Garbage on the Gallatin

Garbage on the Gallatin

Gallatin River
March 2020 | Words and photos by Sean Jansen (@jansen_journals) 

Klean Ambassador Sean Jansen sets out on an adventure to bike and fly fish all 142 miles of the Gallatin River in the Northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. Sean shares his thoughts on enjoying the great outdoors while dealing with all the single-use waste along the way. 

The bugle of a distant elk echoed throughout the valley as I watched my ride share drive away, brake lights shrinking in the distance. I stood where the Gallatin River meets Highway 191, deep within a bear management area in the Northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, with nothing but my bicycle and my fly rod. Alone.

I have fished the Gallatin River in southwest Montana for nearly 20 years. My first couple of casts with a fly were on this river. It had occurred to me that my sincerest way of showing my gratitude to it--the river and its trout, the flora and fauna--was to pedal the 142 miles of the river’s length (and the adjacent highway and frontage roads) and pick up garbage.

But not long after I had left the trailhead parking lot where the Gallatin meanders down from its source in an inaccessible, high alpine lake, the magnitude of the task I had set for myself--the roadside flotsam of cigarette butts and beer cans, the shrapnel from long-forgotten car accidents--began to overwhelm me. The Gallatin flows 14 miles in Yellowstone National Park, and within the Park alone, I collected one entire garbage bag of waste. (Among that bounty was a usable Nalgene water bottle that you had better believe I kept and will use.)

Amid the refuse, I hit a stretch of highway without a turnout or obvious piece of garbage--and I became just a cyclist once again, alive to my surroundings: the cool summer breeze of early morning Yellowstone, the sand cranes that gawked back at the freak on the bicycle, the fleeting glimpses of river oxbow.

Klean Ambassador Sean Jansen biking the Gallatin River
Yellowstone Montana

Picking up trash as I pedaled, I eventually reached the border between Yellowstone and Gallatin National Forest--a great place to take a break, I decided, reaching for my fly rod. I quickly brought to hand a speckled rainbow trout, as perfectly stippled as any that swim. Ah, yes, I thought, as I returned my catch and pedaled on: now my trip had officially begun.

I was waylaid for a time with bike trouble, but after righting my ride I set up camp under the trees with an eye to the ominous thunderheads above. I grabbed my fly rod and headed back to the water, but I couldn’t seem to set the hook on the first half dozen rises to the fly. Eventually I found my rhythm in the river and its riffles.

The next morning, refreshed with one pot of coffee that turned into another, I took my time breaking camp. I was making for Big Sky that day. Popular with the wealthy and famous, Big Sky is home to some of the most beautiful water I have ever seen, exerting a powerful and almost mesmerizing pull on the angler. I’m obviously not alone in that assessment: Robert Redford filmed portions of A River Runs Through It in the area. Its continuing popularity is obvious in the detritus visitors leave behind: that morning the lush, storm-churned river lined with rocks and trees threw the shoreline littered with garbage into even sharper relief.

Sean Jansen with his Reflect Kanteen fishing in Montana
Biking along the 142 miles of river on Highway 191

An irresistible dirt road veered westward off the highway toward a bend of river hidden from the hordes of tourists who unknowingly passed me. I was able to set up my fly rod but not to cast before the skies opened above me, lightning snapping angrily across the sky. Averse to swinging graphite over my head while Mother Nature hurled spears at me, I pulled the bike and gear under a tree and made another pot of coffee to wait out the pounding rain.

Finally, with a break in the rain, I pedaled off, winding and turning with the ebb and flow of the river, following it to my home for the night. I had my pick of sites upon arriving at the empty campground, and after a fishless afternoon, simply sat on the edge of the river and watched it roll down the canyon over cobble while caddisflies tangoed on the surface. Somewhere an osprey sent up a lone cry, echoing my own unquiet thoughts.

I’d heard rumors about tomorrow’s stretch of highway. No guardrail, no shoulder, plenty of blind curves--and I’d be traveling during the Monday morning rush hour. But tomorrow was my birthday, and I had a schedule to keep: pedal 50 miles to the Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Gallatin meets both the Jefferson and Madison Rivers to form the Missouri.

So with a cup of coffee at sunrise and a quick trash dump at the campground garbage bin, I was off, dodging several tons of metal that came upon me in waves, some within mere inches of my bike. Could I have pulled over periodically between paroxysms of cars and trucks? Yes. But I was eager to charge these miles and hit the hidden byway that snaked along the river out of the canyon. I finally reached it: an inauspicious dirt road with limited public fishing access, and a shoreline rimmed by private land. Here were the true bends and pools of the lower Gallatin.

Axtel Bridge is the first public fishing access spot on this dirt road and where I decided to set up for lunch. Coffee, chocolate, a few casts at what may be the most fished spot on the entire river--and zero action on the four different patterns I tied on. I retired to my lunch to prepare for the next 30 miles. But as I poured coffee out of my Jetboil and into my cup, two buses stopped to disgorge their young passengers, who stormed the beaches with vigor, screaming and throwing rocks with abandon. Fishing was now out of the question here. I scurried back onto the dirt road and pedaled on.

I had never laid eyes on the next sections of the Gallatin. My dirt road curved away from the water, gaining elevation and offering me sweeping views of the Bridger Range and the continuing oxbow of river I’d been chasing for two days. Today this breathtaking landscape, standing at the confluence of public access and private interests, is dotted not with flocks and herds but with million-dollar homes. For 20 miles outside the canyon, I found probably five real public access points. And naturally these few access points are crowded, overfished, and well littered. I had no opportunity to fish for the rest of my trip; my time was spent picking up garbage. At one point I bent down to pick up a piece of trash and laid eyes on a trout nestled on the cool river bottom. That moment captured the irony of the entire trip.

I pedaled on past Manhattan, about 12 miles from my goal, sprinting down the frontage road past alfalfa and farmland and the warm, slow, winding river. And then there it was: Headwaters State Park and the end of my journey. I breathed a sigh of relief--first because my backside was sore, and second because I was no longer in imminent danger of being run over by a truck. At the end of the road, at the convergence of the Jefferson and Madison Rivers, I leaned my bike up against a bench, cracked open a beer, and gulped. After all, it was my birthday.

A mile beyond this point the Gallatin meets the Jefferson and Madison; I pedaled here, to the birthplace of the Missouri River, which seemed to cry out for a cast. Nothing expressed interest in anything I cast, however, so I called it a day, rolled out my sleeping pad, and watched the sun set below the headlands.

Gallatin River at Sunset

Over the course of my trip, I filled three large garbage bags with everything from beer cans to a popped inflatable raft. Though I knew my efforts were probably fruitless, nevertheless the experience gave me a sense of satisfaction. Returning by car a week later, I witnessed just how insignificant my one-man cleanup operation had been. One spot where I had spent about half an hour collecting garbage was even more littered than it had been before my arrival--all with garbage cans mere feet away.

Humans have a remarkable capacity for destruction. We can destroy quickly with weapons or painfully slowly with our waste. But even more impressive is nature’s resiliency in the face of our neglect. I am eternally grateful for this stubbornly resiliency--because without it, the Gallatin, which has meant everything to me and to countless others, would simply cease to be.

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