Bursts

by Jane Sheffer

The Clark Fork River is breaking records. In April, just before the release of the Rivers issue of Camas, the long winter finally broke, sending torrents of snowmelt rushing into the river that flows through the heart of Missoula. The Clark Fork made national news as it shattered a 100-year record in mid-May, flooded neighborhoods, and carried mobile homes and propane tanks bobbing downstream.

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Before moving to Missoula to attend graduate school last summer, a common question from my friends and family back home in California was whether or not I was prepared to endure winter. I am, I assured them, referencing the many Octobers I’d spent working on the trail crew in Yellowstone, or tracking wolves in the Lamar Valley. I have lots of cold-weather gear, I said. And I did. Sometimes it got as cold as 20 below there, I said. And it had. 

When my fiancé and I first arrived to Missoula, the smoke made our eyes burn. The valley inhaled the smoke from the surrounding wildfires and held its breath. Snow was the furthest thing from my mind. My professors apologized to my classes for the smoke-choked city – we were a fresh batch of newcomers, not a single native-Montanan among us, and I don’t think we realized what we were missing until the smoke cleared at the end of September. Mountains visible from the center of town. Snow still clinging to some of them. Cool drafts rising from the Clark Fork that smelled like algae and musk. And it’s true, what they say here, about the sky: it’s massive.

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As the fires dissipated, its colors were adopted by the larches and aspens and maples. The trees cut off circulation to the unnecessary parts of themselves and flickered with a final burst of color. Before going dormant, the hills hummed vibrant.

After almost a year in Missoula, I’ve come to expect these bursts. The flurry of snow as it arrives, swirling and uncertain at first, then as a downpour that pops dazzlingly white while hushing everything to a whisper. In spring, the explosion of balsamroot and larkspur, dotting the hills like technicolor constellations. The rivers, roaring as they are unleashed from the snowpack. The eruption of flames that will arrive again soon.

These bursts envelope us so completely yet are so completely temporary. Whether they evoke delight or dread, they will happen, and they will end. I found a certain comfort in this as I endured my first Missoula winter, feeling heavy beneath the months of uniform gray that were nothing like the shimmering Yellowstone snowscapes that I’d thought winter was. Turns out that a frigid stint of 20 below ain’t got nothin’ on another gray, snowy day in February…March…April. Like the dormant trees and the sluggish river, I endured it, awaiting a time when I could surge forward again.