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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fishing for beer: Montana anglers check out derailed rail cars, do their part to clean up river

When a derailed train spilled beer and clay into the Clark Fork River Sunday morning, Stephen Smith jumped on the chance to go fish.

The Saint Ignatius, Montana, resident has been fishing the Clark Fork since the early 1980s and, as a Montana fishing guide, knows the river well. So, he called his friend Jim Lapotka, loaded up his drift boat and headed out. They put in about three miles upstream of the derailed train and, by noon, had reached the site of the accident. Smith was joined by his friend’s 10-year-old son who “wanted to see a train accident.”

“We beat all the response crews. I think when we got there, there were a couple guys on foot,” Smith said. “We beat search and rescue. I am pretty proud that I out-rowed the jet boats.”

What they found may have come straight from a parched angler’s dreams.

Cases and cases of beer.

Although the 25-car-derailment could have been much worse – a car full of butane derailed but didn’t spill – the only thing that spilled was some powdered natural bentonite clay and boxes of Coors Light and Blue Moon beer, reported the Missoulian. The derailment happened across from Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort which is southeast of Plains, Montana.

And despite the devil-may-care appearance of Smith and his friends, he said they were careful when approaching the train cars.

“I know it looks like a bunch of Yahoos going down the river,” he said. “But actually I’ve been trained at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

Smith is a volunteer EMT in Saint Ignatius, which is how he received the FEMA training.

So, they made sure the wind was at their backs and they kept a close eye on butane car although it was well away from the river. And Smith emphasized that they didn’t go ashore or take anything from land.

“We did not remove anything from that site. We didn’t step ashore,” he said. “I knew better. It’s a safety issue. I understand that.”

However, they did snag beer and soaked cardboard from the river in an effort to clean up soon-to-be trash. Later Sunday, Montana officials set up a floating boom to snag beer and cardboard from the river.

Montana officials have some experience fishing beer from the Clark Fork River. In 1999, a train derailed near the same spot, also spilling beer.

And while Smith and Lapotka may have been careful not to disturb the accident site it didn’t stop them from ribbing the first-responders a bit.

“We told them we did an initial assessment and there was no leakage,” Smith said. “Except for the beer.”

They continued down the river first fishing the “beer hole,” a small eddy just downstream of the derailment. They caught no fish. Later in the day they landed one brown trout.

But what about all the beer?

“I think my buddy drank one,” Smith said. “Then we compared it to the river water. It improved the taste of both.”