Boating, fishing—if it happened on the water, he could handle it. Or so he thought...
Indian summer in Montana—the perfect day to float down the Clark Fork River and catch a few trout. My buddy Mike, a Chicago native, had been bugging me to take him on a river float, so he and his sister-in-law, Lagora, met me by the Petty Creek Bridge, about 30 minutes north of Missoula.
As we put my Hyde drift boat, loaded down with fishing rods and other equipment, into the water, I explained that I’d been on thousands of trips down the river, in the past as a professional guide and fisherman. “I’ve never gotten anyone wet,” I said. “I could do this trip in my sleep.”
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Even navigating Devil’s Tongue, a white-water chute a few miles down the river, didn’t scare me. To say I felt confident about my abilities and knowledge was an understatement.
I realized I’d probably taken too much gear, all of it thrown haphazardly into the boat. The afternoon was getting away from us. I wanted my friends to see as much of the river with the sun dancing across it as possible. There was no time to change into my waders. I just pulled them on over my blue jeans, which I’d never done before.
I was more concerned about Lagora, who was wearing a big, heavy pair of waders. “You need to take those off,” I told her. “If anything happened and you got pitched into the river, those waders would fill up with water and drag you right under.”
Lagora removed her waders, and we were off. As we floated along I pointed out otters and giant rocks. I identified trees and birds. I filled my passengers’ heads with fishing jargon as I tied a mahogany dun to each of our lines and tried to outsmart the trout. When we weren’t fishing we looked up at that big Montana sky, following the clouds that rolled in.
Eventually we pulled over to the bank for a pit stop. Those clouds overhead made the temperature drop. “Is there any extra gear?” Lagora asked as she munched on a sandwich. “I’m getting chilly.”
I whipped off my favorite Sims Windstopper vest. “Here you go,” I said. I dug around the storage area of the boat until I found an old fleece vest. “This will do for me,” I said, putting it on. The zipper was a bit buggy, but who cared? I could make due with anything.
We pushed off again for the final leg of our journey. A crisp fall breeze made a late afternoon appearance, letting me know the sun would be setting soon. We tried to coax a big brown or giant pike from the river, then proceeded on toward Devil’s Tongue. Some fishermen refused to tackle it in a drift boat full of gear. But I’d never had problems.
We heard roaring water crashing against the rocks before we saw the chute. “Brace yourselves!” I called out. “We’re heading into some rapids.”
I used my oars to navigate around the worst of it. I glanced about the boat. We really do have a lot of gear. It wasn’t even secured properly. Too late now! The river pulled me straight into the mouth of the chute. I didn’t fight it. I had a better idea. Mike’s in front, I thought, stifling a laugh. I’ll get him soaked.
The boat jerked up and down like a seesaw. Cold buckets of water slapped into us, soaking not just Mike but all three of us. The waves were enormous. Adrenaline raced through me. Suddenly the seesaw stopped: The front of the boat was up in the air, and the back was sinking into the river. We’d taken on too much water!
A huge rock jutted out of the water on our right. Just beyond it was calm water. “Everyone grab onto that big rock and make your way out of the rapids!” I shouted, pointing toward our salvation. Mike was so shocked he could barely swim over. Lagora helped him onto the rock.
Back in the boat, my rods and equipment disappeared under the water. The boat sank deeper and deeper with me in it. I let go when it went under. Now it was just me, in the middle of the rapids. My waders! They weighed me down. But my bulky blue jeans made them almost impossible to get off.
I struggled out of them with the rushing water sounding like a freight train in my ears. I floated with the current, my heart pounding, my body cold and numb and exhausted. Just as I was getting my bearings I was pulled under. I fought my way to the surface. My waders were floating beside me, still attached to my shoulder by a strap!
I fumbled to release them but the strap was covered by my fleece vest. I yanked on the zipper frantically as I was pulled under again by the weight of my water-filled waders. That buggy zipper meant to be the end of me! This was it.
Everything under the surface was duller, heavier. Time moved in slow motion. I popped up again, long enough for my burning lungs to take a gasp of air before going back down. In my delirium I thought if I sank to the river bottom I could push up with my feet—but the bottom was 45 feet below. I fought with the zipper, my body aching and throbbing, as the river pulled me deeper under.
And then I saw them, shining underwater in the darkness like two beacons: a pair of blue eyes. They were big and beautiful. A woman’s eyes. An angel’s eyes, I thought. They were kind and calm. My aching muscles relaxed. I was as peaceful as the gaze that penetrated me.
The darkness underwater was replaced by brilliant white light. Suddenly I was clear-headed, able to focus. An image of my three children flashed through my mind. I have to make it for them, I thought. A burst of energy surged through me. I tugged on the zipper of my vest one last time—I was free!
I got the vest and the waders off and made my way back up to the surface. I struggled toward the bank until finally I crawled to land and passed out. Later, after a rescue team arrived, a woman who had been camping near Devil’s Tongue lifted a cup of hot cocoa to my lips.
“I called nine-one-one and told them you drowned,” she said. “You went under so many times, and that last time you were below the surface for so long.”
My friends were shaken up but not hurt. They requested a less dramatic adventure next time. And me? I changed after that trip. My faith is stronger, I cherish every moment with my kids, and I’m kinder to loved ones and strangers alike. I gained a new respect for the river, preparing and planning every trip, no matter how often I’ve traveled it before.
I made mistakes on the river that day—potentially fatal ones. Luckily I had a guide to guide me.
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