Man that was close! Too close.
Deep within this canyon, limestone walls rising up 800 feet above us, we could not fully see the storm that was creeping up behind us from the south. But now, with roiling black clouds overhead, the full effect of this front was only moments away.
Now the rain comes. Torrents. Suddenly, everything is dark, and wet. Howling gusts of wind drive the rain through my waterproof shell, penetrating the opening in my hood and shoving cold rainwater down my back. I’m utterly soaked. Blam!! Another lightning strike — this one maybe 400 yards away, but up in the forest above. We aren’t likely to get hit down here, right? Lightning hits high points, not way down in a river bottom — not a saturated wet rubber raft — with an aluminum frame and fly rods raised proudly off the bow — not today. I crouch down in the back of the raft, trying to be the lowest thing around, but I know that a strike anywhere nearby gets us all.
John continues to either cast from the front of the boat, or shoot video with his iPhone. At least he had something to do…I just hang on and cower. Blam!! We gotta get outta here. Now. Row faster, Scott — head for that wall. Get us out of the middle of this mess. Now.
We are on the Smith River in central Montana — one of the truly hidden jewels of a river in the US. Well known, loved, and revered by residents of Montana, but unless you are well versed in the fly fishing world, you likely had never heard of it. I hadn’t.
The Smith is fortunate to be essentially a 57-mile long state park. With this distinction comes a level of support and care that is only matched by its beauty and remote wildness. Of all the rivers I have been on across the west, this one is certainly not the roughest, or most exciting, or “adventurous,” but probably does qualify as the most unexpected.
Our trip hardly qualifies as roughing it — we were being treated to a level of luxury I had never enjoyed in the outdoors. Fully supported by an experienced and excited guide crew, we would roll into camp after a day on the river to smiles, cold beverages, and the aroma of a hot dinner wafting from the spacious canvas tent. Personal tents were set up for us; cots arranged and gear bags waiting in a neat row. Our job was to peel out of wet waders, get comfortable, and grab a camp chair by the fire. Reflect on the day and soak in the scenery. Montana Fly-fishing Connection has this part dialed. Broad benches of grass to camp and lounge, plenty of space to spread out or catch a moment alone, pit toilets at every stop (really? No groover?)
Driving up to the Smith from Colorado, I had no idea what I was in for. Most of my river experience consists of big sandstone walls (San Juan), enormous, broad canyons (Grand Canyon), or tight granite (Black Canyon). Winding out of Bozeman, north to White Sulphur Springs the road meanders through small mountain ranges and traverses broad prairies of grass and blue. Even at the put-in, the hills roll on; forested woods dot the distance, and that world-renowned big sky. But within moments of rounding the first few bends in the river, the situation presents itself — this place is very different from anything I had ever experienced.
Limestone cliff walls with ochre-colored lichen clinging above — towering pines shrouded in moss, creating a shady depth within that I would expect to see on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington or the swamps of Louisiana — not on the western plains. Ferns — tall, swaying grasses — Mergansers.
Every turn in the river is a new view, a different light, something to process. Every rock wall is similar, but actually very unique. How is that? It’s limestone, it’s vertical, and don’t you dare slip a rubber raft along the wall or you will have an annoying patch job on your hands. Each corner illicits interpretation of the new beauty — different from the last one — worthy of a few clicks of the camera. Its ok to put the fly rod down for a minute. This feeling should be absorbed.
We dredge a few fish out of a crease with a black streamer. Fat rainbows and healthy browns, with an occasional white fish thrown in for sport. Teasing them off the rock walls or tempting them from their cover behind a projected prow, the fish are there. Fortunately for me, they’re not terribly tippet shy either –throwing 1x and 2x to battle the effects of those limestone walls enabled any solid strike to come to the net. The tug is the drug.
One afternoon, we were fortunate to see the Smith from a very different, unexpected angle — from above. The family of a college friend of our trip leader and American Rivers Northern Rockies Director, Scott Bosse, has a ranch that borders the Smith River, perched high upon on the grassy and wooded bench, about a thousand feet above river level. The view from the Rahr Ranch is astounding, with the Smith streaking across this immense view from right to left. From that viewpoint, I really could see a broader story of the Smith River. Hundreds of years ago, Northern Plains tribes would set up their teepee communities along the banks of the Smith. Bison would roam in and out of the basin. Now much of the land is privately owned, except for most of the Smith itself, which is predominantly public, although quite remote. Still, many of the modern landowners understand that preserving a place like the Smith is not only preserving open space or a river; it is also preserving history, and a legacy.
Back in White Sulphur, a town that time may just be starting to forget. A few bars, some odd storefronts, one state-run liquor store, a clean hotel — each of them with a certain sign in the window.
Tintina Resources, a Canadian-based and Australian-controlled company that has found a substantial copper deposit high within the delicate headwaters of Sheep Creek, claims they could build a mine in a sulphur-rich, geologically questionable stratum, with a guarantee of no environmental damage. Sheep Creek is a critical and direct tributary to the Smith — and any mistake or accident will flow downhill. Tintina’s own people have stated that the holding ponds will leak — absolutely. So how can they guarantee that they can keep the Smith healthy??
Like many backwater towns across America, the allure of a quick fix to White Sulphur’s financial woes is apparent. Mine proponents push the claims of jobs for the locals, a renewed economic spark, and hope for a brighter future. While it may not be “get rich quick,” the Smith itself contributes a sustainable $10 million per year, with $7 million of that directly attributed to the angling industry. That $7 million supports gas stations, hotels, restaurants, and the guides and outfitters who are on the water every day. The Smith supports Montana families, Montana residents, Montana’s future — the mine would send profits to another continent, and risk one of the best bets for economic vitality over the long run.
A healthy Smith is vital to a sustainable future for White Sulphur and central Montana.
As we pull into camp, soaked to the bone, shivering uncontrollably and scurrying to the warm fire and a hot cup of tea, the thought occurred that while this may not be the wildest whitewater adventure, or the absolutely most scenic trip, or even the most spectacular fishing (which was totally blown out for the next two days from the downpour), it is still one of the most unique and captivating adventures I have ever had. Especially coming from Colorado, I did not expect to fall in love with the place like I did — and for the reasons I discovered while I was there.
As the lightning cleared and the clouds began to part, letting in the bright Montana sun, I got the feeling that this is a pretty special place — pretty special to a lot of people and part of an important future for central Montana. And a choice — a choice to continue the practice of risking, or in some places directly sacrificing, our natural heritage and sustainable future, or opt for a true guarantee. Continuing the tradition of enjoying, loving, and profiting from a river like the Smith, which gives back so much, and does so year after year after year, with no unexpected consequences.
Help us protect the Smith River. Learn more at AmericanRivers.org/Smith
All photos credit Sinjin Eberle