of us together in this one thing, not sure exactly what it was, but we shared it.
Afterward, bands played at Missoula’s Caras Park. The day was a celebration not just of a magnificent summer day in Montana, but it was a celebration of the river that has fed and nourished us — not just in a physical way. Running right through Missoula, the Clark Fork has provided Montanans with a way to connect to the environment. I remember my father taking my brothers on their rites of passage through a rapid west of Alberton, where I grew up. Below the rapid lay a sprawling expanse of sandy beaches where members of our small town would gather in summer to splash about. The moms would huddle under their umbrellas while the fathers gathered in groups of their own, tossing back Highlander. It was during those long summer days when we'd put away our lawn mowers or hay wagons and meet as one family, returning home late in the evening with sunburned shoulders (this was before sunscreen), sand in our shorts and the smell of the Clark Fork on our skin.
Throughout its 320 miles, the Clark Fork River remains a community gathering place. With the work that's going on in Milltown, and with leaders like Schweitzer, we can be assured it will be there for our kids, too.
— David Reese
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