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Exploring the Past, Present and Future of The Jefferson River.

The Past, Present, and Future of the Jefferson River
Exploring the Jefferson by canoe exposes river's timeless beauty
By Ben Pierce of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 08/27/2009
Photography by Erik Petersen.

      The Jefferson River has never much been on my mind.

      In the 13 years since I first set foot in Montana, fresh out of high school, wide-eyed and full of wonder, I've passed the Jefferson dozens of times. I've admired her cottonwoods from the road. I've guessed at what the fishing might be like. Once or twice I've dipped my feet in the hot water bubbling from the ground at Point of Rocks hot springs.

      But until last week, the Jefferson was to me a river mostly unknown.

      Last Thursday Chronicle photographer Erik Petersen and I left Bozeman for a three-day exploration of the river. We'd strapped his green Mad River canoe to the roof of his Dodge, and packed some barbequed chicken, elk sausages, a pile of Flathead cherries, a jar of pickles and a few packets of Quaker instant oatmeal.

      We headed west toward Whitehall on Interstate 90, the road that first brought me to Montana, do discover the "Jeff."

      It's not the first time we'd explored a river together. In 2006 we paddled the Yellowstone River from Forsythe to Glendive as part of a Chronicle series exploring that river. On that trip we endured blistering-hot days on a mostly nondescript section of the Lower Yellowstone that was nonetheless awe inspiring in its remote beauty. The monotony, sunshine and implausible scenarios of those six days combined in a mix of riotous laughter, second-degree sunburns and indelible memories.

      It also gave me a new appreciation for Montana's less-famed reaches. It made me love this place just a little bit more. It was with that promise that Petersen and I pulled into the Parrot Castle fishing access site on the Jefferson. We loaded the canoe with gear, fought an attack of fire ants and put in around 3 p.m.

      The next three days opened our eyes to what was, for us, a new stretch of Montana water. We caught a few more trout than we expected, narrowly avoided capsizing and brushed up on our Lewis and Clark knowledge.

      And I learned a little more about a river I had neglected for too long.

      The Jefferson River is formed at the convergence of the Ruby, Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers near the town of Twin Bridges. It flows for 80 miles to its confluence with the Madison and Gallatin rivers at Headwaters State Park near Three Forks where if forms the Missouri River. Along the length of the Jefferson, agriculture land extends east, abutting the high peaks of the Tobacco Root Range, and west toward the Highland Mountains.

      This is the land Lewis and Clark explored in the late summer of 1805. It was the site of mountain man John Colter's famed run from a band of Blackfeet Indians in the spring of 1808. It is a land largely untouched, much the same as it must have appeared when the Corps of Discovery first ventured into this country.

      Today the river forms the agricultural lifeblood of the Jefferson River Valley. It provides a recreational haven for anglers, boaters and swimmers. Last Thursday, Chronicle photographer Erik Petersen and I paddled downstream from Parrot Castle Fishing Access Site for a three-day, 32-mile exploration of the Jefferson River.

      We'd come to explore the river's past, its present and its future. From the discoveries of Lewis and Clark to a group of paddlers working to establish the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, we found a river rich with history and fraught with challenges.

      The Jefferson River Canoe Trail Association was formed six years ago with the goal of establishing multi-purpose backcountry campsites along the length of the Jefferson. The campsites would provide boaters with logical camping areas along the trail.

      In large part the Jefferson River remains untouched by the development that has forever altered the banks of the nearby Gallatin, Madison and Yellowstone rivers. Still, there is a fear that much of the agricultural land that currently rests on the river's banks will fall victim to streamside development.

      Warren Swager of Sheridan, vice president of the JRCTA, said the time to preserve the Jefferson is now.

      "Along the length of the Jefferson there are only two or three houses close to the river," Swager, 78, said Monday. "Set backs are a big thrust of ours. The beauty of the Jefferson is it goes from Twin Bridges to Three Forks. Lewis and Clark named the river for their president and it is the one they chose to ascend.

