Garbage on the Gallatin: A Trash-Packing and Bikefishing River Trip

Bike touring gives you a closer look at the land you’re traversing, but that’s not always an inspiring aspect to this way of travel. We’ve all seen the trash-choked road shoulders and littered stream banks as we pass. After learning to fly fish on the Gallatin River and enjoying its waters in southwestern Montana for some 23 years, Sean Jansen decided this time would be different. With a trailer, a few trash bags, and plenty of patience in tow, he sets out on a bikefishing, trash-packing trip in an effort to give back to this river. 

The bugle of the distant elk echoed throughout the valley as I watched my ride share drive away. The brake lights shrank into the distance and I was left standing on the side of the road, at the meeting place of the Gallatin River and Highway 191. I was completely alone; nervous, anxious, and with an uncomfortable guttural feeling in my stomach. Deep within a bear management area in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, with nothing except my bicycle and fly rod.

I’ve had the pleasure of fishing the Gallatin River in southwest Montana for 23 years. My first couple casts with the fly rod were on this river, and my sincerest way of saying thanks to it, the trout, flora and fauna, and highway adjacent was to pedal its 142-mile length. Along the way, I planned to make detours onto access roads to pick up garbage from fishermen and other enthusiasts.

As I left the trailhead parking lot where the Gallatin River meanders down from its source—a hard-to-access high alpine lake—my efforts to pick up trash simply became overwhelming. The roadside flotsam of cigarette butts, beer cans, and leftover shrapnel from car accidents dotted the landscape in disturbingly dense fashion.

The Gallatin River flows 14-miles in Yellowstone National Park. Within the park alone, I collected one full household garbage bag of waste. Among the first cache of debris, I found a still-usable Nalgene water bottle that escaped its landfill fate as I plan to keep and wash for future use. As I came to a section of highway without a turnout or obvious litter, I transformed back into a person simply enjoying bike touring. That stretch of highway allowed me to feel the cool breeze of the early morning Yellowstone, hear the sandhill cranes gawking at the weirdo on the bicycle, and watch the river oxbow at every opportunity the banks allowed. A natural scene that has long existed before roads, bicycles, and garbage: a calming sensation of wanderlust, absent to all things except those that were right in front of me en route to home for the night.

Setting up camp just in time while the thunderheads above prepared for their concert. But I found my rhythm for the trip within the riffles grasping my fly rod as the river bounced down the boulders and into the evening. A slow morning with one pot of coffee after the next, the preparation to leave camp was similar to the preparation of drinking said coffee, nice and slow. How long does it take to bike 18 miles, downhill along a river full of fishable bends? A lot longer than I had expected. Getting to town was a relative breeze. With only six miles, I strolled out of camp somewhere around midday. After two pots of coffee, and watching the river now tinted green from the previous night’s rain, I was stoked to head to town.

The rich, wealthy, and made-famous within the last decade, Big Sky offered a glimpse of glamor, but also of river. To this day, I still think it has some of the most beautiful water I have ever seen. I’m not the only one to think this. Robert Redford used this section of river for scenes in his famous fly fishing film, A River Runs Through It. The mesmerizing pull coming off some of the pools are similar to stumbling upon your own personal gold mine. Full addiction symptoms; pupils dilated, thoughts racing. However this secret has long been out and this section wasn’t a pleasant one to pick up after with its shoreline littered with discarded pleasures of our taste buds.

A dirt road veered westward off the highway towards the river. A bend of river, hidden from the masses. Untouched by the hoards of traveling anglers and families passing me inches at times. As I turned inward on the road and followed it towards the river, so did the thunderclouds. I was able to set up the fly rod, but not cast as the downpour began and with it came the lightning. Turns out that I’m not a fan of swinging my graphite-made fly rod in the air making casts while Mother Nature is throwing lightning bolts down from the heavens. So I pulled the bike and gear under a tree and made another pot of coffee waiting out the storm.

