The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners

Recreating Responsibly: Tips for a Fun and Safe River Season

June 27, 2023 Missoula County Commissioners Season 3 Episode 11
Recreating Responsibly: Tips for a Fun and Safe River Season
The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners
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The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners
Recreating Responsibly: Tips for a Fun and Safe River Season
Jun 27, 2023 Season 3 Episode 11
Missoula County Commissioners

Whether you're a seasoned floater or you've never sat in an inner tube, the River Ambassadors are here to help! Each summer, these friendly faces help recreators of all kinds navigate access points along the Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers.

 Now in its third summer, the river ambassador program is the result of collaboration between Missoula County, City of Missoula, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Clark Fork Coalition. Tune in to hear more about this successful program and tips for a great day on the water.

Related links:

Thank you to Missoula's Community Media Resource for podcast recording support!

Show Notes Transcript

Whether you're a seasoned floater or you've never sat in an inner tube, the River Ambassadors are here to help! Each summer, these friendly faces help recreators of all kinds navigate access points along the Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers.

 Now in its third summer, the river ambassador program is the result of collaboration between Missoula County, City of Missoula, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Clark Fork Coalition. Tune in to hear more about this successful program and tips for a great day on the water.

Related links:

Thank you to Missoula's Community Media Resource for podcast recording support!

Josh Slotnick: [00:00:10] Welcome back to Tip of the Spear with your Missoula County commissioners. Josh Slotnick And I'm joined by my fellow commissioners and friends, Dave Strohmaier and Juanita Vero. And today we're going to be talking about the river ambassadors and all things River recreation, given that now it is summertime. We're joined by one of our river ambassadors, Cara Smith. So just to begin with, Cara, could you give us a little background on what are the River Ambassadors?


Cara Smith: [00:00:37] Yeah, for sure. The River Ambassadors are a group of ambassadors that come seasonally to the Clark Fork Coalition each summer. And we help recreators and tubers with different access points, stewardship, education and all those good things. So you'll find us out on the beaches helping folks out, inflating your tubes, giving you a good tips and all of that good stuff. And then sometimes we do some restoration projects along the river and other volunteer things. So you'll find us all about the beaches in Missoula.


Juanita Vero: [00:01:06] You mentioned tips. So tell us what sort of tips do River Recreationists appreciate and enjoy?


Cara Smith: [00:01:12] Yeah, we have all kinds of ones to stay safe. So we do a lot on making sure that the river stays clean. So no littering. We recommend you bring a trash bag for all of your things for drinks and things like that. We recommend you don't bring glass because it breaks and tends to accumulate in the river. So bring something reusable or an aluminum container that you can recycle when you get off the river. And we also really encourage folks to take a shuttle. There is awesome transport and there's a new parking lot at Sharon and that way we can reduce parking and issues with that. And then when you shuttle, you can just get out and easily make it back and not have to pay for parking. Do anything like that makes it so much easier and really reduces congestion.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:01:57] Josh as well you might expect I like a little bit of history intersprsed.


Josh Slotnick: [00:02:02] Of course, my friend the historian.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:02:02] I think you might have been around for the genesis of this program. Yeah. Any chance you could talk a little bit about that?


Josh Slotnick: [00:02:12] Thanks for tossing that out. I would love to. So shortly after I began my first term here as a commissioner, I heard from some folks in East Missoula loud and clear about problem with parking on the highway, just coming down Brickyard Hill with people wanting to access the river at Sharon. The parking lot not being big enough. So people are parking on the road. And if you're not familiar with this, a person might say, well, why is parking on a road a problem? Well, this is a problem because this is a highway. People are going 55, 60 miles an hour. And we're talking about folks parallel parking. And imagine somebody stepping between two cars that are parked in parallel with a big inner tube in their hand stepping into traffic to cross the road. That's a huge traffic hazard as well, that this is an area where people live and they're not accustomed to having large crowds parking in their front yard. It just didn't work. This same trend of over parking and overuse is happening at all of our Main river access sites. It felt like there was a need for at the very least, better enforcement of parking. So that first year, that first season, we were able to get three school resource officers, sheriff's deputies to spend a little extra time visiting our hot river access sites, the river access sites where that were most in use. And they did over the course of a summer. And at the end of the summer, in our debrief, we said, how did it go? The words we got back were, Most people want to do the right thing.


