The Killer Big Hole River: A True Story:


Nov 23, 2004
Butte, Mt.
The Killer Big Hole River:

I had been thinking of writing this story for quite some time now and have decided this to be as good a time as any.
The Big Hole River is world renowned as a premier blue ribbon trout stream and people come from all over the world to fish its trout filled waters. Every year though, it claims at least one or two lives.
One year, it almost added my name to its list.
My son and I had been hunting the Big Hole Valley for elk and deer. We hadn't had any luck and were driving back home for a bite to eat and then onto the Highlands for the evening hunt. As we drove along the twisting canyon road that followed the river, we saw two nice mule deer bucks at the mouth of a steep, rugged canyon that led to the high country. My son immediately became excited and said, "Dad, if we come back with our waders, we can cross there and hunt some really good country that no one else can get to." I was a little leery because I had already walked perhaps two miles and was at my limit. But, I nodded at him and allowed that he was probably right. So, we made the quick turnaround to home and an hour and a half later found ourselves standing at the parking area looking down at the dark cold water running in front of us.
We pulled on our waders and walked down to the trail that followed the river and after about two hundred yards found a relatively calm place to cross. We had our hunting boots around our necks and our rifles on our shoulders. We both had binoculars and waist packs also, along with our shooting sticks.
I stood for a second looking uneasily at the far bank. But, following my sons lead, I stepped into the frigid November water and started across.
I took my time, being careful and soon my son was on the other side yelling, "Come on Dad"
In just a minute or so I was wading out of the river. We quickly took of our waders and wading shoes and hid them behind a large boulder. Shouldering our rifles, we started up the canyon.
An hour or so later we breasted the top and looked carefully over the edge. There, high up, stood seven elk, six cows and one spike. While we grinned at one another at the beautiful sight, we were disappointed because spikes weren't legal on this side of the river. But, they were beautiful. We spotted and passed up several nice bucks because we were looking for something exceptional. We had both killed a lot of deer and decided a couple years ago to only shoot a big buck.
Soon, I looked at the sky and said, "Son, if we're going to get across that river before dark, we have to leave now." With a last longing look at the high country, we turned and started back down to the river. This trip took almost an hour, even going downhill, as it was worse going down than going up. At places we had to hold onto shrubs and rocks in order to get to the next handhold. At last, though there we were, at the bank of the river.
I fumbled around and pulled on my waders, frozen now-then my wading shoes. How I got those frozen lumps on my feet and laces tied, loose as they were, I'll never know. My boy tried to cram his feet into his wading shoes then said, "Ah to hell with this Dad, I'll just wear my hunting boots. It will only be for a couple of minutes and they are waterproof."
His lack of patience probably saved my life.
I stood there on the bank looking uneasily at the far side and the dark, sinister river flowing by my feet. I have always had what some call the second sight, or the ability to see the future, as did my Mother before me. But, as in her case, nothing good ever came of it.
My son stepped into the water and stopped looking over his shoulder at me. "Come on Dad, its getting late."
I shook my head a little and said, "I can't make it son."
My boy looked at me for a minute. He had never heard me talk this way.
I had always been strong, and quick. But, pain had taken a ruthless hold on my body and the last few hours it had only grown worse. He knew of my physical injuries, but I usually hid them well and when they got the upper hand on me, I always crawled into bed and rode out the storm.
This time the storm was running swiftly in front of me.

