Boating Gone Bad

With all the whitewater roaring through Bozeman's back yard, and the large number of intrepid paddlers who take full advantage of it, stories of boating adventure and glory are a dime a dozen in southwest Montana. But these stories are different. What follows are tales of boating gone bad: mishaps, fiascos, and the lessons learned along the way.

Hard She Blows
Since racing sailboats as a kid, Jeff Abelin has had his fair share of sailboat trauma, from almost running into a whale in Long Beach, California, to getting his spinnaker stuck on the forestay on Flathead Lake. But a casual race-day-turned-fiasco at Canyon Ferry Reservoir is one he can't seem to shake.

"We started the race knowing there were ominous clouds on the horizon," Jeff explains, "but that's kind of Montana. You have the ominous-cloud syndrome, and it's up to the skipper to decide if you want to proceed." There were about 30 boats at the starting line, all members of the Canyon Ferry Yacht Club.

The boats took off, careening downwind through the first leg of the race. After that stretch, at approximately 11 am, the wind suddenly kicked up to over 60 knots. "It was an early thunderstorm... 15 to 20 minutes of intense winds," Jeff recalls. "It just happened to be bad timing for the Yacht Club. By the time it was done we had about 12 boats upside down, one boat had crashed into another, there was a punctured hull, busted masts, and people scattered in the water."

As for his boat (actually his parents'), the main sail ripped and the spinnaker sheet wrapped around the propeller and motor. He had to cut some lines, but all in all he felt lucky. "That same day was a bass fishing tournament, and four bass fishing boats sank. There was boat carnage all over the place."

With help from county search & rescue, aside from some battered boats and startled racers, no one was hurt. But the sudden storm served as a valuable lesson, and many yacht club members either quit sailing altogether or were forced to rethink their emergency protocol. "The Club has declined massively since that event for a combination of factors," Jeff says. "It was a real wake-up call... It forced everyone to think about organizing an event in bad weather. What if someone got hurt or died? How could that have affected us?" To this day, he says the yacht club is about one-third the size.

Although Jeff continues to race regularly, he took away some valuable personal lessons from that fateful day as well. "A lot of people just go out on race days and don't spend time on the water and know how to react in case of emergency," he says. "That day was reinforcement that you need to have a plan. What's your worst-case scenario? Things can go wrong. Quite a few people have died on Canyon Ferry."

The One That Got Away
Although they have their fair share of mild carnage-a flipped boat, a tangled anchor-fishing boat disasters tend to be a more humorous than dangerous, and that's exactly why many guides are hesitant to fess up their fiascos. But former guide Craig Airhart is one of the few brave enough to share his story.

One a fine day in early July, Craig was guiding an older couple on the Yellowstone River between Pine Creek and Carter's Bridge. He parked the boat on the downside of an island and led his guests to fish upstream. When he gazed back toward the boat, it was nowhere to be seen. "It was early season for fishing," Craig says. "The water was high and cold."

In a panic, he instructed the couple to wait on the island and keep fishing while he ran off in search of his boat. The first leg of his journey, however, was a river crossing. "I was trying to wade across the riffle and lost my feet a few times and hit the water," he recalls. He made it across the frigid water and started running downstream-or more like bushwhacking. "I was running through the brush in shorts and getting all banged up," he says. After cruising for up to a mile, Craig spotted his boat. "I could see it up ahead circling in a big eddy, and I grabbed it as it came close to shore."

He now had to recover his passengers in what can only be described as a Lewis-and-Clark-style mission of pulling the boat upstream, back through the willows and brush. By the time he made it back to the worried couple, he realized there was no way to navigate the boat to the island. He flagged down another fishing boat, which brought the couple back to the worn out, disheveled guide. �I looked like a drowned rat,� he says, laughing.

"They were left alone on the island for at least an hour and a half," Craig remembers. "They were an older couple and very concerned when I left them stranded, and that I had to cross the river with how cold it was. I felt terrible."

