Upper Yellowstone River Search

A July to Remember

written by Chris Dover

A relatively dry winter, followed by late season heavy rains set the stage for a very active search and rescue month on the Yellowstone River. The river was late in rising, and following two years of major flooding left the river high, and full of snags and obstructions. People accustomed to a somewhat predictable float easily got into trouble. Our first rescue of the season involved a person floating on an inner tube. Swept off her tube, she ended up on a small island created by a tree caught in midstream.

The rescue, though successful, was indicative of more to follow. The very next week, a woman drowned when the raft she was in hit a bridge, dumping all four occupants into the river. Three made it to shore, but she was swept downstream. She was found less than a quarter mile from the accident, within an hour, but emergency workers were unable to save her, even though they tried. The same afternoon, a family of three floating in a canoe and a kayak ran into trouble in the same spot as the tuber from the week before. The woman and her son broached their canoe on a tree in the river. They made it up onto the tree and the husband was able to return in the kayak and wait for help. The rescue was again successful, and although they lost a canoe, and most of their gear, the family was happy all turned out well.

The very next day, late in the afternoon, a group set out to float through Yankee Jim Canyon. Well know for exciting white water, and fast current, this stretch of river is no place for complacency. Setting out in a heavy fiberglass drift boat, loaded with four adults and a 12 year old child, the pilot of the boat was warned by locals of the danger. The boat took on water in the heavy rapids and current, and the pilot struggled to control the boat through the canyon. The boat sank out from under the party. Three of the adults and the child made it to shore. The pilot of the boat, likely fatigued from rowing, was last seen swimming midstream, when he disappeared and was not seen again. Rescue efforts began immediately. The swiftwater team was activated and responded with a small zodiac with jet motor.

Arriving a little more than an hour after the accident, they put in down stream from the accident and began to search up stream. A wilderness certified search dog, with some water experience along with two dog handlers were on board. The team searched until dark, but were only able to find four life jackets, that floated down from the scene of the accident. Searching eddies on the way back, the dog showed mild interest in a large pool of boiling water, with eddies on both sides. The search was called off at dark, to resume the following day at dawn.

Search Dogs arrived at sun up, and were worked from below the PLS to the scene of the accident. Mild interest was shown in a few areas, but working from the bank made pin pointing difficult. As the day progressed, and temperatures rose the teams worked on covering several miles of river bank, eddies and pools below in slower water, and islands and sand bars. Several dogs gave strong alerts in the area below the large pool, from both sides of the river. Probe teams worked as much of the area as they could safely reach, and divers were put into high probability areas near the PLS. Kayak teams floated the canyon, probing where they could, and looking for any sign of the lost boater. At 1900 the temperature at river’s edge was still 100 degrees, and teams were suffering from the long hours. The search continued until dark and would resume the next day.

The search started early, with the dog teams getting access to the river before the kayak teams floated through. Again they alerted from both sides of the river below the big boiling pool. The river was searched by helicopter, as well as floaters working down stream many miles. Still no sign of the boater. The following days the search was scaled back to helicopter fly overs, and floaters working down stream. Most sections of the river were floated daily by searchers, hoping the body would surface downstream. On the sixth day, a full scale effort was put together, with the hopes that something would turn up before calling the search off. Two new dog teams arrived, joining two that had remained for most of the search. Again, the dogs alerted in the area below the big pool, from both sides of the river. One team was put in the jet boat and worked up stream.

This dog alerted above the pool near some rocks on the west side of the river. Due to the interest shown in this area by the dogs it was decided to probe the pool and the banks as far out as people could get. Rescuers in swiftwater safety vest, on belay worked out to rocks and probed as deep as they could. The current was very complex in this pool, boiling down the middle, but then eddying out to both sides of the river. The eddy currents were so strong, it was difficult to keep from being swept back up stream. A team also probed from a raft, but the pool was deep and difficult to reach bottom. Each probe team required the swimmer, a belay person for that swimmer, and one or two safety people downstream with throw bags. It was difficult to feel the bottom due to the strong current working against the probe poles. About 15 minutes after the probe teams had finished their task, the body appeared, floating down from around a rock outcrop in midstream. Did the probers loosen the body, and allow the current to wash it free, or was it just the time for the body to surface? No one actually saw the body surface, so that will never be known. What was known, was, the dogs had indicated great interest in the large pool, which put technical searchers there to probe. Those searchers were still on scene when the body surfaced and were able to retrieve it.

This search last 6 days, utilized at least 150 searchers, 6 dog teams (5 from Absaroka Search Dogs, and 1 from Western Montana Search Dogs), Yellowstone National Park personnel, including their technical rescue team, dive team, and their helicopter, a private helicopter, Park County Search and Rescue, National Forest Service firecrews, Park County Rural Fire Department, and many volunteer kayakers, floaters, and bank searchers. Local merchants and service organizations assisted with food and drinks. A super outpouring of community support. July was a busy rescue month, my swiftwater gear always at the ready. We had successful missions, but all to sadly two people lost their lives on the Yellowstone. What makes it sadder though; could these two have lived, had they been wearing their life jackets? That question will go unanswered.