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Blackfoot

FWP officials test obstacle-laden Blackfoot float through Bonner

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BONNER – “Welcome to the industrial-wildland interface,” Michael Kustudia yelled as his raft drifted into the Blackfoot River’s most unknown reach along the former Stimson Lumber Co. mill site.

For more than a century, this 1.5-mile stretch of water below the Weigh Station Fishing Access Site has been no-go. Lumberjacks backed it up with a small dam and used the pool to sort logs for the first half of the 20th century. Beyond that, Milltown Dam drowned the confluence where the Blackfoot met the Clark Fork River.

After Milltown Dam was breached in 2008, the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks imposed an administrative closure on the mill site reach for years while restoration work took place.

Then there were safety issues as the free-flowing Blackfoot unearthed thousands of sinker logs from its banks. A controversial rebuild of two Interstate 90 bridge piers created a grinding rapid just above the confluence. Other old bridge piers and the little log-pond dam presented additional obstacles.

On July 1, most of that becomes history as a new option joins the Missoula-area floating map. FWP lifts its administrative closure of the Weigh Station-Confluence reach Tuesday. As manager of the surrounding Milltown State Park, Kustudia led an administrative float through the area Friday to see what the boating public can expect.

“We’re happy to open this up to the public, but we want to be cautious,” FWP fisheries manager Pat Saffel said as Kustudia rowed away from the recently improved Weigh Station boat ramp. “A lot has been done here, but you can see a lot remains. We’ve removed 15,000 logs, but there’s still a lot of logs hanging around.”

Just a few hundred yards downstream of the boat ramp, the Blackfoot makes a hard right turn against a cliff below Montana Highway 200. The cliff forms a rapid there and also catches logs and debris washed down by spring runoff. On July 4, 2012, a 44-year-old woman drowned there after her inner tube got caught in the debris and the current sucked her under.

On Friday, the corner was clear of strainers. And the mid-river channel was wide enough to allow the raft easy passage away from the rapid, although it briefly got stuck in an eddy where another channel joined the flow.

All along the right bank stretched 47 acres of public land – an undeveloped part of Milltown State Park now accessible only by boat. Ambitious hikers could go ashore and struggle straight into the Rattlesnake Wilderness after crossing several miles of Lolo National Forest. More rational folks can enjoy a nice beach for picnics and fishing.

But on the other side, river-left, a century of industrial development can be divined from the trash still lingering along the shore. Missoula County organized several volunteer cleanup efforts last year that removed tons of scrap iron, old appliances, mill equipment and general refuse. Participants nicknamed the area “Tetanus Flats.”

This mix of natural and man-made hazards makes the lower Blackfoot a unique floating experience. Neatly sawn logs poking out of the water don’t have branches to grab a floater, but they might roll loose if bumped. Metal fragments mixed in the rocks can shred a raft or even a hard-sided boat. While not as big as the Clark Fork, the Blackfoot often flows faster and demands a higher grade of respect.

And then there are the bridge piers.

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As it passes through Bonner on the left and Milltown on the right, the Blackfoot flows under five bridges. The first is the pedestrian Black Bridge. The second supports Highway 200. The third carries the railroad. And the fourth and fifth piers under Interstate 90 present the biggest challenge.

A little-noticed decision during the removal and restoration of Milltown Reservoir resulted in a less-than-optimum design for those interstate piers.

Most river piers have an oval, boat shape that allows the water to smoothly move past them. But I-90’s piers were originally built in a slack-water reservoir, and have a simpler, block shape. When the piers were reinforced to deal with the flowing rivers, they remained in the channel in their square-faced format.

The blocks cause the river to pillow up and then drop as it passes each pier. During high water, it also creates a complicated hydraulic flow between and beyond the piers. A safety test in 2012 saw a rescue mannequin disappear in those currents, never to be recovered.

Saffel said that’s why the FWP Commission decided to close the Blackfoot confluence stretch during spring runoff for at least two more years, so the public has time to get experienced with the piers’ hazard. The closure this year went from May 1 to June 30. In future years, the commission has flexibility to open sooner or later, depending on conditions.

Kustudia said the river-left channel flows easier than river-right, although both presented little trouble for the raft at Friday’s 4,300 cubic-feet-per-second outpour. The challenge should drop with the water level as summer goes on. But an inner-tuber without paddles should still be wary of getting too close to the piers and caught in the middle hydraulic current.

“The best advice is to just stay away, close to the banks,” Kustudia said. “It’s a swirly pig between the piers and there’s a drop below each one. I’ve got video of it flowing at 17,000 cfs, and then it’s a class 3 rapid.”

That said, it takes about an hour under present river flows to float three miles from Weigh Station to the Sha-Ron Fishing Access Site in East Missoula – the first public takeout point below the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers.

Boaters are not allowed on the Clark Fork banks above the confluence with the Blackfoot to give recently planted vegetation more time to take root. The portion of Milltown State Park around the confluence also remains closed due to access issues.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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