Smith River in June
It is a river with the familiar and commonplace name of Smith that flows North by Northwest from its source in the mysteriously named Crazies’ and Castle mountains, flowing and carving a gorge between the Big Belt and the little Belt mountains it cuts, as Norman Maclean said, “through the basement of time”.
I was able to float the Smith River this past June during the super moon. This would be the closest the moon would be to the earth in many years. It was my second time on the river, the first having been a snowy float in late May, 24 years before.
I had made sketches and photographs on that first trip but the weather was challenging and I had not done much in the way of artwork, as I would have liked. I longed to get back and the opportunity finally presented itself.
My plan this time was to research the Smith River State Park’s 60-mile stretch between the put-in at Camp Baker, and the take-out at Eden Bridge. The goal was to make a painting, which would celebrate the 75th anniversary of Montana State Parks.
It is fascinating to contemplate the geologic diversity, river hydraulics and the flora and fauna that are abundant on this important tributary of the upper Missouri River. But spending five days on the Smith researching this painting put me directly on the nexus of the relationship between magic and science.
Seeing the pictographs on the cliff walls along the river reminded and connected me with the Native American history of the place and the artists who had made those marks so long ago. The steep hike up to a large cavern’s mouth, thought to be a birthing cave, was also filled with symbolic and enigmatic wall paintings.
My personal insights from being there and the awareness of the link between the transcendence of nature and the scientific reality of the place are, I hope, would come to fruition in a painting.
Several old river-floating buddies accompanied me on my research trip down the Smith River. My appropriately named friend, Eric Smith, the oldest son of Montana’s first lady of writing, Annick Smith, was a great help to me. He rowed the boat freeing me to take photos and get a lot of observing done. To paraphrase Eric: It's beautiful, glorious, mesmerizing, tranquil, magnificent, quiet. Perfect! It takes a Smith to know a Smith.
Arising before sunrise near the towering presence of Sunset Cliff, I had an inspiring morning atop the cliffs with a view looking down at the silvery river with warm morning light touching the tops of the cliffs and illuminating the golden super-moon low on the horizon.
It is not only a unique and vibrant bio-network that generates clean and abundant water but it also allows those (with the luck of the draw) to see this process in action by floating these sacred waters. The Smith is also one of Montana’s outstanding fisheries and bird, animal, and insect habitat and is accessible only by non-motorized watercraft.
The Smith River and our State Parks bring millions of dollars to the state in eco tourism every year. They provide access for families and individuals to experience and regain a bond with nature firsthand. It has also provided creative inspiration for more than one artist.
Because of it’s recreational value, incredible beauty and countless other reasons, the headwaters of the Smith are undoubtedly not the best place to locate a large-scale copper mine, which currently has approval for exploratory tunnels. Protecting and conserving this priceless, magic source of water and world class landscape should be a priority for all. Once she is gone you can never get her back.
Monte Dolack 3/26/14
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