Heck or High Water

A log blocking the river one day and gone the next isn’t unusual this time of year

By Rob Breeding

Someone posted a photo on Facebook the other day of a tree blocking the Middle Fork at the head of Tunnel Rapid. The next day another photo showed that the river had cleared and comments suggested the displaced woody debris had taken up residence near Bonecrusher, this time thankfully out of the way of rafters.

A log blocking the river one day and gone the next isn’t unusual this time of year. The day after the log cleared, the Middle Fork was running at right around 10,000 cfs, average for mid-June. That’s plenty powerful to move things all around the channel and a reminder that normal can be dangerous. A little pre-float recon is in order.

Rafting tragedies are a rite of spring in western Montana. The weather warms, the snow melts and those rapids look like fabulous fun. They are. But they’re also potentially deadly for the inexperienced or unprepared. So if it’s early in the season and you’re a private citizen that isn’t on the river regularly as guides are, check flows online, call guide shops or the Forest Service, and find out the latest river conditions.

Wood, like the tree that briefly guarded Tunnel, scares me the most. Logs laid down over the surface of a river like that can be deadly. A young woman lost her life on the Clark Fork in the Alberton Gorge a few years back in just this type of situation. A log created a new obstacle on the river and after a spill the current carried the young college student into the wood and pinned her there.

I’ve had my share of mishaps on the river, but just one with wood and fortunately a broken fly rod was the only significant loss. Well, there was my pride too, but I got over that. The incident had the added benefit of instilling in me a deep fear of woody debris that continues to this day. That’s a good thing, as I always get sweaty palms around an up turned root wad, even if I’m miles from the water on a mountain hike.

That incident occurred the first time I ever took the oars. My companions were only slightly more experienced. I don’t know if it’s clueless beginners or intermediates, who don’t know quite as much as they think they do, who get themselves in the most trouble this time of year.

Most beginners stick to frog water becoming familiar with rafts and river before they try more challenging water, unless they’re just simply clueless like we were on that broken fly rod expedition decades ago.

Intermediates, however, have just enough skill and experience to sometimes think they’re a lot better than they are. This leads to questionable decisions about where and when to float, and fatal decisions out on the water.

This phenomena often rears itself on rivers otherwise not known for tough conditions. The Bitterroot, by some standards, might be the deadliest river in western Montana, but it’s not because of whitewater. There isn’t any. Instead, folks who float there regularly can be lulled into a false sense of security. Other than wood (the Bitterroot is root wad heaven), and a handful of portages around irrigation dams, floating is a pretty tame affair.

Do it frequently and it’s easy to think you’ve got the Bitterroot down. But there are a pair of guides, experienced river users including an old friend, who have died on this river in the years since I first got on the water. In both cases they pushed that river, floating in water too high to be safe and paid with their lives.

So remember, while that tree blocking Tunnel Rapid may have washed out, there’s another hazard looming somewhere downstream. Be careful, stay alert, and save the heavy drinking until you’re back in the safety of your abode.

There’s more water to float tomorrow. Live to be on it.

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