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Standup Paddleboarding on Montana's Blackfoot River

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Aaron Teasdale

By Aaron Teasdale

"How much moon do we have tonight?" I yelled to my friend Greg, trying to make myself heard over the sounds of wind and surging water. The sun was sinking toward the mountains all too quickly and our float-in campsite lay somewhere down the river's bends in darkening forest.

Greg shrugged. He had no clue of the moon's cycle either, which showed just how tragically pasty and over-civilized we'd turned. Our days had become filled with computer screens, not forest scenes; our nights capped with ceilings, not stars. All of which made this journey on standup paddleboards so sweet—or at least we hoped it would be sweet, if the pesky headwind would let up before we had to risk disfiguring ourselves while navigating boulder-strewn waters by headlamp and whatever light the moon might spare.


We were dancing with Montana's Blackfoot River, its sinuous current wending us through the mountains, canyons and pine-studded pastures of the Rocky Mountains. We'd come to test our paddleboarding skills and experience the waters of one of my favorite books, Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," a majestic paean to fishing, family and "the magic current of the world.

In Maclean's youth the Blackfoot ran pure, cold and thick with trout. But mining, logging and ranching wore away at the river's 1.5-million-acre watershed, and the river suffered. Water quality deteriorated, trout populations plummeted, and by the 1980s the Blackfoot had become yet another American river despoiled.

Then something remarkable happened. In 1993 local ranchers and conservationists, led by Trout Unlimited, banded together in a partnership with state and federal wildlife agencies to do something about it. Their effort, known as the Blackfoot Challenge, grew into a multi-decade, watershed-scale restoration effort. Mines were reclaimed, tributaries restored, riparian areas revegetated. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the valley's residents, who turned the Blackfoot Challenge into a landowner-led nonprofit group, the Blackfoot's wounds healed.

Today, its waters once again run clear and cold. Trout are abundant. Grizzlies are back roaming its banks. A shining example of community-based restoration, the Blackfoot stands as one of the American West's great conservation success stories.

Greg and I had been building our standup paddleboarding skills on the lower river near Missoula, but now we wanted to see the whole thing. Succumbing to a fit of living-room ambition—beers in hand, maps spread out—we decided to cover 80 miles of the Blackfoot in only two and a half days. We knew the trip had never been done, at least in the last century, for reasons that will soon become clear. With lightweight camping gear lashed to our boards and float-in campsites reserved, our brilliant plan would end with us paddling triumphantly, heroically even, into Missoula.

Never mind that it was unclear we could paddle that far and that fast. We hoped the river's magic current would deliver.

Aaron Teasdale

As the sun set that first night, the elusive moon stayed hidden, but the wind finally abated and we beached at our reserved campsite just as the last light leaked from the sky. The next morning, we jumped right back on the river, and its snow- and spring-fed waters swiftly carried us through golden ranchland into canyons of ancient stone. Rising to the north were the verdant pyramids of the Swan Range and the Bob Marshall wilderness complex, one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48.

As we paddled onward, life revealed itself everywhere. Osprey surveyed from treetops. Explosions of swallows filled the air. In a dizzying display of fertility, a merganser passed with no fewer than 40 chicks in tow.

The day flowed on, and the world became a study in color and texture. The river was a rippling, blue ribbon laced with shimmering, silvery willows; rosemary-green cottonwood leaves flashed in the breeze; pine-clad mountains and terra cotta cliffs rose to touch the porcelain blue and white dome of the sky.

Aaron Teasdale

Somewhere along the way, the world beyond the riverbanks ceased to exist. I began to understand Maclean when he wrote, "I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched … Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us."

We joined the river in other ways, too, as we hurled through rapids that sometimes sent us headlong into frigid, frothing water. But the mid-June sun was warm and our spirits were high. We even found the early-cycle waxing moon, a pearl boomerang arcing overhead.

As dusk settled over the mountains, salmon flies swarmed the air and I covered my mouth to avoid inhaling them. Birds with the opposite intent dove from all directions, mouths agape. Hungry trout leapt from the water to feast on the river's bounty.

Sleep came easy that second night at another river-side camp beneath a spectacle of stars. The night was clear and we needed no rainfly. We also needed no alarm. Warblers, thrushes, sandpipers and more woke us with a symphony. I raised my head and smiled at the sight of the Blackfoot purling past.

