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Canoeists from Butte headed to the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of river protection

Posted at 5:43 PM, May 18, 2023

MISSOULA — Two cousins are paddling from Butte all the way to the Pacific Ocean. MTN caught up with them at Harper’s Bridge to learn why they’re canoeing for a change.

Braxton Mitchell joined his cousin Robert Lester for a meaningful adventure.

Braxton Mitchell
Braxton Mitchell is one half of the Columbia River Canoe Project team heading from Butte to the Pacific Ocean. This is his first ever canoeing experience

“We were actually at a family reunion and we were talking and he’s like ‘you wanna come with me? I need an extra person.’ And I was like 'yeah ,I’d be down'. I’ve actually never canoed before this. This is my first ever canoeing trip; I learned how to canoe for this trip. And it’s going, it’s going a lot smoother than I expected,” Mitchell explained.

They're supported by Robert's father, Bob. He drives a van with their supplies to each of their camping locations. They also have a film crew documenting the entire journey.

On what they’ve dubbed the Columbia River Canoe Project, the cousins will travel through one connected water system.

After starting at Silver Bow Creek in Butte, they’ve moved through the upper Clark Fork and into the main body of the Clark Fork in Missoula. They’ll then flow into Lake Pend Oreille and use the Pend Oreille River to connect to the Columbia River in Canada, taking that through Washington and to the Pacific Ocean.

Lester said, “Everything is all connected you know. You throw a piece of trash in at Silver Bow Creek in Butte and there’s a chance it ends up all the way in the Pacific Ocean. If it happens with garbage, imagine how it could happen with tiny chemicals that are hazardous to fish life, hazardous to humans.”

Robert Lester
Robert Lester is one half of the Columbia River Canoe Project team heading from Butte the Pacific Ocean

After the cousins passed Missoula, they made a stop at the Smurfit Stone Mill near Frenchtown to see the site’s berms. Berms are strips of land or banks that run parallel to the shoreline and channel water through. They saw what happened in Butte causing the Milltown disaster and want the berms at Smurfit to be taken care of before a flood causes them to fail and wash toxins into the Clark Fork.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, we have an opportunity to prevent that from happening if we clean up Smurfit before we start having issues with this high water situation. Flood waters eroding into that site will then basically pass toxic chemicals downstream for hundreds and hundreds of miles and it’ll be way harder to clean it up,” Lester stated.

They see the rivers as an invaluable resource and want them to be protected. In order to do that, they suggest we listen to indigenous voices and do what we can to keep the rivers healthy.

“They’re our ecosystem, they’re the highway of animals, there’s just so much going on with the rivers. There’s so much surrounding them. Everywhere there’s a river, there’s more plants, there’s more animals; it’s really important to keep the river in good condition all the time,” Mitchell shared.