      "It is not the prettiest river in the world, but it is handy, and it is our river." Currently there are few established campgrounds along the Jefferson. The JRCTA lists three campgrounds on their map -- Point of Rocks just downstream from Parsons Bridge, Canyon Corner near Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park and Philosophy River near Willow Creek. Each of the campgrounds is intended for primitive use only. The sites are established on public lands, but do not include any form of shelter, fire pits, toilets or trash removal. The campgrounds are also unmarked.

      "(The JRCTA) is much in favor of these campsites being accessible only by river," Swager said. "It would be a reward for those floating down the river."

      The major hurdle for establishing campgrounds along the Jefferson River is acquiring land. That's a challenge as riverfront property along the Jefferson fetches as much as $7,000 an acre.

      "To buy up a 20-acre parcel, that is beyond the bounds of our little organization," Swager said. "For acquiring campsites and maintaining them as well, the issue is financial."

      While outright purchase of property remains unlikely for the JRCTA, other options exist. Donations to the JRCTA or the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks remain a possibility, as do land leases and easements. FWP maintains numerous fishing access sites along the Jefferson. These sites provide boat launches and in some cases out-houses and trash facilities. They do not however allow for camping.

      Jerry Walker, FWP regional parks manager, said that the department's philosophy for FAS is "to secure public access and allow the Stream Access Law to facilitate movement up and down that body of water."

      Walker said several factors play into the department's decision to allow for camping at FAS. Those factors include funding, size of the site and tolerance of neighbors. Once a site is established, maintenance of the facilities is another concern.

      Fortunately for boaters, Montana's Stream Access Law allows for camping below the high water mark along the Jefferson. In some areas of the river, boaters can find a suitable gravel bar to pitch a tent and spend the night.

      Still, "with that caveat under stream access there are some additional things that come into play," Walker said. "You are asked not to camp in sight of any residences and there are certain requirements on fires." Walker said FWP supports the idea of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail in theory.

      "In terms of what they are philosophically trying to do -- we support it, but the logistics are very problematic," Walker said. "Because the sites (the JRCTA proposes) are only accessible by water, it makes it very difficult for us to manage."

      While expanded camping opportunities would certainly draw more recreationists to the Jefferson and be a potential economic boon for the valley, there are parallel concerns about its affect on the community.

      "In the back of all of our minds is the concern about over-use," said JRCTA member Janet Zimmerman of Pony. "This project is just in its infancy and we need to ensure that it is done right."

Two fly fishermen in Jefferson River canyon, MT. FIGHTING DROUGHT
      The Jefferson River has been one of Montana's most chronically dewatered streams for decades. During the height of the drought, flows on the Jefferson frequently dipped below 50 cubic feet per second at Parson's Bridge near Silver Star. In 1988, things were so bad that the river barely flowed at all. That summer a mere trickle - just 4.7cfs - passed beneath the bridge. The Jefferson draws it water from a relatively small watershed. It is formed by the confluence of the Ruby, Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers. The Ruby's headwaters flow north from the Gravelly Range south of Alder. The Big Hole forms in the Beaverhead Mountains to the west and the Beaverhead River begins beneath Clark Canyon Reservoir southwest of Dillon.

      During years of drought with low mountain snowpack and high spring temperatures, flows can plummet rapidly. Bruce Rehwinkel of Trout Unlimited has been working together with community leaders, irrigators and landowners as part of the Jefferson River Watershed Council in an effort to help maintain flows on the Jefferson.

      "That is where the ranchers and the anglers and recreationists get together and form a bond of trust," Rehwinkel said Monday. "I was on that river a long time ago and it wasn't that way. People saw the river just as a water source. Now people are seeing that all these aspects make the river what it is, they make the community what it is."

