An accident waiting to happen on the Bear Trap.

In your mind’s eye, imagine a pristine swimming hole, with small cliffs on the far side for leaping into the clear, cool water. You park the car, scramble down to shore, and dive in, your dog swimming alongside. Across the way, you watch sea kayakers and paddleboarders making lazy strokes, enjoying the beauty and quietude of the long, narrow canyon.

Then you hear it: a distant thrumming, growing louder each second. You turn to see a WaveRunner bearing down on you. A young boy is at the controls; his head barely breaks the windshield. Behind him, his father smiles wide behind big, dark sunglasses. Their heads swivel left and right, taking in the stunning scenery all around.

Surely they see you. Shit, maybe they don’t. You call your dog and swim for shore. After a few strokes, you realize he’s not following you—he spotted a stick out in the middle and is heading toward it. You call again, then turn around and head back out. The WaveRunner is close now, maybe 200 yards. But you don’t want to wave your arms, because that might cause them to veer away from you and right into your dog.

You switch to freestyle and stroke with all you’ve got. When you near your dog, you stop and raise your arms—just in time. The kid’s eyes go wide and Dad grabs the handlebars, veering off at the last second, sending a foot-tall wake into your face. You cough and sputter and make your way toward shore.

bear trap danger safety madison river

Horrifying scenario, right? Well, it’s not a hypothetical situation—it happens all summer long in the upper Bear Trap, above the Ennis Lake dam. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which does a great job of destroying rope swings to prevent injury to reckless kids. But it does a horrendous job of controlling boat traffic to prevent calamity to hapless swimmers. On any given summer weekend, Jet Skis, speedboats, and WaveRunners roar through the otherwise placid stretch, weaving in and out of swimmers and self-propelled watercraft. There’s no speed restriction and eventually, somebody—or somebody’s dog—is going to get creamed by a hull or propeller.

Two summers ago, I called the BLM and described the situation. Last summer, nothing had changed. The area is multiple-use, they explained, and I get that—but Ennis Lake is huge, and boats can rip out in the open water, as fast and as far as they want. If they’re going to allow motorized watercraft in the canyon, they need to make it a no-wake zone. A few large signs indicating such, attached to the bridge at the head of the canyon, would solve the problem. At no-wake speed, boats would have time to spot and avoid people and dogs in the water.

I’d rather they prohibit motorized traffic altogether. But if they don’t do something, it’s only a matter of time before tragedy strikes. It could be a dog, a child, or an adult—but it will be bloody and most likely fatal. We need to put a stop to the madness before that happens, not after. The BLM is a notoriously understaffed and under-funded agency, so the squeaky wheel tends to get the grease. Start squeakin’, folks. The Dillon Field Office, which oversees the Bear Trap, is at 406-683-8000 or [email protected].