Wild and Scenic: Stories from the mighty Middle Fork

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  • C.B. Penrose. (Photo courtesy of John Fraley)

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    Fall colors on the Middle Fork of the Flathead.

  • C.B. Penrose. (Photo courtesy of John Fraley)

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    Fall colors on the Middle Fork of the Flathead.

This is the story of a bear mauling that put the Middle Fork of the Flathead to the forefront of the early American conservation movement.

The tale starts in 1907. Artur Stiles, a surveyor with the U.S. Geological Survey, had set up camp in the wildlands above the Middle Fork to survey the region.

The Penrose brothers, Boyes, Spencer and C.B. came to Montana to hunt big game, noted local author John Fraley. The trio were friends of then President Teddy Roosevelt and all them were members of the Boone and Crockett Club, which Roosevelt founded.

Boyes was the boss of the GOP in Pennsylvania was nicknamed “The Big Grizzly” because he was a big man — 6-foot-7. C.B. was a noted surgeon, also from Pennsylvania.

They came out to Montana to hunt and Stiles was picked to be their guide. They set up camp deep in the wilderness and Stiles took C.B. on a hunt near a remote lake at what today is Penrose Peak.

C.B. shot a small grizzly but ran into trouble in a hurry, because the small bear was accompanied by a much larger sow and another large cub, Fraley recalled in a talk last week hosted by the Bob Marshall Foundation as part of their Winter Speaker Series.

The sow lit into C.B. as he shot it twice. She bit him through the cheek and broke one of his teeth, tore open his thigh and crushed his wrist.

C.B. would live, but he was in bad shape. Stiles knew he would die if they went back the way they came — it was a two-day trek in rough terrain. So they made what amounted to a beeline to Nyack and the railroad.

They went through what is now Rescue Notch, down Rescue Creek through the briars and the brambles and devil’s club.

C.B. would survive and Stiles would name a mountain Penrose and another mountain and creek Great Bear after the incident.

The point, Fraley noted, was that the encounter put the Middle Fork on the conservation map and forever in the American consciousness.

Fraley and Colter Pence of the Forest Service told a bit of the history surrounding the forks of the Flathead River as a broader celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Adored by conservationists or not, the Middle Fork was still eyed for development. Decades later, engineers targeted the Spruce Park area for a dam shortly after the Hungry Horse Dam was constructed in 1953.

In 1957 the Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to federal officials supporting construction of the dam at Spruce Park.

The project would have diverted the river down a 12-mile long tunnel under the mountains to the Hungry Horse Reservoir, where it would generate power as it flowed out into it.

The Middle Fork would have been all but dewatered the rest of its length — a fate that’s hard to imagine, since the coveted free-flowing river is an industry unto itself as it draws whitewater rafters from around the world.

But the threat of the Spruce Park Dam brought conservationists like John Craighead to call for a national law that would protect the nation’s remaining wild and free-flowing rivers, noted Pence.

There were also proposals to dam the North Fork of the Flathead, one near the present Camas Bridge called Glacier View and another just downstream called Smokey Range, Pence said.

Craighead and Clif Merritt floated the rivers in 1956 and 1957 and began formulating a river classification system that would evolve into the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Act was signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson, but ironically, the original version didn’t include the three forks of the Flathead.

After the flood of 1964 inundated the Flathead Valley, the idea of damming the Middle Fork was still alive and well. It wasn’t until the Omnibus Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed in 1976 that the three forks of the Flathead were recognized and protected, Pence noted.

The Act didn’t just protect the rivers, it protected the landscape surrounding them. Today, some 5,000 acres of private land have been protected from development through conservation easements, Pence noted.

Today, the North Fork from the Canadian border to the Camas Bridge is classified as scenic. Under the Act, scenic rivers are “rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.”

Below Camas, the North Fork is considered “recreational.” The lower Middle Fork, outside the wilderness boundary, is also recreational. Recreational rivers or sections are, “rivers or sections of rivers that are readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.”

The Middle Fork in the wilderness and the South Fork in the Bob Marshall Wilderness South Fork to a few miles above the Hungry Horse Reservoir are “wild.” Wild rivers are “rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted. These represent vestiges of primitive America.”

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