MILLTOWN — Sweating in the heat of a July afternoon, Jordyn Dougherty inflated her paddle board with single-minded focus.
The 90-degree sun reflected off asphalt and radiated off cars in the parking lot of the newly-finalized Milltown State Park put-in location, where Dougherty and her friends prepared for an afternoon on the water. Her group started coming to Milltown for floats this summer, grateful for designated parking spots and a spacious beach.
“They started towing people where we used to go,” said Dougherty, 25, as she worked on her board. “So now we go here. It’s so beautiful. I like this spot a lot.”
The Clark Fork River is just as Missoula as the University of Montana, or the "M" hike, or the Wilma Theater. As soon as the weather permits (or maybe even before then, if you ask a non-Montanan observer) Missoulians are making the most of the water — swimming, fishing and floating.
After the final, long-awaited official opening of the Milltown put-in, floaters have been able to kickstart their journeys on the Clark Fork just after its confluence with the Blackfoot River. There’s even an official parking lot, addressing the many complaints of floaters getting ticketed or towed for parking illegally, due to a lack of nearby parking options, in years past. In fact, business is so booming at the lot that volunteers have been requested to guide floaters and enforce parking etiquette.
Dougherty and her two friends, Shania Parker, 24, and Alisa Williams, 26, reflected on the river and their connection to it.
“I like the community,” Dougherty said. “There are so many people out here, just floating. And especially with this time in the world, it’s nice to have a lot of people who want to get out on the river and enjoy nature.”
“I just think that the river, and the location, is one of a kind,” Parker said. “Where else can you go and just hop on the river? And spend the day in the sun? That’s how unique it is to the area.”
“And just getting out on the water on a hot day. That’s the best part,” Williams added.
The three friends float the river often, at least three or four times a week. This float — from the Milltown put-in to Caras Park, is their favorite.
Next to the trio, another group worked to pump up their tube. Alexandria Bakker, 20, Serek Mullins, 20, and Gunner Mullins, 24, worked with a few other friends to get their four-person tube ready for take off. It was no easy task.
As Gunner wrestled and fought with the pump, he expressed a paradoxical appreciation for the tranquility of the river.
“The river can be described, really, in one word: relaxation,” Gunner said. “It’s a great space to come and relax.”
“It’s nice. It gets you out into the sun,” Bakker added. “It is relaxing. It’s a cool-down, it’s literally the perfect place to come cool down. It’s nice to not go stir-crazy and have a reason to come out.”
The group isn’t the most avid of floaters, members admitted, but this location was their favorite. When they do float, the Milltown lot is always their starting point on the water.
The lot is packed full most hot afternoons. After inflating paddle boards and tubes up by their cars, floaters embark on the quarter-mile trek down to the river. The walk takes them through a shaded overlook and then into the sun and the bleached stones of the beach.
It’s here, on the smooth, sun-soaked rocks, Jessie Willis and Taylor Garren, both 19, waited for their friend Hailey. She was having tube trouble.
“Already,” clarified Garren, with a laugh. “Already having tube trouble. We haven’t even put in yet.”
All three of the girls are from Frenchtown, and all three grew up in and around Missoula, floating the river during the hottest parts of the summer. Garren has fished at this beach many times, but that was before it became one of the most favored put-in locations in Missoula. This trip was their first time trying out the spot for floating.
“This (location) is a lot nicer, because you have a parking lot,” said Garren, “Even if it was completely packed.”
Willis said she felt the river has defined a lot of what makes Missoula so special. In a way, it’s a symbol of Missoula life.
“Missoula is known for the river,” she said. “It goes all the way through town. If you hike up on the M, it’s the main part of everybody’s pictures that you see. It’s a big deal.”
Willis continued, praising the unique opportunity provided by the river.
“When you get tired of the city you can just come out here instead. It’s a way to spend time with friends,” she said. “You don’t have to be on your phones, you can just listen to music and hang out.”
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