      In drought years when flows on the Jefferson dipped below 50cfs or the water temperature rose above 73 degrees for three consecutive days the river was closed to fishing. Those drought years had a significant impact on the Jefferson's recreational appeal for anglers and boaters alike.

      In the early 1980s when flows bottomed out near 800cfs, FWP angler surveys gauge river use at 27,000 angler days per year - substantially lower than other nearby streams. When flows dipped later in the decade, angler days plummeted to 5,000 per year. The effects of drought have a negative impact on boaters as well.

      "We are concerned about the lack of water," Swager said. "This year it has not been too bad because we have had lots of rain, but many years in August you go down there and you can walk across the doggone river. The water gets so low you end up dragging the canoe more than floating."

      While the drought may or may not be easing, one thing is clear - the collective sacrifice of the Jefferson River community and its irrigators has yielded beneficial results for the river - and the community.

      "We have all the support we could ever ask for," Rehwinkel said. "The ranchers and irrigators have really worked to support the river.

      "If we can prevent that river from being closed, we could add many more dollars to the local economy. I think a big reason people live in Montana is to enjoy the mountains and the rivers and that is how they spend their money."

      The Lewis and Clark Expedition explored the Jefferson River in July and August of 1805. Sent west to discover a route to the Pacific Ocean, the Expedition camped near present-day LaHood on Aug. 1, 1805. That day members of the Expedition shot and killed two elk, two antelope and a bighorn sheep. Two hundred years later the Corps of Discovery's bicentennial drew thousands of Lewis and Clark enthusiasts to Southwest Montana. The event showcased the broad appeal the Lewis and Clark Expedition holds with the American public.

      "When you are floating in a canoe, it is very easy to imagine what it might have been like for Lewis and Clark because there is very little development on the Jefferson," Zimmerman said. "So many properties are being closed off, especially along rivers. Part of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail is to preserve this Lewis and Clark heritage for Montana families so that we can enjoy the resource."

      Zimmerman said experiencing the Jefferson by canoe brings paddlers closer to Montana's historic roots - and closer to nature. "Unlike other activities outdoors, in a canoe you can really be in the moment," she said. "There are very few distractions. A person can really be aware of the fresh air, the weather overhead."

      With the exception of a few buildings and some infrastructure, the landscape of the Jefferson River Valley is very much as Lewis and Clark might have seen it in the summer of 1805. The fact that the river has been for the most part preserved makes the Jefferson a unique place to teach about the Expedition.

      Zimmerman said that educating tomorrow's generation about our past is essential. The opportunity Corps of Discovery represents a chance to teach children in about our past in an engaging way.

      "I am a fifth generation Montanan and I was raised with the ethic that outdoor recreation is a privilege," Zimmerman said. "I have concerns that many youths today are losing some of the experiences I had as a youngster.

      "I sense that a lot of people are very interested in Lewis and Clark," Zimmerman said. "It is up to us as citizens to pick up that Lewis and Clark ball and keep it rolling. I see it as a great opportunity for us as Montanans to educate our kids."

      After three days and 32 miles of blissful paddling along the Jefferson, Petersen and I arrive at my Jeep, parked in the shade beneath Sappington Bridge. Along the "Jeff" we'd experienced the timeless beauty of a river left mostly to its own devices. We ran into a few more canoes than we had imagined, and we caught a few more fish. We talked to friendly folk and witnessed a community engaged with this magnificence resource. Near Cardwell, at the start of our adventure, a young man fly fishing with something only described as "black and red" tipped us off to what the fish were biting on.

      We caught a surprising number of rainbow trout -- some of decent size -- between Cardwell and Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park where the river broadens. We camped along the Jefferson River Canoe Trail at primitive campsites. We cooked elk sausages on a driftwood fire and ate them at dusk on an island.

      We laughed a lot and paddled less than we expected, and we found something to deepen our love for Montana ... just a little bit more.

Exploring the Jefferson River by Canoe exposes river's Timeless beauty.

Used with permission of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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