Let the tube hatch begin.
It’s later than usual after an early, long flood season, but with temperatures bobbing up toward triple digits, the annual deluge of tubers and recreational rafters on Missoula area rivers is underway.
With one proviso: Baby, it’s cold in there.
“By and large it’s that time, but the quick change might catch people off guard and forgetting that, even if it’s all of a sudden 90 degrees and the water’s dropped, it’s still cold,” said Vivaca Crowser, spokeswoman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Case in point: the inviting Blackfoot River. It’s dropping fast, and is at its lowest height and velocity since mid-April. But the water temperature as reported by the U.S. Geological Survey has risen from 52 to just 54 degrees in the past week.
If that’s warm enough for you, go for it. But bear in mind the Blackfoot is usually well into the 60s and flirting with 70 degrees this time of year. The Bitterroot and the Clark Fork were still roughly 10 degrees colder than last year.
Know, too, that popular access sites upriver and down are still dealing with the ravages of high water. All but one of 70 or more FWP fishing access sites in Region 2 are open to vehicles. The exception is Sha-Ron by East Missoula, the closest launch point into Missoula.
At just under 6 feet, the Clark Fork River is still higher than usual. But it has receded into something close to its normal channels after reaching a near-record height of 13.82 feet on May 11.
At Sha-Ron it left dozens of logs and entire trees with root systems intact lying around like pick-up sticks. River debris is scattered 100 feet up the boat launch area and into the parking oval.
Crowser said FWP has contracted to begin clearing the way on Monday, with a goal of opening Sha-Ron on Wednesday.
“It’ll be heavy equipment and saws,” Pat Saffel, FWP’s Region 2 fisheries manager. “There are some very large trees in the water that are waterlogged and probably heavy. And then it’s all inter-tangled.”
Crowser said the closest boat launches upstream are at the Weigh Station on the Blackfoot above Bonner and at Turah on the Clark Fork. The new Milltown State Park at the confluence has a rudimentary river access to carry tubes and small craft from the parking lot. The park is open for foot travel from dawn to dusk but the vehicle gates close at 7 p.m. Those still parked at the park after that will have to wait until the next morning to get their cars, Crowser said.
“It’s well-signed, but certainly if we’re offering that as an alternative to tubers and small boats, to emphasize (the 7 p.m. closure) can’t hurt,” she said. “We don’t want that to happen to folks.”
River access at Milltown State Park is seen as a way to alleviate pressure on two problematic launch points downstream. For years both have experienced parking and overcrowding issues — Sha-Ron and an undesignated access under an I-90 bridge on Tamarack Road. This summer is seen as a proving ground for that theory.
A number of fishing access sites were closed for safety reasons during high water and reopened in early June. Crowser said five sites on the Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers remained closed to vehicle traffic until recently. Next week Sha-Ron will be the last of the five to open.
Still, there’s plenty of work to do.
“There are some sites like on the Middle Clark Fork that have quite a bit of sand on ramps,” Saffel said. “I think Kona Bridge does. We’re just jumping from site to site to get them usable. Some sites up the Blackfoot were totally inundated and the roads in are in pretty crummy shape.”
The change was sudden from high water to floating season, he added. “So we’re getting there.”
The little-used stretch of the Clark Fork below Reserve Street Bridge to Kelly Island remains closed to floating, fishing and other recreation. That's due to the dangers posed by downed NorthWestern Energy power lines. Crowser estimated they may not be removed for another four to six weeks.
Big-water navigators should take heed of work going on at the Cyr Bridge FAS, the main put-in for the Alberton Gorge whitewater section. The boat slide was damaged during high water, and Tuesday and Wednesday have been set aside to fix it.
“It has been kind of use at your own risk so far,” Crowser said.
The boat slide gives floaters and their gear access to the Clark Fork down a steep bank, and the fishing access will remain open during construction. But Crowser wasn’t sure if people will be able to launch from the slide.
“I’d say don’t plan on it,” she said.
Urban river users should heed another remnant of high-water: industrial waste.
“We have such a long history of Missoulians dumping crap into the river, you never know what’s been scoured out,” said Morgan Valliant, conservation lands manager for Missoula Parks and Recreation.
It’s not unusual after a flood to see another layer of rebar and old saw blades unearthed near the Missoula Osprey baseball stadium, a former site of old lumber mills.
“It’s really important that people keep that in mind,” Valliant said. “Bank scour can reveal things like old car bodies and all kinds of stuff.”
The Clark Fork took a sizeable chunk of the south river bank by the ballpark as well.
Valliant said work needs to be done in Greenough Park after a couple hundred feet of stream bank sloughed into Rattlesnake Creek. The city is working with Trout Unlimited and other partners to get an assessment of what can be done to fix the bank, which is near the main park trail.
Also high on the city's priority list is the mess at the Tower Street Conservation Area. That’s the 80-acre open space park off Third Street where the Clark Fork did the most damage.
It remains closed and will probably stay that way for the summer.
Valliant said the floodwater burrowed new channels through the area and probably damaged trees, posing a safety threat to anyone who ventures in. High water took out all the trails and the parking lot.
“Essentially we’re going to have to rebuild our entire trail system,” Valliant said.
The Parks Department will start assessing the damage this week, but there are other elements at play. The central trail of the Tower Street Conservation Area followed the route of high-voltage power lines that lead to the river. Valliant said two of three poles at the river bank that used to support lines don't any more.
A sizeable new channel sliced through the woods and cut off access to the power poles at high water. The integrity of other power poles is still unknown.
“We’ve been watching the area and waiting until we think it’s safe enough and dry enough to see what the problems are there,” spokesman Butch Larcombe of Northwestern Energy said Friday. “We’ve been keeping in close contact with the city. I know our engineering people have been out there and talked with the city forester a number of times, so they understand our concerns.”
One concern for the power company and city of Missoula alike is trespassers.
"There've definitely been folks going in to check things out," Valliant said. "We've been actively trying to get word out about unknown hazards."
While the danger of contaminants from flooded homes and breached septic systems has lessened, "the opportunity for foot entrampments or getting caught in debris or something like that and just drowning is probably the biggest issue," said Valliant.
That said there's a natural deterrent to trespassing: mosquitoes, clouds of them, from so much standing water.