Local Man Dies After Raft Flips on Middle Fork Flathead River

Crews recovered a 43-year-old man’s body near West Glacier after his boat flipped in rapids below Moccasin Creek; sheriff urges boaters to avoid rivers until flows are lower

By Maggie Dresser
A Flathead County Sheriff search and rescue team loads supplies onto a boat at the Tea Kettle Fishing Access on the Flathead River in Columbia Falls on June 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A local 43-year-old man died yesterday after his raft flipped in whitewater rapids below Moccasin Creek on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, according to Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino.

The sheriff’s office received a report of an individual thrown from a boat at around 3 p.m. on June 21 and was last seen floating down the Middle Fork. There were two other people in the rafting party, who reported the incident and were uninjured, Heino said.

North Valley Search and Rescue teams recovered the deceased man’s body near the Glacier View Golf Course in West Glacier.

According to Heino, the victim was wearing a life jacket, although the sheriff did not know whether the deceased man or the members of his party were wearing wetsuits or drysuits.

River flows on the Middle Fork rose to about 24,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) yesterday, according to United States Geological Survey data. Mean flows for this time of year are normally around 8,900 CFS.

High water levels increase hazards on the river, Heino said, creating fast-moving water with significant debris and log strainers.

“The river can change pretty rapidly,” Heino said. “We are seeing high water flows and it’s a changing environment. People need to be extra aware, and this might not be the right time to be recreating.”

At Glacier Raft Company based out of West Glacier, General Manager Mike Cooney says his guides are not taking commercial raft trips down the river stretch below Moccasin Creek River Access until river flows are lower. During high water flows, he moves trips upriver to float from Paola River Access to Cascadilla Flat River Access. He also adjusts his customer’s age minimums during high flows.

“The river is really high,” Cooney said. “The river is cold and moving very fast – hypothermia is a huge hazard.”

Cooney says some rapids on that stretch that are normally Class III turn into Class IV at high flows.

“It can be dangerous if you’re inexperienced,” Cooney said. “The river will move five to six miles per hour and the rapids change dramatically at different levels.”

Due to the high and dangerous river flows, Heino urged boaters and floaters to wait until river flows are lower before heading out on the water and reminded individuals to wear a life jacket, even when standing near the river.

Within an hour of the fatal incident, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and search and rescue crews responded to a separate call on Flathead Lake, providing aid to a “boat in distress.” No injuries were reported.

North Valley Search and Rescue, the National Park Service, Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and Two Bear Air assisted in the Middle Fork incident.

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