Waters: A river crashes through it

Madison-350x222“Let’s go fishing,” my friend Ben said, and I could tell by the twinkle in his eye that I was about to be escorted — sans blindfold, even — to one of his favorite hidey-holes.

We reached the Madison River west of Bozeman at the Black’s Ford takeout and turned south. We passed the fertile waters of Beartrap Canyon, where we’d had epic days landing 17- to 20-inch brown and rainbow trout. We passed the turnout to the dam below Ennis Lake, where we’d had other prolific afternoons and evenings.

We drove through Ennis, ignoring sparkling waters beckoning us to some of the best fishing in the world — a magnet for anglers everywhere.

We passed driftboat after driftboat on the famed “50 Mile Riffle”, the very mention of it eliciting an urge to genuflect, and we passed dozens of waders casting dry flies into the alluring stretch above Three Dollar Bridge.

Ben pointed his Jeep Cherokee toward the Madison River Canyon.

“Wait ’til you see this,” he said.

We ascended the moonscape wrought by the devastating 1959 earthquake that killed 28 people and formed Quake Lake, where the ghostly spires of drowned pines rise out of the clear, cold waters. Ben eased his SUV into the gravel along the road below the Quake Lake spillway, which was punched into the natural rock dam to avert a collapse similar to what happened at Lower Slide Lake in Jackson Hole in 1925.

Far below, still out of sight, I could hear the roar of the river as it tumbled from its unaccustomed heights toward familiar equilibrium at the canyon’s mouth. We hopped over the guardrail, scrambled down the scree with our fly rods, and stood in awe at the sheer force of the river’s frothing fury.

I shot Ben a look of incredulity, as if to say, “We passed all that great water to fish … here?” Ben grinned impishly and nodded toward tiny pools along the rocky shore, some protected by small willows.

“Try there,” he said, and then gave me his best told-you-so look when I quickly hooked and landed a 17-inch rainbow trout — the first of many.

I thought about this extraordinary stretch of the Madison when I learned Friday that a Bozeman company had allowed a permit to construct a diversion tube and power plant expire. GYC had intervened with other groups in vocal opposition to the project, which essentially would have de-watered the stream for more than a half-mile below Quake Lake.

Ben’s hidey-holes would’ve been relegated to little more than boulders large and small, with an occasional trickle.

The uplifting news came on the heels of the same company announcing it was shelving plans for dams on the East and West Rosebud creeks along the breath-taking Beartooth Front near Red Lodge, Mont. Prime cutthroat trout waters would’ve been damaged, which was just one reason that GYC helped Friends of the East Rosebud and the Stillwater Protective Association fight so hard against the projects.

No doubt our fights on behalf of the great waters of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have just begun. Some of the very people who have denied the existence of global warming are now using climate change as a linchpin for proposing new dams under the guise of “storage”.

Included is potentially rebuilding the ill-fated Teton Dam in southeast Idaho, which collapsed in 1976 and sent a powerful wall of water downstream toward Rexburg, killing 11 people and 13,000 cattle. Damage costs went into the billions.

It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.

Like the Madison, the Teton River is now a stronghold for the imperiled native cutthroat, which relies upon cleaner and cooler waters than its non-native brethren, the brown and rainbow. In a time of warming waters, these streams are more vital than ever.

But in the wake of the news about these three hydro projects — along with the rejection of a proposal to build a dam on the last free-flowing stretch of the Bear River in southeast Idaho — we have reason for guarded optimism.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem forms the headwaters of America’s three great river systems: the Missouri, Columbia and Colorado. The Lower 48′s longest undammed river, the Yellowstone, begins here.

Free-flowing rivers are increasingly rare, precious and crucial to the integrity of the GYE. Our goal is to keep them that way.

I’d hate to see that impish twinkle disappear from my friend Ben’s eyes.

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