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Big Blackfoot River, One of the Last Pristine Rivers in America

Early Morning Light on the Big Blackfoot

Early Morning Light on the Big Blackfoot

For all my Waterkeeper friends, don't read this post.  You will instantly get jealous.  Jerry O'Connell definitely has the best Waterkeeper job in the country hands down.  The Big Blackfoot River is the inspiration for Norman Maclean's Book The River Runs Through It . Maclean believes religion, fly fishing, and family are inextricably woven together.  Some important lessons the river teaches are that life continues and all things are related. Jerry says the river is healing to everyone who visits.  Robert Redford likely felt the same way, as he narrated the story in the movie. Jerry loves the book so much that he has pinpointed where many of the scenes take place. He leads tours he refers to as "In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean" and takes fellow fly fishing enthusiasts out on the river.  I think it is a religion for Jerry too.

Jerry O'Connell in his Office

Jerry O'Connell in his Office

This was one of Norman Maclean's favorite fishing holes and Jerry refers to it as his own office.  It is actually on his property.  You see how miserable he looks at work.  The 132-mile Big Blackfoot River has no dams and is the southern boundary of The Crown of the Continent, the area where Alberta, British and Columbia meet and one of the richest and diverse intact ecosystems in the temperate world. (Glacier National Park is also part of the Crown of the Continent).  Jerry doesn't have to spend all his time looking for spills or existing problems, though he does work to fight dirty water laws that might open the door for pollution in this beautiful, pristine waterway.  He has time to fly fish and even wrote about it (Fly Fishing for the Reasonably Competent).  Jerry also works with nearby farmers.  Unlike in many areas of the country, the farmers in this area understand that a healthy river means healthy horses and healthy crops.  The farmers are helping the river to return to its natural state through restoration projects that keep the river accessible for spawning trout.  Jerry works with Trout Unlimited and other groups to accomplish his restoration projects and to raise awareness about how important it is to preserve the water quality and natural state of the river.

View from the Office

View from the Office

The image above is the view from Jerry's office. No wonder he is inspired to keep the water and surrounding ecosystem in tact.

Blackfoot River Riparian Landscape

Blackfoot River Riparian Landscape

The riparian landscape of the Big Blackfoot River was created by glaciers 12,000 years ago, so there are many carved cliffs with sharp angles. The red color of the rocks is very striking.    

The flat rocks lining the banks are ancient too and if you look closely, you can see where the floodwaters froze in different layers.  These rocks are fascinating to look at, a geological map with embedded fossils and many colorful lichen.

The flat rocks lining the banks are ancient too and if you look closely, you can see where the floodwaters froze in different layers.  These rocks are fascinating to look at, a geological map with embedded fossils and many colorful lichen.

Lichen on the Rocks of the Big Blackfoot River

Lichen on the Rocks of the Big Blackfoot River

 I could have studied the rocks all day and been enamored with their textures and colors, but my dog Takoda was too excited by the clean, pure water.  I got a bit nervous when he started drinking it, but Jerry told me he drinks right from the river himself and has had no ill effects. Grizzlies, elk, Bighorn Sheep, cougars, lynx, wolves, and deer all live here.  While sitting on their back porch, Jerry and his wife have seen grizzlies appear from behind the trees, walk down to the river, take a drink, and then wander back into the woods.

Takoda Playing in the Big Blackfoot River

Takoda Playing in the Big Blackfoot River

The woods around the Big Blackfoot River are so healthy, varied, and tall.  Jerry took me for a drive through the woods to another location where we could access the river from a bridge.  On the way, we stopped in the forest and I made this image.  

Forest in the Big Blackfoot River Basin

Forest in the Big Blackfoot River Basin

One issue that Jerry does have to manage is recreation. In addition to fly fishing, many people float the Big Black Foot. He told me that hundreds of people used to put in right near this bridge every day in the summer.  So much traffic completely changed the character of the river here.  Fortunately a dam was taken out and the tubers were able to start closer to Missoula.  Now it is back to the serene section of river Jerry knew before.

Serenity on the Big Blackfoot

Serenity on the Big Blackfoot

The early evening light hit the hillside.  Standing there with Jerry and my dog on the bridge reached only by a dirt road rarely traveled by any other human beings, I felt like I truly was in paradise.  I suddenly said, "Jerry I think you have the best Waterkeeper job in the country–maybe in the world."  This is Jerry saying, "Who, me?"

Who, Me?

Who, Me?

It didn't take Jerry long to concur that he probably does have the best Waterkeeper job. Perhaps before they put the railings up on this bridge, and he worried about his car slipping off into the river in the wintertime there might have been someone who could beat or tie him, but the bridge is safe now.

Low Water Levels, Big Blackfoot River

Low Water Levels, Big Blackfoot River

When I looked in the other direction, I asked Jerry if all the rocks were a sign of very low water levels and he said yes.  Climate change causes earlier snow melts everywhere, and with hotter temperatures more water evaporates..  Trout do require cool temperatures to survive (below 72 degrees), so this is a concern for Jerry and all riverkeepers in the Pacific Northwest.  Ensuring that the Keystone XL Pipeline does not go forward is another important issue.  If there was a spill like the one on the Kalamazoo River, this river and potentially the irreplaceable Crown of the Continent would be devastated never to return to such a pristine state. This river is a jewel that deserves protecting.  Potential copper mining is something else he is working to prevent.

Glacially Carved Cliff

Glacially Carved Cliff

Before we went back to Jerry's house, he took me to see this one very tall glacially arved cliff.  You can see by the size of the trees how large it is. The road runs right next to the cliff, so this is as much as I could fit in the frame without descending further into the river.

Cruising the Empty Roads in Jerry's Truck

Cruising the Empty Roads in Jerry's Truck

Jerry never has to battle traffic where he lives.  This is the view of the road back to his house from inside the cab of his truck.  Jerry got the last lot that could be built on along the river and only because there was a little cabin on the property already.  If there hadn't been at least one pre-existing structure, he could not have built his incredible house.  

Jerry and his Wife Deborah and One of their Dogs

Jerry and his Wife Deborah and One of their Dogs

 I asked Jerry and his wife if they knew how lucky they were to live in this area which looks much like it did when Native Americans passed by in search of buffalo in the east.  They said they have to pinch themselves every day.  I think Takoda might have been quite content to join their pack, and as we left I heard Jerry mention to my dog that if he wanted to run away in the cover of darkness he would have a home.  I guess the attraction was mutual.  Fortunately, Takoda did not understand what Jerry was whispering. 

Two Best Friends, Jerry and Takoda

Two Best Friends, Jerry and Takoda