The lowest level to which a river can erode its bed is called base level. Sea level is the ultimate base level, but the floor of a lake or basin into which a river flows may become a local and temporary base level. Cliffs or escarpments and differences in the resistance of rocks create irregularities in the bed of a river and can thus cause rapids and waterfalls. A river tends to eliminate irregularities and to form a smooth gradient from its source to its base level. As it approaches base level, downward cutting is replaced by lateral cutting, and the river widens its bed and valley and develops a sinuous course that forms exaggerated loops and bends called meanders. A river may open up a new channel across the arc of a meander, thereby cutting off the arc and creating an oxbow lake.
Rivers modify topography by deposition as well as by erosion. River velocity determines quantity and size of rock fragments and sediment carried by the river. When the velocity is checked by changes of flow or of gradient, by meeting the water mass of lakes or oceans, or by the spreading of water when a stream overflows its banks, part of the load carried by the stream is deposited in the riverbed or beyond the channel. Landforms produced by deposition include the delta, the floodplain, the channel bar, and the alluvial fan and cone.
The discharge, or rate of outflow, of a river depends on the width of its channel and on its velocity. Velocity is governed by the volume of water, the slope of the bed, and the shape of the channel (which determines the amount of frictional resistance). River volume is affected by duration and rate of precipitation in the drainage basin of the river. A river system may be enlarged by piracy, or the process by which one river, cutting through the divide that separates its drainage basin from that of another river, diverts the waters of the other into its own channel.
Traditionally river systems have been classified according to their stage of development as young, mature, or old. The young river is marked by a steepsided valley, steep gradients, and irregularities in the bed; the mature river by a valley with a wide floor and flaring sides, by advanced headward erosion by tributaries, and by a more smoothly graded bed; and the old river by a course graded to base level and running through a peneplain, or broad flat area. The age classification of rivers is diminishing in popularity now that quantitative studies of river behavior are more common.
River valleys have been important centers of civilization; they afford travel routes, and their alluvial soils form good agricultural lands. Navigable rivers are important in commerce and have influenced the location of cities. Rivers with sufficient velocity and gradient can be used to produce hydroelectric power. Among the most important river systems of the world are the Nile, the Congo, the Niger, the Zambezi, and the Orange-Vaal in Africa; the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Paraguay-Paraná in South America; the Mississippi-Missouri, the St. Lawrence, the Rio Grande, the Colorado, the Columbia, the Mackenzie-Peace, and the Yukon in North America; the Danube, the Rhine, the Rhône, the Seine, the Po, the Tagus, the Thames, the Loire, the Elbe, the Oder, the Don, the Volga, and the Dnieper in Europe; the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Ob-Irtysh, the Yenisei, the Lena, the Syr Darya, the Amu Darya, the Amur, the Huang He, the Chang (Yangtze), the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Ayeyarwady, and the Mekong in Asia; and the Murray-Darling in Australia.
See M. Morisawa, Rivers (1985); J. Mangelsdorf, River Morphology (1990).
It rises as Silver Bow Creek in southwestern Montana, less than 5 mi (8 km) from the continental divide near downtown Butte, from the confluence of Basin and Blacktail creeks. It flows northwest and north through a valley in the mountains, passing east of Anaconda, where it changes its name to the Clark Fork, then northwest to Deer Lodge. From Deer Lodge it flows generally northwest across western Montana, passing south of the Garnet Range toward Missoula. Five miles east of Missoula, the river receives the Blackfoot River.
Northwest of Missoula, the river continues through a long valley along the northeast flank of the Bitterroot Range, through the Lolo National Forest. It receives the Bitterroot River from the south-southwest approximately 5 1/2mi west of downtown Missoula, and receives the Flathead River from the north near Paradise. It receives the Thompson River from the west near Thompson Falls in southern Sanders County.
At Noxon, Montana, along the north end of the Bitterroots near the Idaho border, the river is impounded by the Noxon Rapids Dam to form a 20 mi (32 km) long reservoir. It crosses into western Bonner County in northern Idaho near the town of Cabinet, Idaho. Approximately 5 mi (8 km) west of the Idaho-Montana state line, the river enters the eastern end of Lake Pend Oreille, near the town of Clark Fork.
In the 19th century the Clark Fork Valley was inhabited by the Flathead tribe of Native Americans. It was explored by Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition during the 1806 return trip from the Pacific. The river is named for William Clark. A middle segment of the river in Montana was formerly known as the Missoula River.
In 1809 David Thompson of the North West Company explored the region and founded several fur trading posts, including Kullyspell House at the mouth of the Clark Fork, and Saleesh House on the river near the present-day site of Thompson Falls, Montana. Thompson used the name Saleesh River for the entire Flathead-Clark Fork-Pend Oreille river system. For most of the first half of the 19th century the Clark Fork river and surrounding region was controlled by the British-Canadian North West Company and Hudson's Bay Company.
Since the late 19th century many areas in the watershed of the river have been extensively mined for minerals, resulting in an ongoing stream pollution problem. Most pollution has come from the copper mines in Butte and the smelter in Anaconda. Many of the most polluted areas have been designated as Superfund sites. Nevertheless the river and its tributaries are among the most popular destinations for fly fishing in the United States.
Today, the Clark Fork watershed encompasses the largest Superfund site in America. As a mega-site, it includes three major sites: Butte, Anaconda, and Milltown Dam/Clark Fork River. Each of these major sites is split up into numerouse sub-sites known as Operable Units. Remediation and/or restoration of these sites is ongoing.