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'Learning the Name of a River is Just the Beginning'

by Noah Belanger

I moved to Missoula two years ago without a solid plan. I knew that, eventually, I would attend the University of Montana, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what I would study or when that would be. I wasn’t even sure this was the real reason I was here. What I did know is that when I drove over Lost Trail Pass and headed down the Bitterroot towards Missoula, when I saw impossibly hard and beautiful mountains butt up against soft green valley, I was in love.

I grew up next to the Ohio River, a roiling brown mass of water rumored to contain catfish the size of sedans. Compared to that, the Clark Fork was idyllic. It caught me by surprise then, when Brad Tyer wrote in his book Opportunity, Montana that it is “the most f#cked-up river I’ve ever met.”

As I continued reading, it broke my heart to learn about the desecration of the river, the lies told to residents, the convenient deals made and lives ruined all for the sake of progress and profit. This is the most beautiful, wild place I’ve ever seen, and even it has not escaped destruction.
Tyer came to Montana Writers Live to read from his book and answer our questions, and in class he talked about his own journey here. He told us about learning the local issues through his time editing the Missoula Independent and writing his book; about understanding the locals and their wildly differing opinions on the river and its cleanup; about the fact that no one has clean hands when it comes to the destruction of the Clark Fork and the town of Opportunity, Montana.

It’s that last part that unsettles me the most. When I moved here, I believed that Montana was paradise. After reading Tyer’s book, I learned that there is much of what you might call evil in this place. What I didn’t want to know is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle and that even I, not here long enough to have roots, am a part of the whole mess. When I ride my bike out of the South Hills, I see Lolo Peak standing high and unmovable above the rest of the world. I still look at that mountain with wonder every day, and yet I’m afraid one day copper will be found beneath it.

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Credit courtesy: Noah Belanger
Noah Belanger

Noah Belanger splits his time between Missoula, Montana and Northern Kentucky, where he grew up. He attends the University of Montana part time, attempting to lift himself out of bad grades and bad choices. One day, he hopes to know what he’s doing with his life.

Chérie Newman is an arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. Her weekly literary program, The Write Question, is broadcast on several public radio stations, and available online at and
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