Josh Slotnick: [00:03:43] We don't need more enforcement. We need more bodies who can do more education. And it turns out that these types of ambassador programs, whether they're on bike paths or hiking trails or rivers, are pretty common in other places. So in partnership with FWP, we kind of dreamed up this idea of a river ambassador program. What would it take to get folks out on the beaches along at river access sites, helping people figure out what is the right thing to do? We went back and forth with FWP and it was seemed like there were real obstacles on where this program could live. The Clark Fork Coalition stepped up one of our community's favorite long standing, deeply established nonprofits and the Clark Fork Coalition was really able to take on the role of housing such program. FWP did a lot of oversight. The county kicked in some money. The city kicked in some money. We got a lot of good pointers from a group called the Three Rivers Collaborative that hosts some wonderful conversations around rivers. All this information and all this human resource came together and the River ambassadors were born. And each year that partnership has deepened in that the financial burden has slipped away from entirely being on the county to the county, the City, FWP and the Clark Fork Coalition. And now we're multiple years into it and have added members. And this is one of the few things we in local government have been involved in that has been an. Unqualified success. Everybody loves the River Ambassadors.


Cara Smith: [00:05:14] And we love the folks back, too.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:05:15] Something Cara mentioned earlier got me thinking. So in the spirit of trying to be good stewards of the natural resources on the landscape here in western Montana along our rivers, and also improve the experience of folks recreating a couple of the ingredients are people, the real flesh and blood, people like the River Ambassadors, but also the soon to be open new Sharon parking lot. So infrastructure also plays a role. And Josh, I wonder not to put you on the spot, but I'll put you on the spot again. So could you talk a little bit more about the infrastructure piece? Because we did something similar by way of parking restrictions over on Tamarack and Tamarack and Juniper, but that was paired with some actual infrastructure enhancements at the state park.


Josh Slotnick: [00:06:06] Yeah. Oh, you nailed it there with the state park for a decade. Decades, probably. People have been parking on Tamarack and Juniper as a way to get to the river. Not a good place to be. Parking along the road, along comes another Clark Fork Coalition led effort, this massive multi-jurisdictional effort to get rid of the dam at Milltown, the reservoir goes away, the rivers are free flowing and there's a new state park, the Milltown State Park, which comes with ample parking and great facilities and is a super great place to park and enter the river. And for a lot of folks, their history was going beyond the knowledge of this new park. Instead of parking at the Milltown State Park, there are parking where they always had been parking. We had to create some parking restrictions. And with the river, ambassadors help encouraged people to go the extra couple of hundred yards and park at Milltown State Park. Similar thing is happening here at Sha-ron. That bit of description I offered earlier with the cars parked on Brickyard Hill, we needed to create a new place for people to park in order for folks to do the right thing. So in partnership with FWP, the county has created a new parking lot to park 60 plus cars with a shared use path that goes down to Sharon and River Access in the hopes that tubers will park in the new parking lot. Folks with boats and trailers will park in the old parking lot and we'll get the cars off the road with a parking restriction. That's the background.


Juanita Vero: [00:07:31] But there's and help folks understand the right of way and where the land that's being used for this parking lot because there's some confusion there.


Josh Slotnick: [00:07:39] Yeah it's private land. And on that private land is a piece of Montana Department of Transportation right of way and a easement that's also owned by the Montana Department of Transportation. It's a prescriptive easement. It means the things that can be done that are prescribed in terms of use on that easement actually supersede private property rights. That easement goes even if the land is sold, that easement by MDT still exists. So parking is part of transportation. So we asked MDT if we could build a parking lot inside their easement. They said yes after thorough review from their legal team. So that's where the parking lot is in both the right of way, which is owned by MDT and in the easement that's owned by MDT. I want to ask you a question. Yeah, what is your range? So there's a bunch of river access sites. Which ones do you guys hit?


Cara Smith: [00:08:29] Yeah, we hit a bunch of them. So we go to Milltown and Weigh Station all the way through the downtown...


Josh Slotnick: [00:08:35] So you go up the Blackfoot to weigh station?


