The Blackfoot River, Montana. Photo by Alyse Bachus, courtesy the Bureau of Land Management.
On a chilly October day 44 years ago, a coast-loving boy from the Bronx (that’s me) was introduced to the wild wonders of America’s unspoiled inland rivers.
I had enrolled at the University of Montana a few weeks earlier. While in high school, I used to enjoy renting rowboats on City Island and exploring the Long Island Sound shorelines of Queens, the Bronx, western Long Island and Westchester County. We often rowed farther than was actually wise, and once we had to put in at the Coast Guard lighthouse on Execution Rocks when a stiff southwest wind made it impossible to row back. The crew manning the lighthouse station (which was later automated) were not the least bit happy to see us, but they towed us back and quietly told the boathouse operator to be more selective in his choice of customers.
I put my seafaring days behind me when I arrived in the Rocky Mountains. My school had an excellent recreation department, which introduced me to camping in remote corners of Glacier National Park and, on this particular day, to rafting on the Blackfoot River (made famous a few years on in the novella “A River Runs Through It,” which later became a popular film).
We entered the river not far from the hamlet of Ovando and floated past granite shorelines and ponderosa pine forests. Coming around a bend, we spotted a mule deer – the first I ever saw, having grown up among the East Coast’s whitetails – swimming upstream toward us. He was practically inside the boat before he noticed us and bolted for shore. As he scampered up the bank, he stopped and turned to look back at us. This, I later learned, is a habit of “mulies” that has landed many a trophy on a hunter’s wall. But we were no threat to this particular animal.
Despite its fame and beauty, the Blackfoot is not part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. I was a little surprised to realize this when I recently looked up Montana’s entries with that designation. There are three: the upper Flathead near Glacier National Park; the famous “Missouri Breaks” on the river of that name on the state’s eastern plains; and, since August this year, East Rosebud Creek, just north of Yellowstone National Park.
It may be reassuring in these highly partisan times to note that the designation, signed by President Trump, was co-sponsored by Montana’s senators Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican. Of course there are deep political divisions over where and how to protect nature and to limit or prohibit development, but in most cases when a river is designated as part of the Wild and Scenic system, these divisions are set aside.
Growing up in the East, it was easy to take water resources for granted. Water and aquatic environments are much more prized out West. Fed by mountain snowpack and scattered springs, the region’s streams and rivers are more than just the life support system that makes urban and rural settlement possible. They are freshwater extensions of the oceans that cover more than two-thirds of our planet, with their own remarkable inhabitants. The pallid sturgeon, which has been known to reach 80 pounds, is struggling to survive in the dammed-up channels of the Missouri below the Breaks. The American paddlefish, which is more or less a freshwater shark that inhabits the Mississippi drainage, can get even larger. Montana is home to the ouzel bird, or American dipper, which will swim underwater in cold streams to hunt insects and other prey. In Florida and other Southern states, the anhinga similarly swims underwater to hunt.
Every river has its own personality. The Wild and Scenic Rivers showcase a wide variety. There is Idaho’s Salmon River, the “River of No Return,” which dives thousands of feet out of the Rockies through deep canyon with a current so fast that returning upstream was impossible before the invention of jet boats. Oregon’s Deschutes is famous for its white-water rafting and fishing. Not far from ritzy Palm Beach, Florida’s Loxahatchee is a subtropical wilderness where you can kayak or swim, if you don’t mind the alligators. (My advice: Mind the alligators.) In southern New Jersey, the Great Egg Harbor River winds through the Pine Barrens, its waters stained as brown as a Louisiana bayou by a combination of tannin and iron rust; settlers used to harvest “bog iron” from its shoreline.
Not every state is lucky enough to have a Wild and Scenic River, and not every truly wild or scenic river is officially designated as such. The White River in Vermont is the longest undammed river in the state and a popular white-water destination. It is reasonably wild and certainly scenic, but you won’t find it on the government register. Not yet, at least.
As for me, I have returned to the sea, in a sense. Living in coastal Florida, I spend my time on the water in motorboats or my Sea Eagle inflatable kayak. I haven’t done a river raft trip in many years, mainly because the idea seldom enters my mind.
It is too easy to take our rivers for granted. I should have learned this lesson by now, but apparently I still need to be reminded from time to time. Adding special streams like East Rosebud Creek to the national roster does the trick for me.