Treat me with respect and humility, and I will continue to provide for you, even as the climate changes. Abuse me or take me for granted, and I will break. I am the Gallatin River.
BY SCOTT BOSSE
I was born as snowmelt high on a mountain slope where wolverines and grizzly bears tread. Some of my earliest human inhabitants called me Cut-tuh-o’gwa, or “swift water.” Today I am named after a white man who, in turn, was born on a distant continent and never laid eyes on me.
In my highest reach below the lake that also shares my name, I slither through meadows of sage and sedge, twisting and turning upon myself like a coiled snake, preparing to strike out on my 120-mile journey. The life force of my current here is barely perceptible and my crystalline appearance reflects the cotton clouds sailing across an ocean of sky.
Venture into my headwaters and you will encounter the deep solitude that has vanished from most of my reach. Close your eyes and listen, and you will hear the faint trickle of my movement, the rustle of the wind in the lodgepole pines, and perhaps the primeval croak of sandhill cranes ricocheting off the hillsides. Look in the mud beside me and you will find prints of all kinds, from tiny frogs to massive moose that bed down in my willowy fringes.
Where I emerge from the wilderness in a maze of willows, I start to encounter anglers casting for trout in my opalescent pools and beneath my undercut banks. Wade into me here and I run clear and cold, my body sustaining stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies that fatten the trout during the short growing season. Except for the ribbon of asphalt that follows much of my course, I appear much the same way I did after the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago.
Further downstream, below the confluence of my most tempestuous tributary, my pace quickens and the buff-colored limestone cliffs to the east soar to greater heights. There are houses and lodges scattered along my banks now, and their antiquated wastewater systems leak pollutants into my waters through hidden groundwater connections. When the sun warms me during the summer months, neon green algae carpets my gravel bottom, suffocating the underwater insects upon which my fish depend.
At the next major tributary junction, my color and chemistry begin to change. Until recently, I always welcomed the surge of snowmelt coming off the pyramid-shaped peak to the west. But today it is tinged with nutrients, chemicals and pharmaceuticals that signal the wholesale transformation of a once-wild landscape. They promised they would do things differently here, that they would take care not to pollute the streams or harm the fishery they profess to love. But I wonder if they are capable of reigning in their excesses before I, too, am transformed beyond recognition.
Further down the canyon, I flow past the bighorn sheep that gather at their usual mineral licks. The number of anglers increases to the point that nearly every fishable run is occupied, even in the depths of winter. Joining the hordes of anglers are flotillas of colorful rafts filled with people hooting and hollering as my waves crash over them. There is a giant rock in the middle of my channel that I used to completely immerse during my highest flows, but today its top half stays dry most years. Paddle hard left and you can avoid its danger. Miss a stroke and I will send you into the boulder garden below. While I have taken a few human lives here, I have given life to thousands more who come here to reconnect with their youth and the wild.
As I continue northward past where the buffalo roam, I spill into my namesake valley where I finally exhale in the cottonwood forests that embrace me for the remainder of my length. Here, I deposit my bedload of polished stones, agates and petrified wood on gravel bars where treasure seekers can find them. But with each passing mile, more of my flow is diverted into ditches to grow crops and lawns in sprawling new subdivisions. By the time I meet my two brethren to form the mighty Missouri, I am a shadow of my former self.
Some people believe it the purpose of a river to serve humanity, to provide water for drinking, irrigation, recreation, and other uses. Since the beginning of time, that is what I have done for those who live within my watershed. But I am more than your servant or your amusement park. I am a mirror that reflects how you choose to live on this land. Treat me with respect and humility, and I will continue to provide for you, even as the climate changes. Abuse me or take me for granted, and I will break. I am the Gallatin River.
Scott Bosse is an avid angler and boater who has lived in the Gallatin Valley for 22 years. He is the Northern Rockies Director for the nonprofit American Rivers.
CALL TO ACTION
To help protect the Gallatin River and 19 other iconic rivers in Montana, call Sen. Steve Daines at (202) 224-2651, and Rep. Matt Rosendale (202) 225-3211, and ask them to support the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act. Visit healthyriversmt.org for more information.