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Walking Tall

Trails on the Lower Clark Fork

The Lower Clark Fork River reach, from Thompson Falls, Mont., to Clark Fork, Idaho, provides some of the best sight-seeing around. Though there are some opportunities for travel by hoof, foot, or bicycle, the motor is the prevalent mode of transport, even for sight-seeing. What if there was a more intimate way to see the sights, sounds, history, and natural resources of this eye-catching region? Would you use it? Would you brave the wild and wondrous ways of the great outdoors to take advantage of the hard work put forth by many partners to make recreation dreams come true?

With 21 species of butterflies, six species of amphibians, 29 kinds of fish, four reptile species, 107 breeding songbirds, 54 waterbird species, 10 species of raptors, and 29 kinds of mammals found in the area, it is difficult to get the gist of the region from the plush indoor environment of your vehicle. Avista, in collaboration with many partners, has a concept plan to build trails linking residential areas to community centers,  populated areas to trailheads, and even trails by way of water.

In 1999, when Avista relicensed the two dams on the Lower Clark Fork River, Cabinet Gorge, and Noxon Rapids, (known collectively as the “Clark Fork Project”) they endeavored to create ideas for increasing recreational opportunities in the area, provide alternate modes of transportation, and enhance educational opportunities for locals and visitors alike. What better way to accomplish these goals than to plan for miles of trails that many user groups of various ages, shapes, and abilities will be able to utilize?

The dream began with the formation of the Clark Fork Trail Advisory Committee in 2001, comprised of over 30 entities that included schools, tribes, state and federal agencies, local user groups and businesses, and more, who aided in creating the vision. The advisory group brainstormed specific locations for trails, highlighted sensitive areas that should be protected, and solicited community feedback. After a long process and many public meetings, the “Lower Clark Fork Trail System Concept Plan” was released in June of 2003.

“The goal of the plan is to create a network of trails that will eventually connect all communities along the river and link Thompson Falls to the town of Clark Fork,” says Burky.  The vision for the connected trails concept is to provide a “quality regional resource that enriches the lives of residents and visitors and fosters a sense of community.” The goals include: 1) expand recreation, alternative transportation, and health enhancement opportunities; 2) provide trail opportunities for a diverse set of user groups; 3) recognize and accommodate private landownership; 4) provide opportunities for people to learn about natural and cultural resources in the area, and 5) develop public stewardship for the trail system.

Not only would wildlife viewing be more accessible by trail instead of highway, but recreationists would be able to get more of a feel for the geology, forest vegetation, rare/threatened plants and animals, cultural history of the area, and aesthetic resources in this beautiful and complex watershed.

The geologic formations seen in the region today exist as a result of glacial forces that occurred 12,000 to 20,000 years ago. A lobe of glacial ice advanced down the Purcell Trench in North Idaho during this time and dammed the Clark Fork River, which formed Glacial Lake Missoula. The ice dam was over 2,000 feet tall and the lake covered an area of over 3,000 square miles. As the lake drained several times, it is said to have a maximum discharge of over 750 million cubic feet per second, 20 times the flow of all the rivers on earth today. The soils and rock formations apparent in the region stem from these geologic forces, and can be readily viewed in the form of flat terraces adjacent to the river channel, bands of sedimentary shale and mudstone, and anomalies such as the Blue Slide on the Noxon Reservoir.

Northwestern Montana, with six potential forest communities, is the most diversely forested area in the state. The two predominant forest communities are the western hemlock, western red cedar, and Engelmann spruce in the moister, northwestern area, and Douglas fir throughout the rest. Other species that commonly occur in the area include grand fir, western larch, lodgepole pine, western white pine, and ponderosa pine. In addition, there are a handful of healthy hardwood stands, mostly comprised of quaking aspen and the native black cottonwood. Two rare and hard-to-find plants, the pyramid spiraea and twin clover can also be found in the Lower Clark Fork drainage.

Western Montana is believed to be utilized and/or lived on by humans dating back as far as 8,000 years. The first peoples to inhabit the region were the Salish-speaking Kootenai people, who continue to be deeply connected to the area. Following suit were the Euro-American immigrants, Chinese railroad workers, loggers, dam builders, and miners. The river was a huge draw for living in the region, and was used as a water source, a transportation conduit, and a place to recreate and fish. The terraces adjacent to the river provided these peoples with camping areas, homestead locations, villages, towns, sawmill sites, berry picking, root collecting and gardens, as well as fish, meat, and hide processing areas.

 From the tribes to the later settlers, trails were fashioned in places to make the best use of available landforms for travel. Over time, these sites have been utilized by pedestrians, then horses and wagons; some have turned into railroad beds, and in some cases, roads and highways.

Though there are some existing trails in the project area today, the scope of the concept plan is not only to enhance them and create more, but in many cases, to connect the trails into a dynamic system that will be utilized by many. Currently, there are five trailheads or trail segments in the Cabinet Gorge Ranger District that are near the reservoirs and an additional eight that potentially could provide a view of the reservoirs. The concept plan aims to capitalize on these existing possibilities, but also to take the trail opportunity to another level.  

Flat water fishing, motor boating, water skiing, swimming, camping, sightseeing, windsurfing, canoeing, walking, tubing, sunbathing, kayaking, ice fishing, big game and waterfowl hunting, and golfing are some of the recreation activities available in the region. Northwestern Montana and North Idaho have been experiencing astronomical growth rates. Along with a rising population, there are also many more visitors. In 1994, the total annual visitation to the Clark Fork Project was approximately 103,000; the projected visitation by 2030 will be more than 165,000 per year. A network of trails would aid in curbing traffic issues, fostering respect and stewardship of our natural resources, and promoting healthier lifestyles and hobbies for residents and tourists alike.

Three “trail type” categories have been identified as a priority in the region: 1) pedestrian/linkage/transportation, 2) designated routes, and 3) recreation. The premise of the transportation trail is to provide a safe pedestrian transportation link on or alongside existing roads, connecting community neighborhoods and destinations with pathways. These trails would be designated for bicyclists, walkers, runners, and in some cases, wheelchairs. There are eight trail concepts in this category.

The principle behind the designated trails is a route that is specifically identified, designated, and signed along existing roads and streets. This creates an awareness of the route for drivers and assists in route finding for people unfamiliar with the area. Trails in this category can usually be completed quickly and inexpensively. There are five trail concepts in this category.

The recreational trails would fit one of four subcategories: multi-use trails (various users, can change seasonally), horseback riding staging areas (create staging areas for equestrian users to access existing trails—new trail development is not proposed for horseback riding), nature trails (short loops located in settings suitable for wildlife viewing, interpretation, and education), and water trails (stretches of water mapped out with the intent to create a scenic experience for canoers and kayakers). There are 12 recreation trail concepts of various uses.

Though not a traditional type of “trail,” water trails provide mapped areas for non-motorized water sport enthusiasts and consist of access points for parking and launching, day use sites, and sometimes portage trails around obstacles.

The development of trails is an integral part of a healthy community, allowing access to special places, linking population centers, and providing safe corridors for non-motorized transport and recreation. They are the sign of a vibrant community that acknowledges its assets and likes to get out and play. A lack of trails designated for transport and recreation can create safety and environmental problems with riders and walkers using busy and/or inappropriate routes. Be an advocate for an active community by getting involved locally to facilitate the development and maintenance of local trail networks; help more people get outside!

Graphics on this page and on the web by Justin Phillips and Aaron Crowder. Photos on front page and this page courtesy of Avista.

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Author info

Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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