Last week I mentioned the slough on the ranch where I grew up in a poem that I shared. My eldest brother sent me the above painting of stream that wandered by about a quarter mile from the back door of our parents’ house. That got me thinking about the stream that meant so much to me growing up.
Sloughs are bogs or swamping area that form when rivers channels change. That’s what formed my slough. I grew up in the Jefferson River Valley in Southwest Montana and used to count myself lucky to live only a mile from the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But it turns out that the Jefferson moved across the valley after the expedition passed by in 1804. What I call the slough was the main channel of the river back then.
Maps made right after Montana became a territory show the Jefferson in its current location, so it must have changed its course sometime between 1804 and 1864. Probably an ice jam blocked the river one spring blocking the slough route on the east side of the valley and creating a new channel on the west.
The banks of the slough are swampy and often have cattail bogs. Land there isn’t good for farming so it has never been cleared leaving a small band of cottonwood forest. I used to walk in that forest and watch for the creatures that lived there — birds, rabbits, squirrels, and deer. A walk like that was the subject of my poem.
My brother said the slough is smaller than it was when we were young, but I doubt that. He probably remembers when it flooded in spring and washed out the bridge on the way to Silver Star, the town where our parents picked up mail and bought groceries. When the bridge was out, we had to travel up the valley and circle around 10 miles to get to the town that was just a mile away.
After the flood waters went down our father opened a gate on each side of the stream so cars and trucks could splash through the shallow water. The crossing was open all summer until the county could build a new bridge.
When I was in high school, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built the Clark Canyon Reservoir 30 miles upstream on the Beaverhead River, a tributary of the Jefferson. The reservoir impounded spring runoff water for irrigation. The slough never flooded after that.
Also, when I was in high school, my father built a shed for fattening hogs on the east slough bank and washed their manure into the stream. The manure fertilized the slough and cattails sprung up on it banks. Floods that used to scour the stream bed every couple of years let the delicate growth remain making the slough look smaller.
The slough ambles to the south onto the ranch, then heads east and finally turns south again. At the last bend it tinkles over a gravel bar and runs into a placid pool. I used to sit for hours at that corner listen to the water and watch blackbirds that nested in a cattail-filled backwater. Mallards and teals also nested there. I had to be quiet to see the ducks, but sometimes they sailed silently on the still water.
Past the bend the slough spread into a pool 50 yards wide and 300 yards long. The water was deep enough for a good swimming hole and my brothers and I skinny-dipped there. One hot August day when my girl cousins were visiting, my mother dug scratchy wool bathing suits from her stash so we could all cool off.
In winter the pool would freeze over. My eldest brother remembers my father harvested blocks from ice that was a foot thick. Dad packed the blocks in sawdust in our icehouse for refrigeration before the government brought electricity to the valley in 1935.
Most winters wind swept off snow and polished ice on the pond making it a perfect place to skate. My parents kept a big box of skates in the basement. I remember one Thanksgiving after dinner with a passel of cousins we divvied up the skate and headed to the slough. There was a makeshift hockey game, and a cousin brother and sister tried their hand at figure skating pairs. We got cold when the sun set and headed to the house for hot chocolate and turkey sandwiches.