I grew up in Missoula with the sound of Rattlesnake Creek pouring bedtime stories into my room, its chanting waters carrying me away to peace-filled dreams. When I was younger, my brother, our two neighbors and I used to build dams in the creek when summer warmth slowed the waters. At ages 10 and 12 we considered ourselves the best in the field, and this was reflected in our job titles: log expert, rock expert, and rescue expert.
My brother kept a journal and recorded our progress and setbacks. A large log found upstream gave us inspiration, and together we were able to maneuver it to block about a third of the creek. We kept watch over our dam as the leaves turned to the shades of fall, and watched the fingers of winter encase it with a frozen shield until one day, as a gavel sounding the summons of spring, the ice broke with a large CRACK! and my brother’s next journal entry read two words, “Dam gone.”
Centuries before my brother and I played in its waters, the creek’s rattling sound when its waters ran high inspired the Salish to call it “Kehi-oo-leh,” meaning “rattlesnake.” The Lewis and Clark Expedition first saw the creek on July 4th, 1806, when Lewis noted it in his log as “a stream about 15 yards wide.”
Forty-five high lakes join forces through nine tributary streams that feed Rattlesnake Creek for its 26 miles of travel. It springs to life 4.5 miles north of the Rattlesnake Wilderness boundary northwest of Missoula. From there it meanders through the Rattlesnake corridor, where one finds its companionship on a hike or bike ride up the main trail that was once a logging road and is dotted by old homesteads. If you time it right, you can find an apple tree ripe with fruit, and if you know where to look you can poke around one of the old lime kilns.
The creek continues to a dam just south of the Rattlesnake trailhead; the resulting pool was once the primary water source for Missoula. The waters then head through Pineview Park, where you can see pine beetle pheromone packets on trees, an attempt to ward off mountain pine beetles. The creek carries on past the old swimming hole in Bugbee Park, under the bridge in Greenough Park (a popular setting for graduation photos), and beneath the former Finnegan’s restaurant, until it merges with the Clark Fork River at the Doubletree Hotel, where I watch fly fishers casting in the cold spring waters as I walk across the footbridge.
The creek reminds me of the climate and changing seasons. While I rarely see the creek completely freeze over anymore, in the spring I watch kayakers and a lone canoeist embrace the high rapid waters. The rocks move and settle in the strong spring currents, changing the channels and shoreline, and I can hear the boulders rolling on the creek bed. Soon the fly fishers follow in waters swimming with native bull trout and westslope cutthroat and rainbows. As the summer months take hold, the bears and deer use this wildlife passageway. I watch dippers, osprey and the occasional blue heron, the health of their lives so intertwined with the health of the waters.
The creek tells me to let things go. Like our childhood dams, things are built and washed over. It reminds me that we live in an ever-changing, ever-flowing world, each year bringing new fawns, budding cottonwood trees, and occasionally a mountain lion passing through. These days my dreams are not as restful as they once were, but the soothing sounds of the creek remind me to hope. The creek starts small, with a single source, but is later swelled by snow melt, rainwater and streams tumbling from mountain lakes, which together create a force that can move boulders and shape the path before it.
"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.