The Clark Fork River passes through Missoula near Caras Park. The river is heavily trafficked with floaters during the summer, raising concerns about litter and pollution. 

Despite making significant progress over the past 10 years, the Clark Fork Co- alition is having trouble cleaning up waste in the Clark Fork River without updated public utilities like bathrooms and disposal bins.

“We’re heaping a lot of love on the river, in terms of recreational adventures,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, a Missoula-based organization that focuses on preserving the Clark Fork and its tributaries. “Our public structure and transportation services don’t adequately support that exploding recreation interest.”

The annual wave of floaters that hit the Clark Fork in the summer can impact the health of the river, especially if people are negligent. Knudson said accidentally losing cans or wrappers on the water is a major problem, but there’s more to respecting the river than just picking up trash.

“People think of a river system as just water in a channel, but it’s not,” she said. “It’s the water in the channel, plus the riverbed, plus the riverbank. It’s complex machinery, and when you start removing parts, the engine eventually stops.”

The Clark Fork Coalition typically hosts an annual clean-up along the 7 1⁄2-mile, urban stretch of the river. This April, around 850 volunteers turned up to clean and pick up waste that had accumulated in the Clark Fork over the winter months. The coalition also organizes multiple clean-ups at and along river access points on the Blackfoot and Clark Fork during the summer months.

A focus on installing more recycling and trash bins, bathrooms and educational signs would help rivergoers become better stewards of the river, Knudsen said. These services are generally overwhelmed during this popular time of year.

The staff at Orange Street Food Farm sought to help mend this surplus of seasonal garbage.

Ever since manager Austin Hughes started working at the market, the store has offered free “river-litter bags” for custom- ers looking to hit the river.

Hughes acknowledged that the Food Farm has a reputation for being the beer store in Missoula. The proximity to the riv- er, wide selection of beverages and conve- nience of the store puts the Food Farm in an excellent position to encourage recreationalists to do the right thing.

Whether it’s floaters, river guides or students looking for their first drinking experiences, Hughes said that keeping the conversation going about responsible dis- posal and river culture with customers may result in a cleaner Clark Fork.

“We obviously can’t go police people while they’re out having a time,” Hughes said. “But even us having [the bags] at the entrance kind of creates that culture that this is our expectation.”

According to Knudsen, overcrowded launches and take-out access points on the Clark Fork contribute significantly to most of the garbage on the river. The Sha-Ron boat ramp and beach is extremely popular, and with popularity comes garbage. The same goes for the stretch of river near the Ogren Park Allegiance Field after Osprey games, she said.

Additionally, Knudsen said floaters launching and taking out at random spots along the river cause destruction to vegetation on the riverbed. Heavily trafficked areas can also hinder vegetation repair in the ecosystem that fish and aquatic species, like trout, depend on for survival.

Local fisherman Scott Hickey, who has to fish before, around and after floaters on the Clark Fork, said trash cleanup isn’t enough.

“Everyone who fishes has to get a fishing license and conservation license,” Hickey said. “It would be nice if, somehow, people floating the river had to get a conservation license. It just makes sense because they’re using the river as well.”

Hickey said some shops have switched to selling paper or cardboard cups to carry purchased flies. Many fishing guides have switched to refilling client drinks to combat the use of disposable products.


A section of the Clark Fork River near Caras Park. In the summertime, this stretch if filled with floaters often carrying alcoholic beverages.