July 12, 2015
We woke up in the middle of the public park. Outside of our tent we could hear our biker buddies from the Wallace Blues Festival. It was already late in the morning, and as comfortable as we were laying on the flat, soft ground of the park, we rolled ourselves up and out, greeted our friends, took down camp, got gas, and were about to head out of town, when I realized that one of the poetry postcards I wrote suited our Lone Wolf buddy, Mark, perfectly. I once thought poetry was kind of useless except as personal mental exercise, since a word isn’t even worth a dime and who would buy clever turns of phrase I put on a page. (Thanks a lot Consumerist upbringing.) But being able to hand someone a scrap of paper with a few handfuls of words that emanate brightness, and say something meaningful and memorable, brings me joy. I don’t know if Mark even likes poetry in the first place, but my gift earned a salute. He patted his heart and gave me a thumbs up as we drove off.
We headed west on I-90, took the Coeur d’Alene River Road to Prichard, then took Prichard Creek Rd into Montana, where this two-lane mountain road became Montana Secondary “Highway” 471. The drive was absolutely beautiful. Along the river we saw many RVs spaced out for miles on the opposite bank set up as though they were going to be there for months, living the life. Finally, we crossed the Clark Fork River again, remembering our first night in Montana when we stayed near the southern end of this river, which is so polluted from the old mining industry that it is the largest Superfund clean up site in the USA. Here, far down stream from the highly damaged watersheds of the Clark Fork River’s headwaters, I couldn’t help wondering how much the pollution upstream was diluted. Did the effects of the mining toxins cascade all the way into this mighty section of the river, where fly fishing is popular? According to the fishing guides, the wetland restoration has been very successful at keeping the toxins from accumulating in the fish here. But I can’t help being slightly suspicious since they have a vested interest in the fish being good to eat. Surely, this far downstream of the Superfund site the concentration of dangerous molecules in the water is very low, probably only a few parts per billion, maybe even parts per trillion.
But what about pollutants that have been eaten by the small invertebrates upstream? There is no way for the toxic particles to leave their tiny bodies (a process called bioaccumulation), so when the small fish eat thousands of these little organisms the toxins from the invertebrates build up, exponentially magnified in the body of the little fish. Then the big fish eat thousands of little fish, and the amount of toxins in the bodies of the big fish is magnified again. Scientist call this biomagnification, and it’s why DDT notoriously didn’t hurt fish populations nearly as much as it hurt populations of eagles and other birds that relied on eating thousands of big fish to survive. Similarly, our bodies would build up magnified levels of the toxin. For each fish we eat we also eat millions of invertebrates from the base of the food web. Each individual fish might not have been harmed by the amount of pollutants in it’s body, but when we regularly eat fish from a polluted body of water we could accumulate enough magnified toxins in our body to create health problems. Talk about karma. What we do to the rivers, we ultimately do to ourselves. The sad thing is that the people who polluted the river mining for copper are not the same people who suffer from the effects of arsenic build up in the fish they eat. Members of our human family and animal extended family suffer, but not the individuals who profited from polluting. If this is karma, it’s very twisted karma, and we are punished generations later for not curbing the greed of the industrialist. Though, come to think of it, we have probably all enjoyed some of the cascading benefits of copper being mined to use in the inventions of the Industrial Revolution and in our modern electronics, like microchips of our computers and the copper coils in our refrigerators and air conditioners.
But, I wasn’t thinking about these convoluted ecological and social problems as we entered our destination town, Thompson Falls, proudly the “Home of Western Hospitality.” I was excitedly thinking about camping in the Lolo National Forest and visiting the TRACS animal shelter. When we stopped to get gas in town, I headed inside to get a good map. (Apperently, Lolo NF doesn’t have free maps readily available online or at ranger stations, unlike the NFs we visited in Idaho.) I asked the man behind the counter where they would be, and he enthusiastically pointed to the maps, commenting that at $15 they were over priced but even he had to pay full price and he was a volunteer member of search and rescue. He also commented on our Texas tags, asked what we were interested in seeing, and offered advice on when (dusk or dawn) and where to see bighorn sheep. That’s Western Hospitality for you!
By the time we found a good campsite and set up, it was too late in the day to go to TRACS. But that was alright with us. We sat around reading quietly together for a few hours and then explored a path down to the Thompson River. This was by far one of my favorite camping places on the whole trip. Not only were we right next to a beautiful river, but staying here was FREE. And we were the only people there, in the middle of summer! We could even stay for 16 continuous days. This was the moment I realized how happy I would be to spend all my summers in National Forests, camping in each spot for two weeks at a time.
We hung around at camp, enjoying what was potentially our last night as a single couple without a fur baby. The river rushing by was beautiful and lush, with some of the most colorful stones I have ever seen. As I bent to collect an especially pretty rock from the freezing water, I noticed first one, then another and another six-legged empty shells as big as my thumb. These were the left over exoskeletons of young dragonfly nymphs who had just transitioned from being fully aquatic to being master predators of the sky, capable of snatching mosquitoes at high speed. Their wings, which had been folded up tightly their whole life, burst from their backs and unfurled, glistening in the sun as they dried into the stiff crystal clear wings just like those that carried their ancestors over the rivers and lakes since before the time of dinosaurs. Before any of these mountains formed, and before these rocks fell into the river and were rounded smooth by the flow, the ancestors of these dragonflies were emerging from the water into the air, laying eggs back into the water and then dying, while their children swam, hunting voraciously below the surface. These insects, whose individual lifespans were measured in months, were more ancient than the rocky landscape they lived in.
Looking into the river flowing by, I saw the nearly unimaginable finite infinity of time in the ecological world of the mountains. How many millions of years had it taken for this valley to form? Was this place once covered by a thick sheet of glacial ice that kept the dragonflies out while it carved the mountains? How many generations of dragonflies had flown over this river as it widened and shrunk with the seasons, with the decades as the climate cooled and warmed and cooled again? I cast my mind back, trying to imagine this place as it was in various geological ages. Then, I tried to imagine forward. Just in my lifetime, how would I see this place change? Summer after summer, year after year. I was thrilled and in awe, the answer wasn’t clear.