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A miniaturized version of the Milltown dam removal

Two large-tired skidders, one humongous Caterpillar, one small Bobcat, an industrial-sized Link excavator, a regular-sized dump truck, and several assorted personal vehicles were either parked in the hay field or in the creek bed. Ouch. The creek rehabilitation plan on paper seemed pretty innocuous. On paper, it looked like a few, well placed root wad masses and a few platforms to plant willows. In muddy real life, it looked like a miniaturized version of the Milltown dam removal project on the Clark Fork.

The Milltown dam removal was necessary to remove the poisoned silts that had collected behind the dam. The toxic materials came from the mines and smelters of Butte and Anaconda. Money from the mines and smelters did not stay in Montana, and it is taking Super Fund money to clean up the mining mess. So it is truly hyperbole to compare our 400’ bank renovation to that huge project, and fortunately there never was a copper mine upstream, so no toxic silts were present on our job.

This mini-project began in January 1974 when there was an abrupt change of weather. There had been a really cold, dry November, driving the frost deep into the soil. December brought tons of snow, and early January settled in with below zero temperatures. Overnight, the air warmed up and it began to rain. Three days of rain on snow over frozen ground caused flooding throughout the county. Elk Creek demolished nearly every bridge and culvert in its raging path. 

As the creek passed through our field, it sliced a curve where it been straight before. We gained gravel bar and lost hay field.  There have been attempts to stop this encroachment by placing root wads, logs, large rocks, and planting willow, service berry, pine, rose, and spruce. About every 10 years or so, another ‘100 year flood’ would come along and rip the scab off. The barriers would be breached and the bank full of young trees would be washed away.  

The genesis of the big rehab project stretches back farther than 1974 though. Sometime in the mid-Thirties, according to Joe Ovnicek, his dad got excited about the capabilities of a Caterpillar. He hired a young guy (I think it was Art Jensen) with a dozer to reshape a reach of the creek. You can still see the line of rock and gravel that was piled to close off a horseshoe bend. The old bend still holds enough ground moisture to promote alder growth, but the gravelly soils are weedy and still not much benefit for pasture.

After this impediment to its will, to its need to curve, the creek angrily ripped Ovnicek a new one... a new creek bed that cut a productive hay field in half and covered the east half in two feet of river gravel. John Ovnicek told us he was surprised that the field had recovered well enough by the 70s that it again produced grass hay.

A fast-forward aerial film of the creek would show a writhing snake, desperate to escape downhill.  Ray Fitchett—another ‘old-timer’ with a dozer—thought trying to keep the creek where you wanted it to be was useless, and he so far has proven to be right. 

Yet, we humans just can’t help trying to ‘heal’ nature. There are many sound reasons to buttress this bend: potential damage to the nearby county bridge, better fish habitat through designed deep holes, protect a productive hay field, provide cleaner water. The side benefits also have value: employment for engineers, local heavy equipment operators and tree planters.

At first we were concerned about the two dippers that hang out in this reach of the creek. For most of the first day, a dipper was feeding in front of the dozer blade. By afternoon, when the water had been successfully diverted to a new, temporary channel, and only a trickle was still following the old, now muddy creek bed, four, then six dippers were feeding, flipping over rocks that were now sitting high and dry. It was as if an invitation had gone out: “come on up for dinner, there is more than we can eat.”

Every time a hole is dug, something is learned. The dense, grey-blue Glacial Lake Missoula clay was a dismaying discovery for the contractor and engineer. (We knew that clay underlay the creek cobbles, but hadn’t understood the scope of the project well enough to warn the engineer of the clay problem.) Clay is a problem in that it cannot be tamped back into its hole. Tamping clay is like pounding Crisco. To tamp fence posts in holes dug in clay, we have had to haul in rock. Fortunately, the contractor had a nearby shale pit and a site to dump the wet, unwanted clay.

Moving a load or two of rocks by wheelbarrow is less intense than hauling 300 yards of fractured shale. It took that much extra rock to refill the 20x15x15’ deep holes that held a carefully placed tangle of logs with root wads still attached. The spiky protrusions reminded us of tank traps. Between the tank traps, the skillful excavator  operator constructed a sloped platform to receive coconut fiber ‘logs’, which would be hand wrapped in fiber blankets by the contractors’ teenage boys. Working under and in concert with the backhoe bucket, the kids would stretch the fiber and pound stakes. Then the team of boys carried bundles of willow cuttings and spread them on the fiber. The backhoe bucket sprinkled small gravel like it was sifting sugar on the stems. The boys, again working under the bucket, wrestled another fiber log in place and the process began again. It was obvious they had done this work before. Their dad told us of a summer-long project in which the kids had participated. 

The planting crew arrived the last day of the machinery. Dump trucks, skidders, dozers were gone, with only a dark brown muddy field and an odd circular patch of red dust remaining.  The reddish dust lay where the dump trucks had emptied their loads of shale. The planting contractor pointed out the circle of red. “This is volcanic ash from a Mount Mazama eruption about 7,700 years ago. But,” he added,” it is in the wrong place. Windblown volcanic ash collects, like snow drifts, in front of an obstruction.”

We pointed to the region of the contractor’s nearby shale pit located on the lee side of a small ridge, asking if it could have collected there. “Oh yeah, perfect site for windblown ash to pile up”, he replied, and we thus learned a little bit more about our neighborhood.

 After observing the supremely buttressed creek, my better half called it the Maginot Line. Oh, Lord, let’s hope the creek doesn’t blitzkrieg through the Low Countries, flank the tank traps, and defeat us one again.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

Tagged as:

water, Currents, creek rehabilitation, Elk Creek

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