We were sleeping along the river, spending our days on the river, swimming in the river, drinking the river. Never had I felt so connected to water.

The last day of our journey began in a quiet canyon between soaring walls of precambrian rock. We floated past beaver lodges and shoreline trees crowned with eagle nests. We still had 33 miles to paddle, and as we drew closer to Missoula our muscles ached. After seeing only a handful of other parties our first two days, the river got busy. First, fisherman appeared, then college kids in inner tubes—Missoula's summer "tube hatch."

The canyon walls opened and long, straight logs appeared helter-skelter on the banks. The largest lumber mill west of Chicago once stood here. Over a century ago, the Bonner sawmill supplied timber for the railroads leading the march of civilization across the young nation.

We passed beneath the roar of Interstate 90 and another river, the Clark Fork of the Columbia, approached on our left. Just below its confluence with the Blackfoot was the site of Milltown Dam, built in 1908. It powered the nearby sawmill, blocked migrating fish (and paddlers), and accumulated toxic sediments in its reservoir from upriver mining in Butte. A $100 million, eight-year removal and restoration process was completed in 2014, when the river was finally opened to paddlers for the first time in over a century. Greg and I celebrated the return of the confluence and a wild and free Blackfoot with cheers and our paddles raised.

Aaron Teasdale

Okay, I'll admit that our paddle-raising may have been metaphorical. After three days of nonstop paddling we barely had the energy to high-five. A beatific vision kept us moving: a few short miles downriver, the literary and fly- fishing haven of Missoula promised some of civilization's finer benefits—brick-oven pizza and locally brewed ale.

As our last river miles slipped by, I thought of one of my favorite Maclean passages, from his story "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," a companion piece to "A River Runs Through It": "Life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened."

Then Greg and I were pulling our boards onto shore, summoning newfound energy for a vigorous high-five, and stumbling up to the deck of a white linen restaurant, where we were surely the most fragrant customers present. After 80 miles of standing on top of water, I swore I could feel the earth swaying beneath my feet, even though we were now on land.

Aaron Teasdale

In this Anthropocene era—in which we've paved, dammed, and tilled the world, in which extinction rates rise and politics seem to grow ever uglier—Greg and I found hope in the growing movement to restore and rewild the natural world. Dams can be removed, rivers restored, wildlife revived. Nature heals remarkably well when we let it. Better still, when wild nature is near our cities, connective veins of wilderness can strengthen ecosystems and grant people nearby places to go deep and rediscover our own inner wildness—even if only for a couple of days. Heal nature and we heal ourselves.

Greg and I—our souls replenished by water and birdsong—raised cold pints of ale and toasted the Blackfoot. We need this river, like we need all wild and free rivers of the world, to show us the moon again and turn our lives to literature.

Follow in the Writer's Paddle Strokes

Where: the Blackfoot River starts near the Continental Divide in the mountains south of Glacier National Park and flows for 132 miles through Western Montana before joining the Clark Fork of the Columbia River near Missoula.

Getting There: Missoula has the nearest airport and Highway 200 is your access road for the Blackfoot. There are many public put-ins and take-outs, though the river pulls away from the highway for extended stretches that require travel by remote dirt roads. Only experienced paddlers should attempt the Blackfoot.

Best Time to Visit: The Blackfoot is suitable for paddling from May through September. May and the first half of June is high water and for experts only. July is the ideal month—the water is warm and still deep enough to cover the river's many boulders, but not so high that swims are perilous. After July, paddling the Blackfoot can be like pinball as you navigate through boulder fields. Fishing is excellent all summer and fall as soon as high water subsides.

Camping: A scattering of campgrounds are available along the river, but the best sites are the five Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks float-in sites accessible only to paddlers. They can be reserved in advance by calling the FWP office at (406) 542-5564.

Pro Tips: While sections of the river can be paddled by beginners, the many class I-III rapids make the Blackfoot more suitable for intermediates and above. Paddleboards and other paddle-powered watercraft can be rented at The Trailhead or Strongwater in Missoula.

Additional Reading: "A River Runs Through It" (University of Chicago Press, 1976), Norman Maclean. "Paddling Montana" (Falcon Publishing, 2008), Hank and Carol Fischer.

Reposed with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

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Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

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Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

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