I pedaled off winding, twisting, and turning with the ebb and flow of the river, following it home for the night. Upon arrival, the campground was empty and I had my choice of campsite. A fishless afternoon, I simply sat on the river edge, watching it roll down the canyon over cobble, while the caddis flies tangoed on the surface. An eagle called down the canyon as it echoed throughout the river and straight into my ears caressing me to bed.

The rumors about this upcoming section of highway were terrifying. No guardrail or shoulder from the lane with blinding curves hiding you in plain sight for the long haul truck drivers. I also poorly decided to pedal this section on a Monday, during rush hour. If I was to achieve my goal of pedaling 50 miles to the Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Gallatin meets both the Jefferson and Madison Rivers to form the Missouri, I had to leave at that time.

So it was a sunrise cup of coffee, a quick trash dump at the campground garbage bin, and off I went dodging several-ton pieces of metal powered by gasoline and rubber. They came in waves: a line of about ten cars, coupled with two or three semi-trucks or campers mixed in. I could almost wait out the rush for a few minutes and start back up once the wave crashed over. But there was an urge inside me to charge these miles and get onto the dirt road snaking the river out of the canyon.

Through a few curves, I cranked the gears up and went for it until I got out free from the guardrail and onto a shoulder of safety. Twice lifted diesel trucks flipped me off as if I was the reason holding traffic up. When I could finally see the dirt cut I was heading for, to continue along the river, I bolted when I could.

I thought that if there had been another ten miles of highway similar to that, I would surely have gotten hit or worse, gotten into a fight with some pissed off trucker. Smiling, I jumped back on my bike and pedaled down the bumpy dirt road with limited public fishing access from private land lining the shores.

I had never laid eyes on the next few sections of river. The dirt road curved away from its banks, but gaining elevation; granted me the gift of sweeping views of the Bridger Range and the continuing oxbow of river I’d been chasing for two days. Perched above, gazing at the gloriousness of the Gallatin, trapped by the confluence of wealth and the environment, within old and new Montana money, the drastic change in landscape was readily apparent. The grizzly bears and sandhill cranes of the landscape had been replaced by million-dollar homes and farmland.

Sadly, this was not the only blemish on this war and scar-torn landscape the Gallatin winds through. This chapter of the river is unfortunately one of privileged exclusivity and public inaccessibility. Private land gobbles up river access like a trout feeding during a summer hatch. For 20-miles since leaving the canyon, there were five real access points where one can fish. Naturally, with only a small handful of access spots for your car; over crowded and literally littered with disgust. I sadly ended up not fishing until the very end of the trip due to the amount of much-needed picking up I found. At one point as I was leaning down to pick up a piece of garbage, I caught a glimpse of a trout in the river, seeking out the cool spots and nestled on the bottom. The irony of the trip was singlehandedly realized right there at that moment.

Humans can destroy virtually everything, quickly with our bombs or painfully slow with our waste. Still, the sheer resilience of Mother Nature remains one of the most humbling and impressive things to witness. How nature can still co-exist despite our irresponsibility will always be a mystery to me.

The last few miles of the trip were some of relief. The turn was there at the convergence of the Jefferson and Madison Rivers, but pedaled one more mile down to where the Gallatin meets these two rivers and eventually begins the Missouri River. A slow bend of the final stretches of river begged for a fly to be drifted. Nothing of the sort was even remotely interested in what I was casting, so I called it a trip by rolling the sleeping pad out and watched the sunset below the headlands, waiting for my ride to come and take me home.

In total I collected three large garbage bags full of all sorts of rubbish on the trip, plus a discarded, popped inflatable raft that wouldn’t fit into the bags. The sense of satisfaction was there for me. Sadly, I know that my efforts left only a tiny dent in the never-ending wall that is the insurmountable garbage the Gallatin River and highway adjacent collect.

I returned to some of the spots a week later in my car just to see if I had made even the slightest difference, all to realize my efforts were rendered nearly useless. I am uncertain what needs to be said or done to correct our laziness and stubbornness for our love of plastic and waste. But what I do know is that we should all be grateful. Grateful that nature is as resilient as she is. For if she wasn’t, I’m sure the Gallatin, amongst many other rivers the world over, wouldn’t be here as we know them today.