ON MONTANA’S SMITH RIVER – Through the thin fabric of my small tent the sun rising over the steep limestone cliffs awoke me from the night’s sleep. A downpour the evening before had forced us into the tent to eat dinner, and rain had fallen intermittently throughout the night. Now only the bend and flow of moving water greeted the morning, the soft chuckle of a river descending.
Of all waterways in North America, very few are regulated by limited entry. The Smith is one of these, and the only one in Montana, a hotbed of beautiful rivers. Last winter, more than 9,000 people from every state and four foreign countries applied for permits to float its nearly 60 miles of managed river way. I was among the lucky 1,800 or so lottery winners.
The Smith’s boilerplate attractions are its canyonesque scenery and its brown and rainbow trout. This would be our fifth day on the river, and neither had disappointed. Trevor, my son, an early riser, had emerged from his tent and started a campfire. Soon in the shadows of craggy precipices rising 2,000 feet the fire crackled and roared against the morning chill.
We made coffee, pancakes and sausage. Then we walked the riverbank, casting flies to foamy seams that divided fast water from slow.
Soon enough, our lines went tight against the pull of good fish.
Like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, where adjacent copper and nickel mining has been proposed, the Smith River is in the cross hairs of worldwide mineral and metal exploration. Foreign owners of a company called Tintina Resources want to mine copper underground near Sheep Creek, a major tributary to the Smith and an estuary for many of its trout.
A who’s-who of anglers, environmentalists and river activists has coalesced in opposition, concerned that Sheep Creek flows could be lowered and that water laced with arsenic and other mining pollution could kill fish in the Smith River and, downstream, the Missouri River.
Again this year, the group American Rivers ranked the Smith among the nation’s 10 most threatened rivers.
“Most people in Montana and across the country don’t want the mine,” said Bruce Farling, executive director of Trout Unlimited Montana. “But in Montana, if a mining company applies for a permit from the state and meets all the requirements, they get a permit.”
Time will tell whether the same is true in Minnesota, near the boundary waters, and in Alaska, where the massive Pebble Mine, still in its permitting stages, threatens the salmon-rich Bristol Bay watershed.
Taken together, this trifecta of important American lakes, rivers and fisheries — in Montana, Minnesota and Alaska — symbolizes the modern-day showdown occurring continentwide between mining and aquatic resources valued by anglers, among others.
The scrum likely will intensify as the world seeks more of the minerals and metals it requires in 2016 and beyond. In 1948, for example, the average American-built automobile contained 150 feet of copper wire. Some cars today have a mile’s worth.
“To understand the demand to explore for copper or any metal you have to take a global perspective,” said Donald Elsenheimer, an economic geologist in the Minnesota DNR division of lands and minerals. “As more people in India, China and other countries reach the middle class, and move into cities, their per capita metal consumption will rise.
“That’s why mining companies will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to explore and develop potential mineral deposits, and more millions to get the permits they need.”
• • •
Floats down the Smith River begin at an outpost called Camp Baker, about a half-hour’s drive from the small town of White Sulphur Springs, where the proposed copper mine and its promise of some 200 well-paying jobs are widely supported.
When Trevor and I arrived at 7 a.m. May 23, our launch day, a gypsylike assemblage of pickups, rafts, raft trailers, tents, waders, Coleman stoves and raincoat-clad floaters young and old — coveted Smith River permits clutched in their hands — sprawled alongside the river.
Nearby, in an outhouse-size building, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks official would explain in detail to each of the nine new groups allowed on the river daily the do’s and don’ts of life on the Smith. These include, especially, no littering and no trespassing on private lands bordering the river.
Our original seven-member applicant group had dwindled to just Trevor and me because the entry date I had drawn was problematic for the others. Trevor, a fly-fishing guide living in Missoula, about a three-hour drive from the Smith, was gracious enough not to fink out on his old man.
Rain slanted from a gunmetal sky as we dropped Trevor’s raft into the river for our five-day drift.
“Once we get on the river we can’t get off for nearly 60 miles,” Trevor said.
Also no cellphone signal would be available.
“So don’t have any medical emergencies.”
We strapped our supplies to the raft, including a bear-proof cooler, a food pack, pots and pans, utensils, waterproof duffels, firewood, 20 gallons of fresh water, four fly rods, waders, wading boots, tents, sleeping bags, camp chairs, day packs, a first-aid kit, camera cases and enough flies to open a small shop.