Not only did Craig learn that it's a good idea to tie the boat up instead of just pulling it on the shore, he also learned that most fishing guides have similar stories, but many are too worried about upholding their reputations to share them. "It's funny how many people I've told the story to come clean with their own."

Straining Downstream
Looking forward to a mellow canoe float, veteran raft guides Colie Campbell Talbert and Margot Zell decided to explore the lower Gallatin River. It was a booze cruise per se, but without the booze=the kind of trip where one may even contemplate not putting on a life vest. But as it turns out, they were lucky they did.

"We were just going la-di-da canoeing," Margot recalls. She grew up canoeing in Canada and spent years leading kids on canoe trips for Outward Bound.

It started out mellow as the duo paddled here and there. But soon the river kept braiding off, and they found themselves having to make some quick decisions. "The water was moving fast, and we kept having to choose. We were yelling 'Left or right?' and then paddling quickly that way," Margot says. "And then we chose the wrong one."

As they rounded a bend, there was a logjam blocking the narrow channel with multiple trees and a potential strainer underneath. "We didn't have time," Margot says. "We went right into it." Because they were trying to pull over, the canoe hit the logs sideways, tipping over and dumping both women. Margot managed to pull herself up on top of the logs, but Colie was not as lucky.

"She grabbed onto a log, but her body kept getting sucked under," Margot explains. "It was too powerful. I kept trying to pull her up and she was losing her grip." Strainers, where the force of the water can pin a body underneath against the roots of the tree and other debris, is one of boating's biggest hazards. And with much river experience under their belts, Margot and Colie both understood how much trouble they were in at that moment.

Colie yelled to Margot to let her go. Colie was terrified, but knew there wasn't much more she could do and thought there was a good chance she would make it out. "I just kept thinking, 'If I let her go and she doesn't make it out...' I just didn't know what else we could do," Margot says.

Colie went under, and for Margot, everything went into slow motion. "It seemed like forever," she says, "but it was probably a few seconds later when she popped up on the other side."

There's no doubt that these women were lucky that day; many boaters have not been so fortunate in strainer situations. And both learned a valuable lesson. "Canoeing on the lower Gallatin can be super sketch," Margot says, explaining how it's better to go on stretches that don't braid as much and can potentially be scouted beforehand. "I think Colie learned that she just really doesn't like canoeing. I don't think she's done much since."

Summer River Shuttles

Nothing screams Montana like a fun-filled day on the river, be it fishing, floating, or whitewater. An important logistical concern, of course, is the shuttle. While some hardcores prefer to hitchhike, bike, or even (gasp) run back to the put-in, we like the idea of a nice cozy car ride. If you want to save the hassle (or greenhouse gases) of two vehicles, check out one of these shuttle services this summer.

Yellowstone River
River Source Outfitters (223-5134; offers shuttles for "around $1 per mile," which works out to about $20 for a half-day float. They'll also drop your rig in Big Timber if you're planning a multi-day canoe or raft trip. For daily shuttles on one of the Yellowstone's most popular stretches-Gardiner to the Carbella access, which includes famous whitewater runs Gardiner Town Stretch and Yankee Jim Canyon-contact Yellowstone Raft Company (848-7777; The cost is $30 and they prefer a reservation made the night before. Another resource for fishermen in Paradise Valley is B & G River Shuttles (223-0626).

Madison River
If the heat of a lazy Madison float has you tuckered, call Floater's Shuttle (587-4747;, who will whisk you back to the Warm Springs put-in (from Black's Ford takeout) for a measly $5. For longer trips, River Gal Shuttle Service (685-3500) offers a Beartrap shuttle as well.

Other Rivers
For the Jefferson, Gallatin, and Missouri Rivers, contact the Canoeing House (285-3488). This old-school outfit is no-nonsense and reasonably priced ($15-$35 for a short shuttle). They also rent canoes and other boats as needed.

-Mike England