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Smith River

Floaters round the final bend on the Smith River before the Lower Givens Gulch Camp in this 2016 file photo.

There is another reason, beyond recreation and conservation, why we wish to preserve our rivers. It’s a quieter reason: At the river we find healing, release, solace, a physical manifestation in front of us that says plainly, “The only way is forward. Just keep going.”

We had the incredible fortune to draw the permit and go on a four-night journey on the Smith River this summer. Heavy snowpack and spring rainfall made near perfect conditions for our June 30th launch date, coming off the river on the Fourth of July. There’s some poetry in that alone.

And of course there was fishing. There were icy plunges, gooey marshmallows, laughter, cold beer, strong coffee and quiet contemplation of the abundance of beauty around every bend.

The river is a force. It pushes you to hike to the cliff overlooking Middle Sunset and look up from whence you came or scramble to the cave just below Upper Parker to see the petroglyphs.

Why?

Because who knows when you will ever be back here again? You’re on the river. You’re moving forward. You can’t go back.

And that’s life isn’t it?

We are here in this moment, so if we don’t do the damn thing now, when will we?

At Upper Parker on the second to last night, we’d finished up dinner. The shadows lengthened, the light mellowed, the wind quietly ushered in the twilight, and in the angle of sky framed by two towering rock walls on either side of the bend just below camp, a moving sunset.

Moving in the sense that a steady breeze moved the clouds while the woolen purples and ember warm oranges painted their edges, animating them. We all stopped and took it in.

My husband whispered to me, “Should we spread William’s ashes?”

I was hesitant. We had brought a small vessel with just some of the remains of our infant son who died as he was born on September 5, 2015. Three years later and I couldn’t part with even a miniscule amount of him. But we were here. The fleeting sky was saying, “You will never be exactly here ever again.”

So we walked down river and on the smooth rocks we let him slip away. He went before us.

This life is short, no matter how you look at it.

It’s unsurprising that extraction endeavors like mining operate on the same philosophy. There is an urgency to seize the opportunity. The difference, of course, is the ultimate results.

If the river is destroyed, will the gains justify the ends?

As the threat of mining puts additional pressure on our rivers, the federal government is working to actively roll back critical Clean Water Act protections that would impact places like Montana’s Smith River and other special places across the country. We need our leaders in Congress to stand up and fight back against these attacks and oppose efforts to repeal the 2015 Clean Water Rule or to cut the funding of critical clean water programs.

Preserving places like the Smith provides exponential opportunity for others to find their fortune, not just in the ample benefits to Montana’s recreational economy, but in big fish stories, in time spent with family and friends, in the peace of falling asleep to the sound of clean, cool rushing water, changing and moving even as we dream.

The channels and braids mirror our veins, giving our hearts a purpose. The veins of copper ore are not where the real treasure lies. It is the alchemy of the river that will continue to change us infinitely if we let it.

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When not leading the marketing team and writing for ALPS in Missoula, Laura Churchman enjoys camping, hiking and overnight rafting with her husband, daughter and dogs.

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