Kootenai River

Kootenai wetlands in Idaho were almost decimated by agricultural development; part of the wetlands is now being restored by environmental groups. In Montana, the endangered and aging white sturgeon population has stopped spawning due to loss of habitat caused by the Libby Dam; unless young fish live to spawning age the species is expected to be extinct in as few as 20 years.

The Kootenai River's other name is the Flat Bow River -- perfectly apt, considering the wide loop it makes, an international arc from British Columbia, down the Rocky Mountain Trench into Montana, then swinging westward into Idaho and back north to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia. Eventually those waters make their way into the Columbia River, but they sure take their time getting there.

Humans just can't keep from messing around with the Kootenai, though. In the Idaho valley, its attendant wetlands were drained in the 1920s to create farmland, despite the fact that it's a significant migratory stopover for some 200,000 birds, including about 67,000 ducks and geese. It's only in the past few years that those migrating water birds have had a chunk of protected habitat to rest in, thanks to aggressive wetlands restoration by the Nature Conservancy and local partners.

In Montana, spectacular Kootenai Falls -- a site sacred to the Kootenai Tribe -- remains the last major waterfall on a northwest river where there's no hydroelectric plant. Despite protests by the tribe, several dam projects have been planned over the past century, with some still on the drawing boards. And only 31 miles (50km) upstream, Libby Dam was built in 1975, altering river flows and temperatures so significantly that the Kootenai's white sturgeon population-one of the few landlocked populations, and genetically unique-may not survive another 30 years. The sturgeon are now confined to a sluggish, silty section of river below the falls, where spawning seems to have fallen off drastically.

Looking at Kootenai Falls, it makes perfect sense that the Kootenai consider it the center of the world, a vortex for spiritual forces. Its vivid green waters crash violently over boulders, dropping 300 feet (91m) in just a few hundred yards. No wonder the filmmakers of The River Wild used this location for the dreaded whitewater called the Gauntlet in the film (after complex negotiations with the tribe for permission to film this holy place).

Arriving on U.S. Highway 2, you can view them from picnic grounds at the county park above the falls, and even step out on a swinging bridge spanning the gorge. A narrow path leads through the woods down to the river, to those incredible falls. Be glad there's no power plant desecrating the rugged walls of this gorge-and hope that it stays that way.

Contact: Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau, 15 Depot Park, Kalispell, MT 59901 (tel. 406/756-9091; www.fcvb.org).

Where to Stay: Caboose Motel, 714 W. 9th St., Libby, MT (tel. 800/627-0206 or 406/293-6201; www.mtwilderness.com). The Ranch Motel, 914 E. Missoula Ave., Troy, MT (tel. 406/295-4332).