The old Metis perched on his back porch, scanning the green horizon.
“Haven’t seen many eagles this year,” he said.
The green horizon came first. The Clarks Fork River, missing an apostrophe, flows past the Metis’ house to pay tribute to the Yellowstone.
Cottonwoods lining both rivers provide platforms for fishing and nesting bald eagles.
The Metis living at the confluence is Fred Labeau, who speculates, “It could have been the oil.”
Last summer black with a rainbow sheen fringed the green. Flood waters freighted away gravel lying yards above a crude oil pipeline beneath the river. Sand and gravel scoured the exposed ever-thinning pipe until pressure caused it to burst. More than 1,000 barrels of crude sluiced into the river.
Exxon Oil Co., owner of the pipeline, threw a mixed gang of locals and out-of-state workers at the rupture and its 25 mile plume. The crew dammed, sponged and shoveled. When they pulled stakes, the area still stunk of raw petroleum.
“Maybe those birds don’t like the smell of the oil,” the Metis said.
Eagles, like most birds, have no sense of smell. The turkey vulture is an exception. Other vultures have no more olfactory sensitivity than the eagle.
While turkey vultures cruise a half mile above the earth, catching a whiff of anything that has been dead more than a few hours, others - black, yellow headed and king vultures - circle high above, hoping the turkey vulture will lead them to a gruesome lunch. The turkey vulture, you might be proud to learn, is the only Montana native of the lot.
Disappearance of the mosquitoes might be due to the oil spill, but was more likely the product of a drought that shriveled every mud puddle in the county. With no stagnant breeding puddles, mosquitoes called it a season and quit.
In rainy years mosquito larva feed larger creatures, which feed even larger organisms until we’re talking eagle fodder. Eradicate the mosquito and the food chain breaks down, driving eagles to new feeding grounds.
I suggested the possibility to Lebeau but eventually rejected it as unlikely. Oil or no oil, ’skeeters don’t lay eggs in the river’s swift current.
There, at the confluence of the Clarks Fork and Yellowstone, spilling valuable natural resources goes back more than 150 years to the gold strikes at Virginia City on Alder Gulch. Long after Capt. William Clark passed this way, a keel boat carrying gold miners overturned at the confluence. All passengers made it ashore, but at least $60,000 in gold dust did not. The gold today would be worth more than a quarter of a million dollars.
My visit with Labeau ended, and I left by way of the River Road. Stands of cottonwood flecked with gold signaled autumn’s early onset. Spotted, like young eagles, some of the trees were marked by the random damage caused by cicadas. The sight brought to mind pilgrims in keel boats floating east with their pokes full of dust.
Other groves glowed gold in the sun from the lowest branch to the highest leaf. The gold did not appear to be reflected. Instead it seemed to come from inside the leaves themselves.
Crossing the Clarks Fork halfway to the highway, I crossed the bigger river at Laurel. Below, the Laurel Utilities department had loosed a Caterpillar tractor on the river to bulldoze gravel into a low wall.
The same flood that unburied the pipeline had moved the river south, away from the city’s water intake. The wall would funnel some of that current back to the city’s water works.
Labeau insists, as he always has, that there is no water crisis in Laurel. He cites a lack of rationing and a failure to ban lawn and garden watering as proof.
Why is Labeau so quick to raise hell with bureaucrats who mess with “his” river? Look up “curmudgeon” in your dictionary.
The little picture beside the definition is Labeau, the Metis.