High Water, High Stakes

By Beacon Staff

A few years back my daughters and I spent a fine Father’s Day together. We traveled down to the Bitterroot and hiked up the Blodgett Canyon Overlook Trail. I carried my camera and took some great shots of the girls lounging in the sun, framed by the spectacular backdrop of glacially carved Blodgett Canyon reaching back to Idaho.

Looking back at those photos reminds me of the fantastic time spent outdoors with my kids. It’s a cherished memory despite the disappointment that our original plan to bring the raft and float a stretch of the East Fork of the Bitterroot River fell through. While we enjoy hikes, when it comes to recreational motation, we prefer liquid conveyance.

Back then I was working as a guide on the Bitterroot and was eager to get on the still-high water. Dave – who I’d known a decade earlier when I worked as a reporter for the daily newspaper down in Hamilton and he teamed with his German shepherd Rocky as the first K-9 unit ever in Ravalli County — was now an outfitter and we’d made plans to scout the East Fork that day. We hoped it would pan out as an early float for clients while we waited for the main stem to settle into fishable shape.

The weather was typically unpredictable that June, and in the days before Father’s Day, summer heat arrived and brought down what was left of the Bitterroot snowpack. At the last minute, I decided it wasn’t a good day to be on the river.

There’s a window of time — starting around Father’s Day or maybe just before, depending on river conditions, and running through the Fourth of July — when many bad decisions are made on Montana rivers. We’re all looking at the river and the high water and we know we need to stay away, but it’s been so long and the draw of rivers can be irresistible. During the window the yearning to feel the pull of oars, the water moving underneath the boat, the tug of a trout at the end of your line, it can all be overwhelming. Floating trout streams in the summer is what makes living in the meat locker that is the Flathead in winter psychologically possible, at least for me. I want to be out there right now.

But I have to be honest. I’m not good enough.

I know some river rats who are up to the challenge of high water. They’ve got years on guys like me. We’re talking adrenaline junkies, folks who live for really big water. That’s not me. I like to wait until the water has come down enough that all the Class 4 stuff on the Middle Fork has gone away. It fishes better at tamer flows anyway.

So in another week or two things will be different. The hardcore whitewater folks will start getting bored with how the water has flattened out. That’s when it’s safe for the rest of us. Give me the Middle Fork at about 3,000 cfs and a sunny mid-July afternoon and I’m a happy camper. We’ll get wet on Bonecrusher and the kids will scream with joy, and in the pools below the rapids cutthroat will come readily to just about any fly you offer, just as long as it’s orange.

For many reasons, some that are only important to me, that day in the Bitterroot stands out as maybe my favorite Father’s Day. However, when I look back on those photos I am also reminded that something really terrible happened. Dave was determined to float that day, and put in on the East Fork as planned. I didn’t hear until a few days later that he got into some trouble in the high flows and drowned at a spot within about 50 feet of Highway 93.

So give yourself and your family the gift of knowing your limits this year. Make good choices, be safe, and wait until the water is at a level you are ready to handle before you launch.

Sometimes the best days on the river are the days your feet never leave dry land.

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