August 25th, 2008

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Knee deep in a Montana Cesspool
By Don Burton, Whitehall, MT

Ahhhh, summer in southwest Montana, there is nothing better. The endless mountains, the warm breezes laced with the sweet smell of wildflowers and pine trees. For many folks, summer days in these parts are meant for standing knee deep in cool, pristine, mountain streams filled with hungry little trout… not human filth!

Say what? This is not exactly what the Montana department of tourism wants you to hear or visualize. But, hear and see it, I hope you will. Don't get me wrong, Montana is truly one of the last best places on the planet, but it is being assailed by some of the worst parts of mankind.

Filthy, stinking garbage is becoming commonplace in the woods. I'm not talking about lunchtime wrappers left by an arrant tourist at a busy boat ramp along the crowded Madison or Yellowstone rivers here. We're talking unfathomable trash. Nasty garbage that, more and more, is finding its way to the "hard to get to" places. These are places that should be pristine by their very nature. But, those beautiful spots that have been sacred places to recharge the soul, are for lack of better words, "under assault." Frankly, I'm pissed and you should be too.

Growing up, many of us were taught not to leave behind garbage like cigarette butts or a dreaded aluminum pull tab. My father, despite all his faults, instilled in me a "life lesson" of always leaving the wild places better than when we entered them. As a child, I always thought it a pain to go around and pick up other peoples stray pull tabs, cig butt's or Spam can key's, before we pulled up stakes at our camp or fishing spot. Oh, those were the days!

Up until recently, it was easy enough to pick up the occasional beer can or worm cup left along the stream bank and pack it out. I had become to think of it as paying some small dues to Mother Nature or kind of giving back for what the wild had given me. Then there was that nagging voice in my head from dad to go along with it. Lately though, I have noticed more and more "offensive" garbage appearing in what should be places filled with nothing but the best nature has to share with us. I numbly chalked it up to a sign of the times.

Then there was a terrible day this August. This day was the worst of days on one of my favorite Montana high mountain trout streams. You're probably thinking: "Really now, how bad can things be standing knee high in Montana trout filled waters?" Read on…

In summers past, my biggest challenge on this stream was when to replace the tattered fly due to the "kamikaze" cutthroat trout that inhabit this piece of Heaven on Earth. Today, the fish were fewer and farther between but that was not the problem. More noticeable than the lack of trout, was the amount of, as well as, the incredibly offensive trash scattered along the once pristine banks of this gurgling mountain stream.

The bile rose in my throat as I thought to myself, this is still pretty close to the (primitive) campground; it will get better the farther downstream I walk. The problem was, the more I walked, the sicker I got. One could count pop and beer cans by the dozens. Milk jugs, chip bags and candy wrappers were stuck in the log jams. Plastic pop and water bottles out numbered the amount of trout I was catching. Plastic motor oil bottles a mile from the nearest road, what's next? I rounded a corner to see my dog curiously sniffing the ground. Upon further inspection, I see he is nosing a used hypodermic needle syringe. My God! I'm not walking the L.A. River here. I'm at 6,500 feet elevation, seven miles back an old dirt road and over a mile from that dirt road in the beautiful mountains of Montana. What is happening here!

I reached a point where I could fish no more. The trout obviously have their own set of problems here without me adding to it. I pulled out a garbage sack from my vest (that I have begun keeping for these unfortunate occasions) and started picking up trash on my way back to the truck. To the aforementioned garbage was added: foam cups, condom wrappers, plastic tampon inserters, you name it, if it was disgusting, it was here on my favorite small trout stream.

Finally, I came across something that really set me back in utter disbelief: A drain unclogging chemical bottle bobbed up and down in a small back eddy of the stream. I waded out and scooped it up to put it in the garbage sack, saying to myself "huh, not too many toilets out here to unclog." As I started to place the bottle in the sack, I noticed a rattling noise inside the bottle, so I opened the cap. From the bottle wafted a filthy stench that I have been told was a tell, tell smell of Methamphetamine production. The rattling was being caused by some small round wads of scorched and burnt aluminum foil. Apparently this is a sign of heating drugs in tin foil before injection.

Un-believable! People are making and shooting up "Meth" at the campground upstream, then throwing their toxic waste in the stream. As I stood there dumbfounded holding this garbage in my hands, my knees began to buckle and I felt a tear roll down my cheek. I then bent over and vomited.

After gathering myself, I could feel my face get hot as my blood boiled over. I "roared" at the top of my lungs as loud as I possibly could. It seemed that the trout, the stream and Mother Nature needed someone to yell out a protest on their behalf. As the sound of our anger echoed through the canyon walls, I thought to myself we have got to stop this insanity. We have all got to put our foot down, right here and right now.

What can we do? I really do not know what the best answer is but this I do know: From here on out, "no more…no way!" Like many of you, I was brought up to respect people's privacy in the woods. After all, many of us are out there to get away from people and recharge the batteries. No longer. From now on, I'm going to be nosey. Hopefully, people won't get too mad with me if I come up to their fishing spot or camp site uninvited and ask "how are you doing," "what's going on" or "whatcha cookin?" If there is nothing to hide, they are respecting the wild, hopefully they will understand and we can have a pleasant chat. If there is more to it, trust me, there will be repercussions.

Mother Nature needs us all to stand up, "roar" and say "enough is enough!"

Addendum: Kudos to Blair Martinson of the Southwest Montana Drug Task Force. I contacted the Task Force the day this happened. He immediately contacted the local authorities and the US Forest Service. Together they all went up to investigate and are keeping a close eye on this spot. I also learned and want to pass this on to all: DO NOT TOUCH THIS STUFF! It is highly carcinogenic and the experts wear decontamination suits and gloves when handling. The authorities are very concerned about these people moving out into unpopulated areas to make this deadly concoction. BE AWARE ! ~ Don Burton


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