Cara Smith: [00:08:37] Yeah. So we do a bit of that and we'll be at all the access points through Silvas Park. And so that includes kind of around Jacob's Island and McCormick Park, all those good areas. And then we also are expanding some range to Maclay Flats and kind of around there. 


Josh Slotnick: [00:08:53] Maclay Bridge?


Cara Smith: [00:08:54] Yeah. So we'll get to do some floating and hanging out around there, helping anyone who needs anything and.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:09:00] Don't feel compelled to answer this one. But, in the spirit of this podcast, revealing secrets, if you're willing to share it, what would be a favorite spot along the river of years. Yeah. And again don't, don't don't reveal anything that you don't want to but Oh absolutely.


Cara Smith: [00:09:19] I mean, public lands are for everyone. So I'm a big fan of the little beach at McCormick Park because it's like nice and shady at one spot and you can kind of dip your toes in and it's nice. And Sandy. Sandy too. Yeah. So I really, really love that.


Juanita Vero: [00:09:32] Nice. You talked about this earlier about some of your tips, but in the sort of behavior, what about river etiquette or ways for folks to be safe while they're actually on the water? Yeah, as opposed to. Yes, you talk about littering and glass, but actually in the water.


Cara Smith: [00:09:50] We want folks to stay super hydrated because the sun really takes it out of you and wear your sunscreen. We also really want to make sure that folks are using actual put in and take out access points, what we call social trails, where folks are just kind of making their own way down to the river, actually can erode the banks quite a bit and some of the native plants in the. Area can get trampled. And so that requires a lot of work to fix and can be pretty bad long term. So we want to make sure that everyone's using a good designated solid spot that you can easily put in, easily take out and not have to like climb your way out of a bank. And there's some strange spots that are kind of sketchy to get out of. So we want to keep folks safe that way too.


Josh Slotnick: [00:10:28] So how would a member of the public or one of our millions of guests recognize the river ambassador as opposed to just another happy young person?


Cara Smith: [00:10:35] Yes, Well, we should have some.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:10:37] And we encourage happy young persons of all variety.


Josh Slotnick: [00:10:41] We are we're open to happy young people. But. So how do they know you're a river ambassador? Yeah.


Cara Smith: [00:10:45] You'll find us in t-shirts. We have a nice Clark Fork Coalition River Ambassador. They should be lilac and then gray or blue. We got some nice long sleeve sun shirts coming in, so probably find us in that...


Josh Slotnick: [00:10:58] It says River Ambassador?


Cara Smith: [00:10:59]  Yeah, yeah. And so that. And you can probably spot us by the clipboards we might have taking data and surveys and then also you'll probably find us out around with k pumps and two patches to give out to folks that might need some help. So yeah.


Josh Slotnick: [00:11:12] So you mentioned data. That's super interesting. What sort of things are you? Are you guys researching?


Cara Smith: [00:11:17] Yeah, we are researching how many people are using the river. And so we're counting like tubers, rafters, fishing, beachgoers, all of that stuff just to see how many people are going around and how many people are using the river. And then we're also collecting information on the parking lots and letting people know on our social media, which is @MissoulaRiverAmbassadors on Instagram. And we are letting people know when the parking lots are full, recommending that people take shuttles and all of those things.


Josh Slotnick: [00:11:44] Great.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:11:45] Are you out there seven days a week?


Cara Smith: [00:11:46] We are out usually Thursdays through Sundays from 11 to 7, and you might catch us on a couple of other random days. I know we'll be out on the 4th of July and then you can also find us at out to lunch on July 5th and downtown tonight on July 13th and the Windermere SUP Cup on July 16th.


Juanita Vero: [00:12:05] Oh, the SUP cup. I forgot about that.


Josh Slotnick: [00:12:08] Nice work.


Cara Smith: [00:12:09] Yeah.


Josh Slotnick: [00:12:09] So how big is the crew this year?


Cara Smith: [00:12:11] We got four people. And if you check on our Instagram as well, you'll see that we have our first River ambassador kitten Huckleberry Herman. He's doing a lot of stuff on native plants and pet ambassador kind of things.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:12:23] So we have a pet commissioner also. There we go.


Juanita Vero: [00:12:25] Who's your...


