I’m still alive . . . barely!

Posted by Al Agnew on September 27th, 2011
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So sure enough, today we floated the Stillwater River out here in Montana. I was designated rower of one of the rafts. We had eight guys in three rafts.

Now…picture what is basically one long non-stop riffle, which morphs into boulder-strewn rapids about as often as an Ozark stream riffles. Picture the volume of water being about as much as the Current River down around Doniphan (2000 cfs). Picture big rocks everywhere, most of the protruding ones about the size of a washing machine. Frequent 3-4 foot standing waves. That was the Stillwater today. But heck, we’re in a big raft. I’m enjoying the heck out of it. It’s a little technical but not really scary. The fishing is excellent, with trout rising to hopper patterns regularly, and when they aren’t on the hopper they’re on the small dropper nymph. We’re all having great fun, except I’m doing the rowing and not the fishing.

So about 2/3 the way through the float, we are all beached on a gravel bar and my buddy Tom from Montana, the former guide and very experienced rafter, offers to take over the rowing for a while and let me fish. My buddy Tom from Missouri climbs into the front of the raft, I get in the back, and it’s like old times. The three of us have been fishing Montana together for 16 years now.

Montana Tom’s brother is rowing one of the other rafts, and Todd, another very experienced rafter who has already been down the Stillwater a few times this year, is rowing the third raft. Now Todd has told Tom that there is a rapid down around the swinging bridge that has been flipping rafts regularly. But what he doesn’t specify is that it ISN’T the rapid that’s always been just above the swinging bridge, the only one on this stretch that has been known to flip rafts in the past.

So, with Montana Tom rowing, we come to the rapid above the swinging bridge. It’s somewhat impressive but fairly straightforward. Given that I’m not a really experienced rafter, I figured it would be approaching the limit of what I’d feel comfortable running, but I think I could have handled it. But with Tom rowing, it was a piece of cake, and I even commented that it didn’t look like a raft flipper at this water level.

About a mile farther down, we see a rapid quickly approaching, and Todd is standing on the bank, having already run it with Tom’s friend Mike from Tennessee.

There was no place to get out and scout it, too fast, too narrow. The river, usually about 50 yards wide, is squeezed down to about 30 feet wide, and dropping over a bedrock ledge about 4 feet high. It plunges over the ledge, into a nearly river wide hole, with a huge hydraulic standing wave on the downstream side of the hole. No maneuvering necessary. Over we go. We ride up the standing wave, which slants up, oh, about eight feet or so to foaming, back-curling foamy water at the top. The raft rises at about a 45 degree angle which seems like it’s vertical. Reaching the top of the wave, teeters for a split second, and starts to slide back down the upstream face. And that is the exact instant you know you’re in deep, dark trouble. Not enough momentum to carry over the hydraulic. I had that split second to react, which I did by coming off the floor of the raft where I was leaning against the back seat and trying to move my weight forward. But it was futile. The back end of the raft slides back, into the hole, and under the huge volume of water pouring over the drop-off. And in an instant, the front end levers up, vertical, slide off a bit to the left, and flips. I’m still holding a fly rod as I go under, with the raft probably coming down on top of me. I come up, realizing I’m not under the raft. That’s good. I still have a grip on my rod. That’s good. I’m out of the hydraulic and bobbing down the decreasing standing waves. That’s good. The raft is upside down, drifting along beside me. Okay, it’s not about to run over me. I’ve got me feet pointed downstream. Check. Time to assess the others. Tom from Montana emerges at the back of the raft and grabs it. He’s about 6′ 4″ and bull strong, and he has the raft under control. Nominal. Then I look downstream. Tom from Missouri is in the thick of the standing wave train, well away from the raft, out in the center of the widening but still raging river. And he’s not looking too good…because, although we’re all wet wading so we don’t have to fight waders, he doesn’t have a life jacket on (nor does Montana Tom). And now we’re hearing panicked yelps…Montana Tom’s chocolate lab is trapped underneath the raft.

Todd, as soon as he sees the raft go over, is running to his raft, jumping in, and chasing after Missouri Tom. They were parked in a big eddy just downstream, and Mike jumps in to try to help Montana Tom with the raft. I easily swim out, still gripping my rod, toss it onto the bank, and plunge back in to help with the raft. I look downstream to see how Todd is doing helping Missouri Tom, and they are already around the bend and out of sight. There’s nothing else we can do but hope, while we get the dog out from under the raft and pull it over to the bank on a piece of root and brush covered, honking current, steep bank. Once we have everything under control there, the third raft has come over the rapid, nearly hanging up as we did, and flipping Missouri Tom’s son John out of the back of the raft. He does a complete back flip, splashes down, and swims out. They park the raft in the big eddy, and several of us go hiking down the bank to check on Todd and Missouri Tom. No sight of them within the next two bends. Now we’re really worried. In fact, we’re scared spitless.

Meanwhile, I’ve finally realized that, among all the other stuff, I’ve lost my prescription sunglasses and `can’t see much of anything beyond the end of my arm. No problem, I had my regular glasses in a velcro pocket in the my shirt. Nope, they are gone too. But at this point that’s the least of my worries. We are taking stock of the situation. One oar is gone. Trust me, you cannot handle a raft with just one oar. I know because I once lost an oar on a Yellowstone float and had to run and swim for a half mile down the river before I caught it, after first trying to use the other oar as a paddle. And although we don’t voice it, we’re all just hoping and praying that Tom is okay. Finally we decide to tie the raft onto the other raft with the anchor rope, and let Tom’s brother Scott help us work our way down the river. Around about five bends, and a good half mile downstream, we finally see the other raft…and two people standing next to it. Tom’s alive! We pull in and do a big group hug. Tom said he at first thought he was fine, but he just couldn’t get out of the strongest current, and after a bit he simply wore out and was at the point where he was unable to stay afloat when Todd pulled up beside him in the raft and he could grasp it.

Okay, now we can start inventorying what we’ve lost. One oar. Montana Tom has lost two rods and reels. Missouri Tom, like me, has lost his glasses. I’m the worst off equipment-wise, because I’d brought everything but the kitchen sink. I’m missing my big gear bag with three spare reels, and a pair of Simms waders among a bunch of other miscellaneous stuff. I’m missing my 6 wt. rod, still in the case. I’m missing my fanny pack full of all my flies. We’re missing the air pump for the raft. I check my other pockets. Waterproof camera, yep, still there. Cell phone. Yep, but it’s a water resistant one, not waterproof. I get it out, and believe it or not it still works. Wallet, yep, and that’s doubly good because it has my spare truck key, and the truck is sitting at the take-out with the keys locked in it. House keys. Check. And wonder of wonders, Todd and Missouri Tom have grabbed my pack full of flies as it bobbed past. And Todd has a spare oar.

So eight very chastised men row the rest of the way down the Stillwater, and out into the Yellowstone for a two mile ride down to the take-out.

Lessons that should be learned…always wear a life jacket when you are in water that could potentially be class 4, even if it looks easy and the water and weather are reasonably warm. Communicate exactly where a known hazard is, don’t just assume the other guy knows it. Tie stuff into the raft. Keep your gear bag zipped up. Carry a spare oar. And above all, don’t be complacent. We should have learned it after the guy drowned on the Boulder River a couple weeks ago. I think we really learned it today.

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