HAMILTON – With a hammer in his hand and mud up around his ankles, John Farley couldn’t have been a much happier man.
For 200 feet upstream along the eastern banks of the Bitterroot River, his friends and fellow outdoorsmen volunteers were busy on a project that will keep this important shore from washing away.
It’s a been an idea close to his heart since he first noticed that the river was quickly eroding the bank just upstream from the Veterans Bridge north of Hamilton last year.
The location was an important one to most everyone who liked to fish this stretch of stream.
On this day, while a large excavator is carefully placing soil a top a heavy fabric made from coconut shell, a fisherman is catching fish just across the river from the worksite. Another group of anglers launch their bright blue raft just a few feet downstream.
“This site was never really designed for what it’s being used for today,” Farley said, in between pounding some heavy stakes into the ground. “Some day we would like to see a dedicated boat ramp in here too.”
In order for that to happen, Farley said the erosion that was carrying the site owned by the Montana Department of Transportation away needed to be stopped.
“There was a terrific amount of erosion that was happening here last year,” Farley said.
This member of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association brought that matter to the attention of the local state fisheries biologist and other sportsmen’s organizations in the valley.
They all banded together to do something about it.
Under the direction of Russ Fox of Ridge to River Restoration, a crew of volunteers and others went to work rebuilding the bank last week using the same bioengineering techniques that have been successful in similar bank restoration projects on the Bitterroot River.
“The two other installations on the Bitterroot River using this design have done very well,” Fox said.
In a naturally occurring riparian area, vegetation is what holds the stream bank together.
Fox borrows centuries-old European methods to allow nature to repair the damage to the badly eroding bank near the bridge.
His excavator first pulled the bank back about five feet from the river’s edge.
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The rebuilding process then began with a layer of evergreen boughs bound together in bundles called fascines that will capture silt during spring run off.
On top of that, the volunteer crews rolled biodegradable sheets of coconut fabric that was then filled by a foot-high layer of soil. From there, the crews stacked a row of bundles of sand willow shoots that had been collected earlier near Corvallis.
By the time they were done, there were four layers of coconut fabric encased soil and bundles of willow stacked up to create the new bank.
Once high water arrives, with its accompanying warmer weather, the willows will sprout and cover the bank in a layer of green.
In one growing season, Fox has seen the willows sprout three into the air.
“It looks literally like a hedge,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen time and time again.”
Phil Romans is a member of both Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Fly Fishers of the Bitterroot.
“All of us have a real interest in seeing this succeed,” he said. “This whole area could have washed out. We need a good place to get in and out of the river.”
This site is important for a lot of different reasons, he said.
“We want to take care of it,” he said. “It’s important that we take care of our stream banks. We don’t want them all washing downstream.”
Bob Driggers was one of Farley’s mainstays in helping to get the project completed. He’s a fellow member of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.
“It’s been an experience,” Driggers said, while taking a moment’s break. “We’ve been learning as we go.”
Driggers retired from the military the Bitterroot Valley. Hunting and fishing are an important part of his life.
“This is my way to give something back,” he said. “It’s kind of like paying it forward. It’s what I really like about the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. All of what we do impacts wildlife right here at home.
“If we all work together, we can make a difference right here,” Driggers said.