Josh Slotnick: [00:12:26] A three-Legged border collie


Speaker5: [00:12:27] Oh, my gosh. Well, then.


Cara Smith: [00:12:29] Huckleberry can join.


Juanita Vero: [00:12:30] Yes.


Cara Smith: [00:12:31] to provide support.  He's good at doing volunteer recruiting, too.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:12:35] Does Huckleberry like to swim?


Speaker5: [00:12:37] Not too much. He likes to sunbathe. Yeah.


Cara Smith: [00:12:40] He might go fishing every so often, but he does. He prefers sunbathing.


Juanita Vero: [00:12:44] What's the most common issue that you have to deal with?


Cara Smith: [00:12:46] Probably making sure that people have access to trash and recycling. We do note from a lot of people that folks would like more recycling bins in certain take out points.


Juanita Vero: [00:12:57] And then so you guys would be the ones picking those bins up or like how does that work? Collaborate with city parks or how.


Cara Smith: [00:13:04] We do work a little bit with city parks, but I'm not entirely sure how we I think Republic usually takes most of that.


Josh Slotnick: [00:13:10] So you guys giving people bags?


Cara Smith: [00:13:12] Yeah, we can help promote giving bags or tell folks where to find them. There's a lot of shops around where you can rent different equipment and then I know for sure campus rec has reusable bags when you rent stuff from there too.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:13:25] Something that I saw in the grocery store the other day is one of these kind of mesh bags that presumably you put cans and whatnot in.


Cara Smith: [00:13:32] Yeah, they're great because you don't have to carry around all the water and everything. It'll just kind of flow out and yeah, that's exactly what we use. You can find us on the Clark Fork Coalition website and just search for the River Ambassadors. We'll be out taking surveys as well on river access use, seeing what people would like and kind of what folks are doing on the river and where they're from. Because I know that there's a lot more tourists now, and so they're doing a lot of recreating on the river.


Juanita Vero: [00:13:59] Okay, well, we usually wrap up each session with we're asking you for a nugget of wisdom or a great book or a podcast or anything you've come across that you'd like to share.


Josh Slotnick: [00:14:09] With any slice of culture in any form


Juanita Vero: [00:14:10] And wisdom. We're all about the wisdom here.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:14:13] Yeah, you're all about the wisdom.


Cara Smith: [00:14:16] One of my favorite books is Braiding Sweetgrass.


Juanita Vero: [00:14:19] That's so good.


Cara Smith: [00:14:19] One of my favorites. And I think a lot of that is like really promoting just gorgeous viewpoint on stewardship and kind of how we all, like, work together and have to do this all together. And we're, you know, part of the river. It's part of us. And I think the author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, does a fantastic job of just saying everything about that. And she's got another book, Gathering. Moss That's really, really beautiful as well.


Juanita Vero: [00:14:43] Oh, I haven't. I got to check out Gathering Moss. I just learned my new favorite word is from braiding Sweetgrass Papaui. And it's an expression of it's a Potawatomi word, but it's the force of which a mushroom becomes a mushroom overnight and it moves the soil. And so when you see that kind of like dust or whatever on top of a mushroom, that's just kind of bursts through that energy is called Papaui and I just love it anyway. Great. But no.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:15:15] That's a metaphor for county government.


Speaker5: [00:15:17] Right, Exactly.


Juanita Vero: [00:15:18] Papaui!


Dave Strohmaier: [00:15:20] Thanks so much for joining us.


Josh Slotnick: [00:15:21] Yeah, thanks a ton for coming by.


Speaker5: [00:15:23] Yeah, thanks so much.


Cara Smith: [00:15:25] Really appreciate it.


Josh Slotnick: [00:15:27] Thanks for listening to the Tip of the Spear podcast. If you enjoy these conversations, it would mean a lot if you would rate and review the show on whichever podcast app you like. And if you know a friend who would like to keep up with what's happening in local government, be sure to recommend this podcast to them. The Tip of the Spear podcast is made possible with support from Mcad, better known as Missoula Community Access Television and our staff in the Missoula County Communications Division. If you have a question or topic you'd like us to address on a future episode, email it to And to find other ways to stay up to date with what's happening at Missoula County, go to And thanks for listening.