Can Montana’s Smith River Survive a Nearby Mine?

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A float trip down a beloved river explores what might be at stake if a proposal for a copper mine by its watershed becomes reality.


In a state lousy with world-class waters — the Yellowstone and the Gallatin, the Madison and the Ruby, the “Mighty Mo” and Norman Maclean’s Big Blackfoot River — the Smith River may be the river that Montanans love most.

There is a good chance you have never heard of the Smith. The river lies far from Yellowstone’s Technicolor excesses, in north-central Montana, where the tourist maps don’t point. It gathers itself in the Castle Mountains and flows north for 120 miles between the Big and Little Belt mountains, accumulating miles and grandeur as it cuts through limestone canyons and flows over brown trout and past black bears rooting in high meadows. A few miles south of Great Falls it merges with the Missouri River.

The Smith is not the easiest river to float, which is one of its attractions. Between the boat launch at Camp Baker and the take-out at Eden Bridge, 59 river-miles downstream, there is no public entry or exit. You must surrender your outside life for the four or five days it takes to float down the Smith and give in to the river’s moods and its rhythms.

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