As part of an uncommon year for water accidents in Northwest Montana, six people drowned to death in the generally safe low-water period of late July and August, five of them either in the Flathead River or Flathead Lake. The sixth was in the Kootenai River near Troy.
On the year, there have been at least nine drowning fatalities in Northwest Montana, with six occurring in a one-month period beginning on July 25. Five of the nine have been in Lake County, including two prominent University of Montana professors in unrelated incidents.
Jordan White, search and rescue coordinator for Flathead County, said the late-summer accidents are alarming because they defy traditional logic, which figures that most drowning deaths will occur in high-water season or when weather is a factor.
“It should strike everyone as just a little odd,” White said, “and I hope it would make people more cautious. But that isn’t necessarily the case.”
The Lake County incidents stand out for their sheer volume and close proximity in both timing and location. Three men drowned within five days of each other in the southern portion of Flathead Lake. Mike Sargeant, a lieutenant in Lake County’s crime investigations unit and the deputy coroner, said five drowning deaths in a single year is extremely high, and the year isn’t over yet. He said one or two is the norm.
“That’s highly unusual here,” he said.
On the evening of Aug. 15, the day after a local man had drowned in Polson’s East Bay, Larry “Ty” Beardsley, 70, of Bigfork, dove into Flathead Lake near the entrance of Big Arm Bay and never came back up. His body was recovered the following week. Then on Aug. 18, the body of James Kriley, 65, was found in Big Arm Bay after a couple onshore reported his sailboat drifting with nobody in it. Kriley was a professor at UM and the former dean of the School of Fine Arts.
Sargeant pointed out that the deaths of Beardsley and Kriley were alcohol-related.
“That’s going to play a major role in why they’re drowning in August,” Sargeant said.
Along with Kriley, three other Northwest Montana drowning victims had UM ties. In January Henry “Hank” Harrington, the former chairman of UM’s English Department, and his wife Nancy died of hypothermia near Wild Horse Island in Big Arm Bay – where Kriley died – when their canoe tipped in the frigid winter water. In late July, UM student Samuel Sylvester, 21, of Massachusetts died in the Kootenai River near Troy.
White said as more tourists and permanent residents descend on the Flathead each year, the odds of drowning deaths increase, even in the low-water and hot months of July and August.
“Our area here is just growing and we’re seeing more activity in all regards,” White said. “In search and rescue you can’t expect anything.”
White said Flathead County Search and Rescue’s dive team is well-equipped to deal with a variety of dive missions, ranging from sunken boats, which occur every year, to evidence searches to body recoveries. Divers can comfortably go as deep as 130 feet. With 16 members and up-to-date equipment, Flathead’s dive team is one of the most respected in the state. Sargeant said Lake County has called in Flathead’s team to help with dives in the past. Lake County’s dive team has between four and six members.
An increasing number of Flathead’s team members, White said, are highly trained civilian divers who have already obtained upper levels of certification before they even take search and rescue’s rigorous training session. He said he’s impressed by the dedication of the divers who, like other search and rescue members, are completely volunteer. Recovering a body in water is a difficult thing to ask of a person.
“Doing a body recovery in the water is a very close encounter with death itself,” White said. “You’re in there and you’re in a very closed environment. You don’t have much time to deal with it. You just have to act on it. That can be a very stressful thing.”
With such a large team, White said he’s confident he can deploy at least four divers immediately on any given mission. When Adam Podufal, 25, of Pennsylvania drowned at the Devil’s Elbow in the South Fork of the Flathead River on Aug. 23, the team deployed seven divers. Devil’s Elbow, located just below the Hungry Horse Dam and known to be a dangerous spot, also claimed the life of a Georgia woman last July.
Podufal is Flathead County’s only drowning victim of the year. Earlier in August, the body of 48-year-old Ross Albrecht of Billings was found in the Flathead River in Sanders County. Also, 22-year-old Cole Augare of the Browning area drowned in Lower Twin Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park in June. Drowning is the number one cause of death in the park.
White said Flathead’s team is getting more calls as it grows, including a four-day evidence search mission in the Alberton Gorge following a homicide earlier this year. Even with a rise in late-season drowning calls, he said the team has proven to be fully prepared.
“What’s so amazing about it is that we have the volunteers stepping it up,” White said. “We’ve definitely had an active year.”
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