A casual day turned upside-down.
This story is one I am not fond of, but I feel compelled to share as it changed the way I view the river, forever.
One sunny day a couple years ago in early May, my friend Casey and I decided it would be a grand idea to float the upper Madison. We had everything packed up—beers, lunch, rods, flies, camping gear, and my friend’s trusty pup Knox. Traditionally, we spent our time on the lower Madison and Yellowstone. This spring, we had yet to float the upper. We had excellent weather and a promising fishing report. All signs pointed to it being a great day.
Our boat was a 10-foot black Wildcat catamaran raft that originally came from our friend Griffin’s dad in Missoula. Griffin had taken the boat down the Blackfoot a few years prior, found some swift water, and ended up flipping the boat on a rock leading to a near-drowning. Soon thereafter, the boat was sold to Casey.
Our float plan was Varney Bridge to Ennis, where we would then take out and meet another buddy near upper Bear Trap Canyon to camp for the night. Our friends on a prior float had lost the anchor, and our makeshift rock anchor fell apart. No problem, we thought—not having one will offer less opportunity to linger in one hole, and will keep us on track to meet our friends.
With ’90s country bumping from our tiny speaker, beers in hand, the float started out well. Casey rowed while I threw nymphs on a heavy setup. This did not last long, as my improper rigging—too much split shot, way too much leader—led to snagging and breaking off within 10 minutes. I rigged up another and fished on.
We were about 45 minutes into our float, still no fish in the net, when we decided to divert from the main channel into a smaller one on the right side. With no anchor, we parked the raft on a small bank and fished the narrow channel to see if our luck would change. No dice. I began to wonder if we were going to catch anything. When we hopped aboard again, I felt a bit selfish taking the front, so I elected to row.
As a last-ditch effort, I planted the oar directly into the streambed to try and turn the boat and avert the obstacle.
The channel was not quite ten feet wide—definitely a challenge for someone with limited experience. I was tested as we weaved through the winding current, avoiding the bank and other obstacles along the way. We floated for another few minutes before the channel began to widen and join back up with the main stretch of river. That’s when I saw the strainer.
Casey was yelling for me to turn the boat, but my back-rows proved ineffective against the swift water. The current pushed us closer. As a last-ditch effort, I planted the oar directly into the streambed to try and turn the boat and avert the obstacle. This was a futile effort as the boat continued straight for the strainer. My terror immediately sank in. We rammed into the downed tree and Knox and I catapulted over the logjam. I remember the feeling of being swept downstream and seeing a lone branch hanging into the water. I grabbed it and swung myself to shore. Crawling up on the bank, I was in complete shock as Knox sat next to me, shivering and terrified.
Oh my god, I flipped the boat. My waders were filled and I was frozen. But worse, where was Casey? I looked around and could not see my buddy anywhere. I spent 10 seconds calling his name. Then I ran back upstream and saw the raft, upside-down on the strainer with water gushing over the top. I continued to yell with no reply. He could only be one place: under the boat.
I had no time to think so I jumped into the river and punched and shoved the raft with every ounce of adrenaline in my body. Initially, it would not budge and I felt completely helpless. But after about 30 seconds, the raft shifted free and my buddy popped out downstream, gasping and struggling to swim. And now I was pinned against the strainer, my waders still full of water. Casey had been freed—what a relief!—but I was in my own dire predicament.
I had nowhere to go. The pressure from the water pushing against the strainer did not allow me to swim or crawl up the bank. I decided that my only option was to swim beneath the logjam. So, I took a big breath and slid under. I was surprised to see light and what appeared to be a gap big enough to slide my body through. So I stuck my feet in, torpedoed through the gap, and found myself free on the other side. How my wader straps did not get caught is beyond me.
If there is any moral to the story, it is this: Montana is rugged and nature is unforgiving.
I made my way to the shore and could see Casey sitting on the bank, alive. My rod butt and reel were stuck in a tree above the strainer, with all the line and backing gone. Luckily, some other anglers saw us and stopped. They grabbed our raft (now stuck upside-down in the middle of the river), towed us to the next access site, and gave us a ride to our vehicle.
That night, we decided to still camp out near the Ennis Dam. “Thank God you’re alive” and “I owe you big-time” were said over and over, followed by hugs. I pulled out my backup rod and we fished below the dam, slaying rainbows until the sun went down. We drank whiskey and sang country songs and cheered to being alive another day. After that day, we decided to name the raft the Black Pearl, after the ill-fated ship in The Pirates of the Caribbean. “The Pearl,” as we so fondly call her, has gone on many successful fishing trips since.
If there is any moral to the story, it is this: Montana is rugged and nature is unforgiving. Perhaps our sense of invincibility leads us to forget this simple fact until we are forced to stare death in the face. Nevertheless, we must keep moving forward and learn from our mistakes. I think I can relate to Norman Maclean’s quote, perhaps in a different way, when I say that “I am haunted by waters.”