I’ve visited the East Rosebud River every summer I’ve lived in Montana.
Flowing North out of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the East Rosebud winds for some 30 miles before it’s joined by other aspen-lined tributaries- eventually flowing into the Stillwater and the Yellowstone River near Columbus. The water runs cold and clear, with very little diverted for agriculture and nearby development. By late August, when other streams feel like luke-warm kiddy pools, the creek remains cooled by the high elevation snowmelt fed from the 10,000 foot Beartooth plateau. Rainbows, cutthroats and brown trout feed voraciously – even during the middle of the day, feasting on the thousands of grasshoppers blown in from the gusty winds that come down the granite canyons to the south. The bird life is equally spectacular – western tanagers, yellow warblers, rare broad-tailed hummingbirds and far off, the eerie call of what sounds like some prehistoric teradactyl, the trumpet of a sandhill cranes fill the valley.
The river is lined with thick willows, redosier dogwood and aspen thickets, forming a nearly impenetrable fortress from would be wade fishermen. The stream still flows how an old mountain stream should; the cutbanks constantly shift during spring runoff and the willows and beavers take care of the rest. Its fine gravel bottom reflects sunlight from mica and quartz instead of beer cans and bumpers. In 1989 the Forest Service deemed a seven mile section of the creek suitable for federal Wild and Scenic designation, although Montana hasn’t awarded a new wild and scenic designation since 1976.
Between the challenging access, icy cold waters, hairpin turns and beaver dams, the river (although probably more accurately, a creek) does a pretty good job of keeping itself a secret. I’ve only taken a handful of good friends fishing there in the 20+ years I’ve made my yearly pilgrimage and I’ve never seen another soul on the river.
We usually haul over my family’s venerable aluminum Grumman canoe. A now ancient relic that my folks acquired in the 70s and has probably explored more Montana rivers than I could list. It’s virtually indestructible. A tank of a canoe, it’s probably worth more in scrap metal than its resale value as a watercraft, but it has never let us down, even after dinging rocks loud enough to alert every fish in the river.
But even the best kept secrets don’t last. I should have known better—it’s often the secret places that are most overlooked for their recreational and wildlife values when energy development and resource extraction come along– and the East Rosebud is no exception. A Bozeman energy development company has recently announced their interest in exploring the possibility of developing a hydropower site on the river. A dam would be located just upstream from my “secret spot”.
It seems to be the catch-22 of all the great hunting and fishing spots that I’ve frequented in Montana. If it’s an easy place to get to, and the wildlife is abundant, the secret won’t last long—but at least it will exist for future generations. It’s the places that take a little extra effort to access – via two track, rutted dirt roads, singletrack trails and bushwacking– not highways and hotels– that tend to hold the best kept places. These places are naturally guarded from becoming huge tourist destinations, but not guarded from development- and Montana’s got plenty of them.
Maybe this year when I make my trip to the East Rosebud I’ll bring a couple more friends along and hopefully in return they will show me some other tucked away secret Montana place.
Kit Fischer writes on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation.