Disaster on the river
The peaceful Madison River hides dangers beneath the surface
The Madison River looks benign – like a gentle lazy river from a theme park that was miraculously cast into stunning surroundings.
“People are lulled into a false sense of safety because the water isn’t swift and it isn’t deep,” Gallatin County Sheriff ’s Office Search and Rescue (GCSOSAR) Commander Scott Secor said.
Disaster struck on Sept. 29. A canoe flipped due to a large cottonwood tree and two fishermen were caught in the large snag on the lower Madison, approximately two miles north of Cobblestone Fishing Access.
“Two fishermen found one man on a gravel bank with minor injuries and a deceased man still in the vessel, caught in the snag,” a GCSOSAR press release stated. In addition to GCSAR, Three Forks Ambulance and Three Forks Fire Department responded. The deceased man was identified as Scot E. Smith II of Belgrade.
The most dangerous obstacles on the river right now are the snags and debris just below the surface, Secor pointed out. The lower light makes it difficult to see them.
“Rivers are so, so dangerous just because of what you can’t see. The second you get stuck in a snag or an undercurrent you can get trapped in a couple of feet of water and not get up,” he said.
Local fishing guide and white water rafting guide John Derby said most people do not think of hazards when they think of a scenic section of the river because there are no rapids.
“But ‘strainers’ are the most dangerous thing on a river. A strainer is a log jam that lets water through but nothing else. They can flip boats and entrap people,” he wrote. “STAY AWAY from debris in the river, especially logs and strainers.”
He said people should maneuver boats away from them and if out of the boat swim away aggressively.
“If you get swept under you don’t know if you’ll come out the other side. If you cannot get away, swim towards it and climb on top – this is a difficult move and only a last resort,” he said.
Secor emphasized the importance of a life jacket, even in slow and shallow rivers.
“People think, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna need my life jacket,’ and then danger strikes and that’s the first thing they wish they had,” he said.
Core temperature dangers also exist this time of year. He believes people take for granted how cold the water can be.
“It can be 70 during the day, but the water is still the same temperature as your refrigerator,” he said.