Centuries ago, the Blackfeet, Crow, Gros Ventre, Salish, Assiniboine and Shoshone Indians who traveled the surrounding mountains and plains considered these lands spiritual, and the silence that befell us as we swirled between riverbanks echoed that designation.
High above, a golden eagle beat its wings, circling, as if it also were going with the flow.
“Grab a rod,” Trevor said.
A lot of rain had fallen in the previous weeks and the river was off-color. Had there been a stretch of warm sunshine days that preceded our arrival we could have fished big salmon-fly imitations on the surface, expecting browns and rainbows to rise to them through clearer water.
Instead we tied on salmon-fly and golden stonefly nymphs, along with a kaleidoscope of San Juan worms, and cast them upstream of eddies and other still waters, allowing the underwater flies to tumble enticingly into the feeding grounds of these fragile, cold water-dependent fish.
Amidships on the oars, Trevor offered gentle encouragement. He’s a better fisherman than I am now, and I recalled briefly the first time I took him to Alaska. He was 7 years old, and already could throw a fly line. This was in July, the sun never set and he wouldn’t quit fishing. So at day’s end, tired, I would sit on the banks of the Ayakulik River, babysitting him with a .44 Magnum in one hand as Kodiak brown bears frolicked just upstream, also fishing. This was the parenting he grew up with.
At noon we made sandwiches and swapped duties on the oars. Fishing was so-so, but the scenery was spectacular, with statuesque Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines rising nearly from the river shorelines to high benches, where they gave way to deep green pastures.
Interspersed among these were rocky headwalls that foretold the steep gorges we would float among downstream.
In late afternoon we pulled the raft to shore at our assigned campsite, greeted there by gaggles of Canada geese who were unhurried to leave.
In sequence we pitched tents, unfolded camp chairs, cooked dinner and cleaned up. For a table we used Trevor’s cooler, which was plastered with stickers saying “KEEP IT WILD” and “STOP SMITH RIVER MINE.”
Then, around a campfire, beneath lengthening shadows, we recalled the day just past, the fish we had caught, also the broods of merganser ducklings that had scurried alongside our raft, chasing their mothers, and the mule deer we had spotted silhouetted in the distance.
All the while the Smith River, draining big country, flowed toward the Missouri and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.
Soon enough, we were in our tents, asleep.
• • •
In 1908, across the Clark Fork River 7 miles east of Missoula, the Milltown Dam was built. The dam was needed, said copper baron William A. Clark, to supply power to his nearby lumber mills, which in turn produced timbers to support the shaft walls of his massive copper-sulfate mine located near Butte, Mont., 120 river miles upstream.
Within months after the dam’s completion, a record flood washed immense amounts of mining waste from Butte down the Clark Fork to the base of the Milltown Dam, where it settled.
It wasn’t until 1983 that people living near the dam learned that their wells were contaminated with arsenic and other waste from the copper-sulfate mine.
Remediation, restoration and redevelopment of the massive federal Superfund site have consumed most of the intervening 30-odd years.
Kristi Ponozzo, public policy director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), says her agency does “robust” reviews before issuing permits for new mines or expansions of existing mines.
“We often have broad public interest in these projects, not just from local citizens and Montana residents but from people in other states,” she said.
In March, the DEQ issued a 62-page deficiency letter in response to Tintina Resources’ initial application for a Smith River/Sheep Creek mine-operating permit.
Tintina, which has vowed to use best-practice mining techniques to ensure no harm comes to either the Smith River or Sheep Creek, is expected to file an amended application, Ponozzo said.
The company, she said, is proposing to ship the high-grade copper it mines to the West Coast, to be smelted overseas.
Though copper prices have been depressed in recent years, beginning in 2018, worldwide demand is expected to outstrip supply, said Mark Brininstool of the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va.
“Everyone watches China, which consumes about 40 percent of the world’s refined copper,” Brininstool said. “As China’s economy improves, the demand for copper will increase.”
• • •
On our final morning on the river, after our pancake and sausage breakfast, we shoved off from shore beneath a moody sky breaking to blue.
“I’ll row,” I said. “You fish.”
One brown trout, then another and another, then a rainbow trout fell to Trevor’s casts.
This was wild country, and for hours our float downstream was shaded by steep rock.
We ended the trip enveloped by prairie sunshine, gateway to our takeout at Eden Bridge.
Angling to shore a final time, I said, “Great trip.”
“Great trip,” Trevor said.
Downriver, into the distance and beyond, the Smith River bent from sight.