Rivers are magic. Rivers make me shiver. Rivers are sublime in E. Burke’s meaning of the word — both terrifying and beautiful.
The Clearwater and Lochsa are not exceptions to my love of and respect for rivers. Riding the highway beside these wild and scenic waters, we could see where spring run-off flung logs and debris high above the placid river levels in August. We saw the water dancing around boulders that would be huge standing waves in April. These waters, running from the Bitterroot Mountains where few people and even fewer industries pollute them, are crystal clear, luminous, shining, and wild.
The streams connect to our ordinary world: the Crooked Fork of the Lochsa goes into the Lochsa, which goes into the Clearwater, which is a tributary of the Snake, which becomes part of the (Mighty) Columbia which empties into the Pacific Ocean. We were connected to all in this way, today.
The Clearwater Rt 12 is very reminiscent of Pine Creek Rt 414, in Pennsylvania, where we’re headed. The stream curves and the road follows, the road climbs a gentle elevation, everywhere you look there’s queen anne’s lace, school bus shelters show up at the end of tiny roads running up narrow valleys, and the highway we’re following is a modest two-lane, mostly without a shoulder. The road crosses and recrosses the river.
The Lochsa is more wild. The bridges are mostly foot bridges, for the hikers in the Selway-Bitterroot National Forest. The cliffs close in on both sides of the stream, and the road hugs the rock. The river winds and rewinds, around mountain points; the road follows. A fortune must have been made producing the “winding road” signs along Rt 12 on the Lochsa.
The Clearwater mountains and hills are dry and golden and swoop away from the river in big gorgeous folds. The Lochsa mountains are craggy and pine covered, and the highway (not finished up the Lochsa until 1963) runs through dappled brilliant light, bouncing off the trees.
Along the way are tales of human inhabitants and encroachments: the Nez Perce roamed these mountains digging camas root and smoking fish long before the Anglos came through, and they had tales of natural features that make good fables for children: for example, the ant and the yellow jacket (tamsoy ka-pela talo) got into an argument and began to fight, locking themselves into battle. Coyote, after failing to negotiate a peace treaty, turned them into rock. Photo below:
Jer was pursued by a persistent yellow jacket and threatened to tell Coyote. A retreat to the car made the call for help unnecessary.
So first there were the native peoples (primarily Nez Perce and Selish), then there were Lewis and Clark and fur trappers, then settlers and gold miners, then loggers and road builders and Forest Service personnel. Now the tourists, ourselves included, drive on macadam along the water. Lewis and Clark couldn’t get down into the Lochsa Canyon except once or twice — they followed the mountain ridges because the river was too wild to canoe and the canyon walls too steep for horses.
The logging industry managed a deal — a checkerboard dating from the building of the railroads, which got the land and then sold its square miles to Plum Creek Timber; the citizenry in the form of the Forest Service controls the alternative squares. It’s easy-peasy to tell which entity has control of which part of the landscape.
Along with a certain anger and horror at what happened to the Nez Perce and the forests, there is one other element of summer travel that intrudes on one’s idealism: road construction. We feared that along Rt 12 we might find them enlarging the highway to transport oil sand petroleum in huge vehicles from Canada. No enlargements were seen along the Lochsa or at Lolo Pass, but fixing the infrastructure certainly slowed us down:
We knew when construction was ahead simply by observing pods of traffic coming toward us: accumulations of vehicles would be stuck behind a pilot car and then released to the highway all as a batch. We too were batched, going the other way.
So here’s the question for the day: what is the delicious odor that permeates these high dry areas? Sage, perhaps, but it doesn’t smell like sage. Ponderosa? But you find it where there are no pines. It’s a spicy, dusty smell that is like nothing else; I’d know it anywhere. It’s exhilarating — better than taking in second-hand pot.
Other observations: the wide spots along the rivers are often inhabited by enterprising folks, people who run a quilt shop out of a vehicle body shop, with transmission changes on the side. Espresso drive-throughs, day spas, firewood, hand-made furniture and chain saw art, towing and roofing — all kinds of small shops and businesses, keeping body and soul together.
Another question: has anyone ever seen motels advertise “dirty rooms” or “unreasonable rates” and does the Crooked Fork have a companion, the Straight Fork?
We decided on Cat Rules (in our community, cats rule) for whining: Jer gets to go first, but he only has five minutes in which to whine and then it’s my turn. I have as much time as I need. We think such a rule would have helped Lewis and Clark a lot. This rule did not include Jer’s observation, as we dropped down from Lolo Pass at 4 PM and realized we had not yet gotten to Missoula.
“It’s a big continent”, he said, and then added “that’s not a whine.”
“Let’s stop in Missoula for the night” I said “And that’s a suggestion.”
So there’s time for Basin and our Artists Refuge friends tomorrow. And the whine rule will remain intact for as long as the Cat rules. –June