In my years as a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks warden, I've seen boaters make a simple mistake or two and end up in big trouble. Some didn't survive.
I also know of two boaters who did almost everything wrong, and managed, with a little help, to make it.
A fellow warden and I were headed upstream on the Missouri River from Fort Benton to Moroney Dam, on a routine patrol. We were checking anglers and a few summer floaters who were enjoying the water. A hard east wind was blowing up the river, making the water a choppy, rough ride.
Near Highwood Creek, I saw what I thought might be a low profile boat about a mile ahead, but there wasn't anyone in it. Could it be a log? A closer look revealed it was a boat, swamped with water. Soon a paddle floated by, followed by a seat and a cooler. It didn't look good for someone out there.
When we reached the Widow Coulee Fishing Access Site we saw two very soggy individuals, and a small dog, on the far shoreline. The men, soaked to the bone, started jumping up and down and waving when they spotted us.
When we reached them, they explained that they had put a newly purchased, 40-year old rowboat with a small electric motor in at Moroney Dam, planning to head downstream to the Carter Ferry, despite the sign warning of dangerous rapids. On this stretch of river, numerous ledges drop into hydraulic rotors that have killed floaters in the past. The ledges are not visible until the floater is in the process of going over the fall. These two had no experience, had never been on this section of the river, and said they did not see the warning signs.
Lesson one: Watch for warning signs. They mark hazards others have already encountered.
One of the castaways had purchased the ten-foot boat about two days before. It was designed for fishing on ponds or calm lakes.
Lesson two: Know your equipment and skill level and plan trips that suit both.
In this case, the boat owner said he figured it was a five-hour float to Carter Ferry where his girl friend was to pick them up at 6 p.m. Realistically, they would have been on the water until the next morning, if they hadn't already capsized.
It is fairly easy to avoid this problem. The USGS provides stream flow and other information on the state's waters on the Internet. Many boaters also check with others fresh off the river for first-hand reports on water conditions, existing and new hazards, and how fast or slow the water may be moving.
In this case, when the two boaters were parted from their boat they swam to the far shore of the river. From there it is a five-mile hike to the nearest road. On the opposite shore there is a parking lot and road nearby. When we picked them up, they were facing a 20-mile hike downstream to Carter across some very rough terrain.
Lesson three: Research the river, the weather, local features that may be helpful to you, such as roads and fishing access sites, and identify locations where you could beach should you run into problems.
These two fellows did one thing right. They wore their life jackets. I have no doubt they would have drowned otherwise.
After picking up the castaways, we retrieved what gear we could and dropped them off at the Carter Ferry. The poor little dog was so mad—or humiliated—it wouldn't acknowledge them. Can you blame it?
Final lesson: Always wear a life jacket. Life jackets save lives. They surely saved these two inexperienced boaters.
A few common sense steps can help inexperienced boaters avoid a disastrous situation.
* Watch for warning signs. They mark hazards others have already encountered.
* Know your equipment and skill level and plan trips that suit both.
* Research the river, the weather, local features that may be helpful such as roads and fishing access sites, and identify locations where you could beach should you run into problems.
* Always wear a life jacket.
Also visit FWP's, Montana Boating Laws web page for more information.