I Almost Drowned on The Flathead River

Michelle Jaqua

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Last year my husband and I decided to take a road trip for our summer vacation. I’d never been to Montana, so we chose to visit Glacier National Park. We are the outdoorsy type, and Montana is pure nature on steroids. Nestled in the Rockies and with ample wildlife, it was a perfect road trip destination.

The other great thing about Montana, is its vast amounts of rivers and lakes. It’s a dream for a water lover like myself.

I absolutely love the water, and would rather be somewhere with water around. I was on the swim team in high school, and waterskied with my family on the Columbia River when I was growing up. I love to scuba dive, swim, and boat. Being near the ocean or on a lake puts me at ease. Overall, I’m happiest when I’m in, on, or otherwise surrounded by water. I even fancy myself as a mermaid in my mind.

Now, water is one of the most powerful things on earth. It can destroy whole cities with a tsunami, or with the help of wind in a hurricane. It has no form, so it can go anywhere; it can slowly work its way into the cracks of the walls in your home and erode the structure. It can be a breeding ground for bacteria, harbor molds, rot wood, and rust steel. It holds itself in the sky and releases as rain, providing needed hydration to plants and wildlife. Water gives life and takes it away. It’s one of the most fascinating things on earth.

I’m not afraid of water, but I have a healthy respect. I’ve personally witnessed its power to take away human life. Some things are unpredictable, but I’ve always felt that I can measure the danger level and keep my wits about me to stay safe when I’m playing in the water.

I’m very lucky never to have had a personal water scare, but again, I’m very cautious while enjoying my time on the water.

Not this time…

The start of our trip. Mike had his fishing pole, thinking he could fish while we floated down the river. Nope.

My husband, Mike, and I set off to Montana during July, the height of a vacationers paradise in that part of the world. We headed towards Hungry Horse, renting a cute tiny home near the Flathead River. We brought our kayaks along to give us the opportunity to spend some time on the water, and enjoy the scenery of Montana.

Our hostess was a strapping Montana woman in her 70’s named Diane. She was a native and spent her time as an herbalist, making healing salves and oils, and dabbled in homemade wines. She welcomed us with a healthy greeting, her two little dogs playing with our 11-lb. chihuahua. Our dog, Chunk, usually goes with us wherever we can take him.

We talked with her about wanting to kayak the river, and she agreed that it was a great way to spend a morning, a “casual float down the river.” she said. As we talked with her, we watched people drift past us in small blowup floaties, with their dogs and kids. It reminded us of floating down the Clackamas river, and we were excited to spend some time on the water in our kayaks. We decided to make a trip down the river the next day.

Early the next morning, Diane took us upriver about 7–8 miles to put in our kayaks, near a bridge at the middle fork. The morning was fresh, the water looked kind, and there wasn’t another soul in sight. We commented how lucky we were that it was early enough to have the river to ourselves. We started off, Mike in the lead, and me following right behind. My dog, Chunk, sat in the hull between my knees and made himself comfortable.

We floated for about a half-hour, enjoying our calm morning on the water. Then we hit some moderate rapids. I followed my husband’s path and navigated through them with some finesse, although it was a little more action than I cared to experience that morning. Mike and I regrouped and decided to take the next rapids more cautiously, keeping off to the side and away from the more aggressive middle rapids.

Me and Chunk after we hit our first rapids. Credit: Author’s photo

The next rapids were similar, I followed Mike and steered through them as best I could. He was far ahead of me at this point, and I hit more troublesome water. I got nervous. I started to realize that my boat was not cut out for this river. It’s a plastic lake kayak and not a white water rafting kayak. As we came out of those rapids, we were less organized with our plan.

Mike and I shouted towards each other about how we were going to get through this..ahem…adventure. My boat hit a whirpool and spun my it around backwards. I quickly corrected, but my mind was racing. I was in way above my level of expertise, my kayak was not going to make it through this river, and I knew it.

As I corrected my boat to point forward, Mike shouted some instruction towards me about not letting my boat go backwards. I attempted to rationally explain to him that it was not my choice to swing backwards. The current flow pushed me ahead of him, and that’s when I hit the third rapids.

The river narrowed and turned into a Class 3 Category with no opportunity to gently float around it.

As I hit the rapids, a giant wave pulled me underwater for a split second. My kayak popped back up, and my dog jumped on top of the kayak, pacing around in a panic as I attempted to paddle and keep us afloat. I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and threw him between my legs to prevent him from falling in the water. In that instant, we were hit with another wave, then another. My boat started to slowly take on water as we bounced through the end of the rapids, still upright, but beaten and waterlogged.

As I came out of the rapids, I started paddling towards shore, but the current was too swift and was pushing me sideways. I looked down and my boat was filled with water. The more I tried to paddle, the more perpendicular I went with the current. I struggled to stay upright, but the weight of the water inside the hull was more than I could battle.

Then, as if in a bad dream, my kayak slowly log rolled, capsizing me and my dog into the water.

