The bugle of the distant elk echoed throughout the valley as I watched my ride share drive away, leaving me at the meeting place of the Gallatin River and Highway 191. The break lights shrank into the distance as I was left on the side of the road with nothing but my bicycle and fly rod. Deep within a bear management area in the Northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, alone.
I have had the pleasure of fishing the Gallatin River in southwest Montana for nearly 20 years. My first couple casts with the fly were on this river. My most sincere way of saying thanks to the river, the trout, flora and fauna, and the highway adjacent to it, was to pedal the 142 miles of the river’s length on all roads within proximity and pick up garbage where fisherman and river enthusiasts have access.
So as I left the trailhead/roadside parking lot where the Gallatin meanders down from its source at a high alpine, inaccessible lake, my efforts to pick up trash simply became overwhelming. The roadside flotsam of cigarette butts, beer cans, and leftover shrapnel from auto accidents dotted the landscape in disturbing and populous form.
The Gallatin flows for 14 miles in Yellowstone National Park. Within the Park alone, I collected one full household garbage bag of waste. Including a usable Nalgene water bottle that I certainly kept and will wash for usage in the future. But as I came to a section of highway without a turnout or obvious piece of garbage, I went back to the person enjoying bike touring. That stretch of highway allowed me to feel the cool summer breeze of the early morning in Yellowstone. Hear the Sand Cranes gawking at the weirdo on the bicycle. Watch the river oxbow at every opportunity the banks allowed. A lifeless highway by means of petroleum and diesel. A calming sensation of wanderlust, absent to all things except those that were right in front of me en route to home for the night.
I was setting up camp just in time while the thunderheads above prepared for their concert. I found my rhythm for the trip within the riffles while grasping my fly rod as the river bounced down the boulders and into the evening.
During a slow morning with one pot of coffee after the next, the preparation to leave camp was similar to the preparation to drink said coffee, nice and slow. How long does it take to bike 18 miles, downhill along a river full of fishable bends? A lot longer than I had expected. Getting to Big Sky was a relative breeze. With only six miles until town, I strolled out of camp somewhere around midday. After two pots of coffee, with time watching the river now tinted green from the previous nights rain, I was stoked to head to town.
The rich, wealthy, and now within the last decade, famous, Big Sky offered a glimpse of glamour, but also of river. To this day, I still think it has some of the most beautiful water I have ever seen. I’m not the only one to think this. Robert Redford used this section of river in scenes for his famous fly fishing film, A River Runs Through It. The mesmerizing pull coming off of some of the pools are similar to stumbling upon your own personal gold mine. I was experiencing full addiction symptoms; pupils dilated, thoughts racing. However with people knowing this, this section wasn’t a pleasant one to pick up after. The river was rolling green and lined with trees and rock, with a shoreline littered with discarded pleasures of our taste buds.
A dirt road veered westward off the highway towards the river. A bend of river, hidden from the masses. Untouched by the hoards of travelling anglers and families passing me inches at times. As I turn inward on the road and follow it towards the river, so do the thunderclouds. I was able to set up the fly rod, but not cast as the downpour began and so did the lightning. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of swinging graphite in the air while Mother Nature is throwing spears down from the heavens. So I pulled the bike and gear under a tree and made another pot of coffee while waiting out the rain.
I pedaled off winding, twisting and turning with the ebb and flow of the river, following it home for the night. Upon arrival, the campground was empty. I chose whichever site I wanted. A fishless afternoon, I simply sat on the river edge, watching it roll down the canyon over cobble, while the caddis flies tangoed on the surface. An osprey called down the canyon as it echoed throughout the river and strait into my ears caressing me to bed.
The rumors about this upcoming section of highway were terrifying. No guardrail or shoulder from the lane with blinding curves hiding you in plain sight for the long haul truck drivers. I also poorly decided to pedal this section on a Monday, during rush hour. If I was to achieve my goal of pedaling 50 miles to the Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Gallatin meets both the Jefferson and Madison Rivers to form the Missouri, I had to leave at that time.
So it was a sunrise cup of coffee, a quick trash dump at the campground garbage bin, and off I went dodging several ton pieces of metal powered by gasoline and rubber. They came in waves. A line of about ten cars, coupled with two or three semi-trucks or campers mixed in. I could almost wait out the rush for a few minutes and start back up once the wave crashes over. But there was an urge inside me to charge these miles and get onto the dirt road snaking the river out of the canyon.
A few curves I cranked the gears up and went for it until I got out from the guardrail and onto a shoulder of safety. Twice lifted diesel trucks flipped me off as if I was the reason holding traffic up. But as the time came where I could see the dirt road to my left continuing along the river, I bolted when I could.
I thought that if there was another ten miles of highway similar to that, I would have gotten hit or into a fight with the third pissed off truck. Smiling, I jumped back on my bike and pedaled down a bumpy dirt road with limited public fishing access from private land lining the shores. Masking the true bends and pools of the lower Gallatin.
I had never laid eyes on the next couple of sections of river. The dirt road curved away from the river but gained elevation, granting me the gift of sweeping views of the Bridger Range and the continuing oxbow of river I’ve been chasing for two days.
Perched in elevation, gazing at the gloriousness of the Gallatin, trapped by the confluence of wealth and the environment, within old and new Montana money. The drastic change in landscape was apparent. Populated with million dollar homes, not in flocking or herding wildlife. Sadly, this was not the only blemish on this war and scar-torned landscape the Gallatin winds through.
This chapter of the river is unfortunately one of inaccessibility. Private land gobbles up river access like a trout feeding during a summer hatch. For 20 miles since leaving the canyon, there were five real access points where one can fish. Naturally, with only a small handful of access spots for your car; over populated, over fished, and literally littered with disgust. I sadly ended up not fishing the rest of the trip from the amount needed to be picked up. There was a point at one of the spots where I leant down to pick something up, to look over slightly at the river to see trout nestled on the river bottom, seeking out cool spots. The irony of the trip was singlehandedly realized right there at that moment.
Humans can destroy virtually everything. Quickly with bombs or painfully slow with our waste. But the sheer impressiveness through the resilience of Mother Nature, is one of the most humbling things. How nature can still co-exist despite our irresponsibility.
I made my way 12 miles from the end of the Gallatin and beginning of the Missouri River. Cruising down the road, the tree line out in the distance of alfalfa and farmland winds the river warm and slow. Soon my turn came to the Headwaters State Park and the end of my journey. The last few miles were some of relief. In part my rear end being rather sore and the threat of being run over seriously diminished with the finish line in sight.
The turn was there at the convergence of the Jefferson and Madison Rivers, but I pedaled one more mile down to where the Gallatin meets these two rivers and eventually begins the Missouri River.
A slow bend of the final stretches begged for a fly to be drifted, the last fish of the trip. Nothing of the sort were even remotely interested in what I was casting, so I called it by rolling the sleeping pad, watching the sunset below the headlands, and waiting for my ride to come and take me home.
Three large garbage bags full of all sorts of rubbish were collected on the trip ,including a popped, inflatable raft left behind that wouldn’t fit into the bags. The sense of satisfaction and overall well being were there for me. Sadly, I know that my efforts left only a tiny rock chip in the never-ending shatterless windshield that is the insurmountable garbage the Gallatin and adjacent highway collect.
I returned to some of the spots a week later in my car just to see if I had made even the slightest dent, all to realize my efforts were rendered nearly useless. I am uncertain what needs to be said or done to correct our laziness and stubbornness for our love of plastic and waste, but what I do know is that we should all be grateful. Grateful that nature is as resilient as she is. For if she wasn’t, I’m sure the Gallatin wouldn’t be what we all know it as today.