A week after a Canadian man drowned while float-fishing on Rock Creek, the popular Missoula-area fishing stream has spiked again to even higher flows.
Rain throughout the region continues to make some waters rise and fall, creating thrills for whitewater enthusiasts and danger for others on some stretches.
Search and rescue crews recovered the body of 55-year-old James Dewhurst, of Pickering, Ontario, on June 11, a day after the raft he was fishing from capsized. He was wearing waders but no life jacket when the accident occured.
Dewhurst was on a guided raft operated by The Complete Fly Fisher of Wise River. A guide and one other fisherman also were in the raft when it overturned, but they managed to swim to safety, officials said. The guide called 9-1-1 after he could not immediately locate the victim along the creek banks.
The victim’s body was found the next day tangled in a tree about 200 yards downstream from where the raft overturned in the “microburst” area of blowdown trees in upper Rock Creek.
Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin said the water on Rock Creek is cold, high and full of hazards, and only search and rescue members who were swiftwater-certified were allowed to navigate the creek during the search.
Mack Long, a regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the twists and turns of Rock Creek are notorious for accumulating woody debris as trees and branches pile up against one another.
“Some of those corners just naturally catch logs,” Long said. “This time of year with the water flows up, you might think a section looks good one minute and the next there are logs jammed up in there. It’s just an extreme caution scenario right now. There is a lot of timber up Rock Creek that could wash in and cause problems. It’s a dangerous time to be out on the river.”
The fishing expedition went awry just above the microburst, near mile marker 27, a known hazard to those familiar with Rock Creek.
“The creek braids out and there are several ways you can go,” said Deb Peltier, who owns Trout Bums fly shop and coffee bar on Rock Creek Road along with her husband, Joe. “The right channel looks like the safer option, but it’s almost completely obstructed. He took the right fork and came up on a log jam.”
Matt Potter, co-owner of the Kingfisher Fly Shop in Missoula, said the channels near where the boat capsized present an “optical illusion” of sorts, making it appear as though a tree is blocking the proper left channel and steering inexperienced boaters to the right.
“It’s a known hazard that’s been there for a couple of years,” Potter said. “It looks like you don’t want to go left but you do. The right channel is passable, but there is no margin for error.”
Officials say a windstorm had knocked cottonwood trees into the surging waterway, while the high water adds to the hazardous conditions. As for notifying boaters about known hazards that have existed for multiple seasons, information is typically spread by word of mouth.
“We don’t have any updated maps of known hazards right now,” said Paul Matter, Missoula district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s a great idea, but it would require some regular updating because the conditions are constantly changing. It’s not necessarily that only an expert can float Rock Creek, but it requires someone familiar with which route to take.”
Matter said the guide who capsized the boat was licensed, experienced and has a good reputation in the outfitting and guiding community.
Deb Peltier said in the more than two decades she has lived on Rock Creek, she has never heard of a boating fatality occurring. Peltier heard reports that the victim was last seen floating downstream with his head, shoulders and fishing rod above water, and speculated that his waders filled with water.
“As far as we know this is the first floating fatality,” Peltier said. “We’ve been up here for over 20 years. That’s not to say that there haven’t been accidents, because every year there are. But this is the first time something has ended so tragically. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Tristan Scott of the Missoulian contributed to this story.