As I fell underwater, I knew this was a bad situation. I lived a ton of thoughts all at once. My brain kicked into survival mode, thinking about how I’d get out of this mess alive; I summed up everything I needed to do once I came to the surface. I also thought about what would happen if I drowned in this damn river in the middle of nowhere; another statistic of someone who was too stupid to not know what they were doing in the water.

Fortunately, I was wearing a life jacket. It was the only thing that saved my life. Under my life jacket I had on a heavy hoodie sweatshirt, and I had on regular pants and shoes. I would have drowned for sure without that life jacket.

My dog was not so fortunate. I didn’t have a life jacket on him, and he was stuck under the capsized boat as we were carried down the swift current. A flicker of a thought raced through my mind that he’d sunk straight to the bottom. Acting on pure instinct, I grabbed my kayak and attempted to push it upright again.

I failed to flip the boat the first time, it was so heavy with the extra water it carried.

The second time, I found a super-human strength within, determined to get my dog out from under the boat, hoping he still had his head above water. I pushed with one big “Heave-HO!” and flipped the boat upright. There was Chunk, wide-eyed and paddling his little heart out. I grabbed him and lifted him into the kayak, which was still waterlogged, but floating on top of the water.

By this time, my husband paddled up to me.

Mike shouted at me to grab a rope. He threw something towards me and I reached for it, but missed. He pulled in the rope and threw it again. This time I grabbed it. I didn’t realize that I was holding onto my oar with that hand. When I instinctively grabbed the rope, I let go of my oar, and it freely floated its way down the river.

Mike started paddling as hard as he could, pulling me behind him. I kicked and swam and muscled my way in the water, desperately working to get to shore. As I clutched onto my boat, I brought my gaze towards the nose of the kayak, which was underwater. Looking at the back end, it was sticking up out of the surface. My boat looked like a submarine torpedoing down into the depths of the ocean. The harder I was pulled by this rope, the more my waterlogged boat dived nose-deep towards the bottom. The kayak was an anchor that was keeping us from moving forward.

We were never going to reach shore like this. I’d only get tired and stop swimming altogether.

So, I let go of the rope.

Mike didn’t notice and he continued to paddle towards shore. I moved myself up towards the nose and lifted it out of the water. I grabbed onto it like you’d grip your arms around a sharks snout, and I made sure my dog wasn’t going to jump to his death, then I started swimming again.

Mike looked back at me. To his surprise, I was several feet away from him.

“Why’d you let go of the rope?!” he said. He wasn’t able to help me anymore, and I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was terrified.

“I…I can’t.” It was the only answer I could give him. I was focused on swimming as hard as possible, dragging that damn boat behind me. The shore was in site.

“You have to hurry,” Mike said, “before we hit the next rapids.” I already knew this, but his urgency made me swim even harder. I was immune to the fact that my legs were starting to weaken and feel heavy. I noticed that I was hyperventilating and worked to steady my breath so I didn’t pass out.

After a million moments I was able to scrape my tip toes along the bottom. I kicked around until my foot caught onto a rock and I was able to stand.

When I gained my footing, I pushed the boat past me and Mike caught it, guiding it towards shore.

I sludged through , dragging myself to the first boulder that jutted out of the water. I collapsed onto the warm basalt, gulping in breaths and letting my body go limp with exhaustion.

I laid there for about fifteen minutes, recovering my legs and catching my breath. I looked around; the morning was still beautiful. I was alive, my dog was alive. My loving husband was sitting next to me. I never thought I’d be so happy to be stunned, soaking wet, and feeling grateful for being alive and well.

“How lucky was that?” We said to each other. Any other conditions, I would have drowned; If I hadn’t had a life jacket on, if the water was at a freezing temperature where I couldn’t have kept swimming, if I’d flipped the boat while in the rapids, rather than after I’d gotten out of the rapids in calmer water. There were so many minute variations that could have happened which would have had a worse outcome.

“Where’s your oar?” Mike asked.

Oh, shit. I looked around and realized I’d let go of it when I was in the water. I wouldn’t be able to navigate the rest of the river without my oar.

“There it is!” Mike pointed. My oar was hung up on some rocks about thirty yards away, waiting for me to retrieve it.

That’s when I realized that divine intervention had taken over to keep me safe.

Yes, I believe in miracles.

We paddled the rest of the way, pulling out our kayaks and walking them around the upcoming rapids. It wasn’t a pleasant float, but we made it back to our temporary tiny home.

The rest of our trip was uneventful, and we had a decent time. However, I relearned some things that I’d ignored about the water: know your path, scout it out ahead of time, make sure you have the right gear, and always, always, have on a life jacket — for yourself and your pets.

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Michelle Jaqua is a freelance writer who lives in the beautiful state of Oregon. She writes about a variety of news and happenings in the Pacific Northwest, along with some PNW history and fun facts. Subscribe to her page and get her posts in your email.

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