Wide Montana Skies

June 30, 2015


We finally made it to Montana, my favorite state from the fond memories I have of visiting when I was a kid. As we drove along the floors of the valleys, which rippled with shades of gold and green before rising into deep green forests punctuated by stony crests, I sang Wild Montana Skies, feeling my chest resonate with the tune, and especially with these lines: “There was something in the city that he said he couldn’t breathe, there was something in the country that he said he couldn’t leave.” It occurs to me now, that what I’m trying to do with my pictures, and my stories is give a voice to the wilderness and the land that we live on.  In exchange for giving a voice to the forest and a voice to the dawn, I can feel a fire in my heart, and a light in my eyes. As we flew North along the highway, I felt the wild wind was my brother under the wide Montana skies.

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 We left this day of traveling totally unplanned, knowing only that we wanted to spend the night in Montana. As afternoon progressed, we picked blue spot on the map, and headed for what turned out to be Georgetown Lake. We got off the highway and passed through Anaconda, an old copper mining and smelting town. The Anaconda Stack of the smelting operation still stands 585-feet tall above the town and the toxic by-products, like arsenic, cadmium and lead, still permeate the water of the Clark Fork River basin. The area was declared a Superfund site in the 1980’s, and has the distinction of being part of the nation’s largest. The town of Anaconda, which once boomed with the mining industry, was depressing to drive through with most houses  in rough repair, paint peeling, and some boarded up entirely. The town is tired. People here clearly struggle to make ends meet. Not to mention the health effects of living in an area that was dusted and watered with toxic material for decades, such as a greatly increased risk of cancer. This is no longer a good place to live and raise children. Mining jobs have not been replaced with clean-up jobs.

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Though comprehensive clean-up could cost an estimated $1.3 billion dollars, Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), the company that is “potentially responsible,” according to the EPA, is naturally more focused on making money at their other mines (in places where environmental regulations are still weak), especially, since ARCO only bought in shortly before the mines had to be shut down, after decades of  the Anaconda Mining Company deeply contaminating the area. The current company, even though it is owned by BP, could probably not financially survive paying for the ecological remediation. So, the government of Montana has been left to take care of the mess as well as they can.  Though clean up efforts are still underway, it seems there is only so much that can be done. The sludge from the “slickens,” dead zones of toxic material along the river, has to go somewhere, so it goes to what was once known as Opportunity Ponds, and is now called BP-ARCO Waste Repository. The land here has a story to tell, written in the river sediment and the soil, and told by a few human voices, like the members of the Clark Fork Coalition. If you want to know more about the contamination and continued remediation of Clark Fork River, I highly recommend reading Brad Tyler’s deeply layered, insightful and personal article, “Remediating a Superfund sacrifice zone on Montana’s Clark Fork river.

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As someone just passing through Anaconda, I wouldn’t know anything about Anaconda’s history without people telling the story of what happened to the Clark Fork river and the people who live near it. As we drove around Georgetown Lake, looking for a campsite, I had no idea about the Superfund site here. Only by reading up on this area later did I see a more complete picture of this area. At the time, this just seemed like a pretty lake that was apparently a popular place for fishing and boating. Camping here was also very nice. There were multiple camping areas around the lake, though some no longer had any trees, just stumps from what I’m guessing was a pine beetle outbreak. We drove all the way around the lake before we found a perfect spot at the Philipsburg Bay Campground.

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The summer days at this latitude are so long that even after driving for seven hours, we had plenty of time to set up camp, gather fire wood, get a fire going strong enough to cook dinner over, eat dinner around the fire, and even make s’mores for desert before it even started to get dark! S’mores were an especially messy treat. While I struggled with marshmallow on my face, Morgan took the opportunity to grab, not the napkin I asked for, but my camera instead! He captured some all together too candid portraits.

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Want more camping stories?

Read about our visit to Bear Lake, where we camped

and kayaked with bald eagles as company

or

see more pictures from our first night in Montana.

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