"Dad, we can't stay here all night, we'll freeze."
I thought fleetingly about sending him across alone and taking the truck home and getting the canoe and some help. But, I couldn't be sure that it wasn't he who was in danger. And, at night, it would be at least two hours before he could round up help, get the canoe loaded and get back.
Steeling myself for what was to come, I stepped into the black river.
Dusk was hanging like a shroud around our shoulders and the water was cold and strong around my knees. My boy walked back to me, on the upriver side, and stood along side me as we turned towards the far bank.
Only the snow gleaming in the fading light marked its existence. Dread settled on my back as I walked carefully and slowly into the strong current. I felt its greedy embrace immediately.
My son was talking about something; I remember it not, watching me carefully. My sticks were searching the bottom, tapping, looking for a safe passage, much like a blind man with his white cane seeking a safe way in his own dark world.
I swept the sticks blindly in front of me, keeping my feet close to the bottom. Because, as any one knows who fishes these or any other waters, the current is always less swift nearer the bottom. And, I didn't want to chance lifting my feet too high and have them swept out from under me.
But, my sticks hit an unseen rock and they stuck for just a second pushing me so I was facing directly downstream. Immediately my feet were swept up from under me and I went completely under the bitter waters. I dimly heard my son scream," Dad."
I was being swept down stream. I knew I must do something, but I was tired and hurting and my reflexes were slow.
I felt my Remington 700 Magnum sliding off my shoulder.
Something, some stubborn resolve, made me crook my arm to stop its slow slide. As I did that, my new Danner hunting boots took that opportunity to swim downstream never to be seen again.
There was a large boulder to my right and I was subconsciously aiming my body towards it. As I neared it, I saw I was going to pass too far away from it for it to be of any use. I knew there was a deep hole downstream from it, about seven feet deep. If I went into that, no one was going to save me.
Just as I came parallel to the rock and reached my hand out to it, I was jerked up and out of the water and stood on my feet. My son had thrown his self down stream to his Dad, the hell with his own safety, and grabbed the back of my waders, around my neck.
I stood shivering in that **** river, ice already forming on my face and hands.
Water had made its insidious way down and into my waders also- I had a thin sheet of ice there too.
I was cold.
My boy said, real fear in his voice, "Dad, we have to get the hell out of here." "Hold onto my arm." And, arm in arm we turned back upstream and carefully made our way at an angle up and across.
But, the fool killer wasn't done with us yet.
I had known better. I had even been warned by that little voice that lives inside of me.
But, here we were.
We had only about ten more feet until we reached a depth that either of us could manage easily. Before we reached that point, we both hit a large submerged rock and down we both went.
This time I yelled, "Son," real panic in my voice now.
He recovered almost at once, but I was gone again.
God, or fate, or perhaps my Guardian Angel was there that black, bitter night, because this time the current swept me right into the boulder. My hands grasped its frozen surface and immediately froze right to the sides of it.
The river gave up then.
My boy was down to me in seconds and grabbed my arms and helped me disengage from the rock.
This time he held me in a grasp no river could break.
In just a few minutes we were standing on the far bank.
My son looked uneasily at the two hundred yards or so of rock strewn river bank we had to traverse to reach the steep bank that led to the truck. We both knew that we weren't going to make that trip, at least together.
My glasses were frozen over, had been for some time. I was shaking so bad I could hardly speak. I rubbed two small holes in the ice on my glasses and finally got a look at my boy.
I could see he was scared.
I must look pretty bad I thought to myself.
He looked up at the steep, snow covered bank in front of us and bracing his shoulders, turned to me and said, "Dad, you wait here and give me your rifle. I'm going to take everything up that bank to the truck and I'll be back for you in a couple minutes."
I just nodded wearily to him and he took my rifle and ran for the bank looming in front of him. It only took him three of four minutes to scrabble his way up, grabbing branches, roots, slipping back then frantically surging forward.
Then, he was gone.
By then, so was the last of the daylight.
I stood looking around at my surroundings, with little interest.
By now hypothermia had taken up residence in my body and I just felt a little idle curiosity at my dark surroundings.
Suddenly I remembered that the keys for the truck were in my pants and for some reason that enraged me. There was my son running for all he was worth to help his Dad and the **** keys were still in my pocket. I turned determinedly towards the steep bank and bowing my shoulders started up it.
For every two steps up I slid back one.
But, the Irish are a stubborn lot and once they make up their minds, you almost have to kill them to stop them.
I made it halfway up and then I fell, facedown in the snow. I grabbed my sticks and jammed them into the frozen earth in front of me and , when my son found me minutes later, I was bent over in the prayer position, my face inches from the snow.
My boy frantically slid and scrabbled the twenty or so feet down to me and grabbed one end of the shooting sticks. Evidently, I held the other end in a death grip and he was able to help drag me up that steep rugged bank.
I could see the truck waiting patiently way down the road, gleaming slightly in the moonlight. In a few more minutes, my son had me in the front seat of the truck, engine running. He tore the frozen waders off my body and covered me with an old extra coat we kept behind the seat.
That Dodge Dakota had a hell of a heater in it and in fifteen minutes I was looking about me with some interest.
My son looked at me with tears in his eyes and grabbed my and held me, and hell; I was the one who cried, at least a little.
I could remember thinking to myself back there, being swept down that black river. "Leep, if you don't do something to help yourself, and soon, you are gonna' die here and your son is going to have to live with that for the rest of his life." "So Do Something."
I remembered that so clearly now.
I looked over at my son and said, "You know you saved your old Dad's life don't you?"
He smiled a little and answered, "Ah, Dad you're too damned tough to die."
I grinned back at him and said, "You think you can drive us home son?" "Oh, and don't tell your mother, let me do it."
"Ok, Dad, whatever you say."

I did tell my wife, but I toned it down some so as not to frighten her too much. But, I did tell my Pastor about it, all of it, he was after all my friend. I left nothing out.
With tears in his eyes he embraced me and vowed to tell all in the church about the miracle that had happened.
I said, well I'm not going to be there. And I wasn't.
He told the story anyway.
I heard later that the roaring and clapping and cheering were so loud that people outside wondered what the hell was going on in that church. There were a few wet faces scattered about the congregation too.
So, after six years here is the story.
I tell it for what it's worth, but also to honor my Son.

Any Father can say he gave life to his Son: How many Fathers can say that their Son gave life to them?

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