MISSOULA — To the list of gardeners, baseball players and others who spend all winter dreaming about spring, add river paddlers.
“Every winter, I work myself up a guidebook for the following year,” said Kevin Colburn, American Whitewater’s national stewardship director based in Missoula. “Which rivers haven’t I reached? Which ones don’t we have good information on? What landscapes do I want to see?”
Because his job involves researching rivers throughout the nation for possible protection and conservation, Colburn’s passion dovetails with his duties. In 2011, he explored 29 lesser-known rivers and floatable creeks in Montana. Last summer, he notched seven more. With the arrival of a baby daughter nine months ago, Colburn said he’s seen his focus shift a bit from whitewater chutes to family-friendly destinations.
Montana has a lot of both, and Colburn spent much of Tuesday night regaling listeners at the Trail Head with suggestions of places to experience as well as places to explore. From the well-known currents of the North Fork of the Flathead River to the virtually unknown slot canyons of Deep Creek on the Rocky Mountain Front, his goal was to get people wet.
“We want people to do their own analysis of what should be on the list for protection,” Colburn said. “The thing about Wild and Scenic designations is it has to be grassroots. The Forest Service has a process for determining which rivers may be worth designating, but the public chooses.”
Montana hasn’t designated a new federal Wild and Scenic river since 1976, even though the original congressional legislation started here. A number of rivers and creeks have been declared eligible for the status, but they have not received congressional approval.
Rivers can deserve Wild and Scenic status for many reasons, including historic significance, biological diversity, geological wonder or cultural value. The last ones to receive full designation were the three upper forks of the Flathead and a portion of the Missouri.
“We’re extremely lucky to have intact, wild river ecospheres left in Montana,” Colburn said. “It’s not like Colorado, where most of our rivers are in pipes. And we’re river people. Missoula feels like a beach town for half the year.”
And yet, there still remain places in the state where the recreation values or natural wonders haven’t been properly cataloged. For example, Star Creek in the Kootenai National Forest has one of the biggest waterfalls in Montana, but virtually no photographs of it exist because it’s so remote.
“I’ve been there, but it was one of the few times I left the car without a camera,” Colburn said. “And I’ve been kicking myself ever since.”
Kootenai National Forest planner Ellen Frament said river designations drew a respectable amount of attention when the forest drafted its new management plan last year.
“We did have quite a bit of comment on both sides — those who wanted more and those who wanted less designations,” Frament said of the river evaluation issue. In addition to big waters like the Kootenai, Thompson and Tobacco rivers, the Kootenai National Forest has a lot of small streams popular with boaters and anglers, she said. Some of them also occasionally come up for consideration for hydropower projects or irrigation diversion.
The new forest plan will propose changes in the way those issues are handled, Frament said. A final version is due this spring.
American Whitewater has set up a website to gather support for rivers people think deserve protection. People can add their suggestions at shareyourmontanariverstories.com. Colburn said despite our wealth of choices, time is running out. Even back in 1925, noted conservationist Aldo Leopold warned: “The day is almost upon us when canoe travel will consist of paddling up the noisy wake of a motor launch and portaging through the backyard of some summer cottage. When that day comes, canoe travel will be dead, and dead too will be a part of our Americanism.”
As he contemplates next summer’s water work, Colburn said he was researching places he could run with his family. After a decade of hauling kayaks and inflatable pack rafts into the boonies, it’s time to try canoeing places like the Marias, Madison and Dearborn.
“We named our daughter Willow,” he said. “So we’ve got to keep her by the side of a river a lot.”