Life and Death on the Yellowstone
River Wreaks Havoc with Tourists and Bridge, Takes a Life
By Pat Hill
Every year the Yellowstone River rises with the spring runoff, making an already powerful river downright dangerous. The stretch of river between Carter's Bridge, a few miles upstream from Livingston, to the KPRK bridge at the northeast end of town is considered by many locals to be one of the most dangerous stretches of the river. It's living up to its reputation this spring, having already threatened two lives and collapsed a bridge. And downstream near Billings, it took a life, as it has done many times in the past.
Heavy rains early this spring, before runoff began in earnest, resulted in a double onslaught of high water in southwest Montana this year. The first run of high water on the Yellowstone may have cleared out the main channels enough to help the river near Livingston run at an 83-year historically high rate of 26,300 cubic feet per second on June 25, during the peak of a runoff season with high snowpack levels in the mountains. The river fell short of its record crest level by more than a foot, however, set during the high water season of 1997. The record high rate of water confined within the banks of scoured-out river channels was enough to wreak havoc on some infrastructure and people in Livingston. A canoe accident and a wrecked bridge both served to show the power of the Yellowstone River and the character of the community.
Fifty-six-year-old John Olson, a lifelong resident of Livingston, told the Pioneer he was riding his bicycle near the Ninth Street Island bridge early in the afternoon on Wednesday, June 18, when he noticed two people in a canoe floating down the swollen Yellowstone River. The pair in the canoe were 50-year-old Tony Thomas, of Bloomington, Minnesota and his teenage son Jake. Thomas and his son were on the second day of a float trip he'd made 26 years earlier, from Carbella Bridge near the mouth of Yankee Jim Canyon to the Montana state line.
“When I first saw them they'd been warned away from the bridge channel by a Park County sheriff's duputy, who told them to use the east channel instead,” said Olson. The pair had already portaged the island with their canoe and gear and put into the east channel when Olson decided to keep tabs on them.
“I saw them go flying by me near Sacajawea Park and decided to pedal down to Mayor's Landing to see how they were doing,” Olson said. “By the time I got there they had already capsized.” Olson said he could see the pair coming downstream toward him; young Jake Thomas was separated from the canoe his father still clung to as they both raced downstream.
Putting back into the river after they had portaged, the pair had only cleared “six or seven” rapids before they capsized, according to the Livingston Enterprise. After floating with the capsized craft for a short time, an exhausted Jake Thomas told his father, “I love you,” and pushed off into the river on his own. But he missed the gravel bar he was aiming for and continued downstream.
“The young man had nearly reached the shore near Mayor's Landing…” Olson said, “…I was prepared to go in after him…he was really exhausted and holding his arm out to me for help.” Olson helped the young man ashore and got him out of his life preserver. He said that another Livingston resident, fishing guide Roy Senter, took the young man to his home and got him into a hot shower to raise his body temperature after the misadventure in the 49-degree water. But his father was still unaccounted for.
“As I was helping the boy to the shore, I looked out over the water at the father holding onto the canoe,” Olson told the Pioneer. “He didn't even look over to where his son was being rescued.” Olson said that “someone saw [an empty] canoe go under the [KPRK] bridge,“ and the Enterprise reported that the older Thomas held onto the boat until he was “about 300 yards upstream” from the bridge before deciding to let the craft go, getting tangled up in his float bag rope for a few moments as he kicked free from the canoe.
“I got away from the ropes and pushed off a sandbar toward shore, and somehow made it,” Thomas told the Enterprise. “My legs were so weak I had to crawl out of the river. I couldn't stand up. It was the scariest thing I've ever been in.”
“His better judgement got ahold of him,” Olson said of Thomas' decision to let the canoe go. “Sometimes when tourists leave home they leave their brains there…I knew they knew the river was too high. I was just there at the right time…it's just luck, but I suspect things would have turned out okay anyway.”
Tony and Jake Thomas didn't know each other's fate at the hands of the Yellowstone until they were reunited at the sheriff's office later that afternoon. Though the Enterprise reported that the pair had river experience with their canoe, that experience had been “nothing like the Yellowstone,” according to the elder Thomas.
“From the earliest times we're indoctrinated that you better respect that river,” said Olson. “It does seem to get someone every year.”
The day after father and son dumped their canoe, the 44-year-old, 180-foot-long Ninth Street Island Bridge succumbed to the high-running current of the Yellowstone, and the bridge began to collapse. It was closed to all traffic by Thursday afternoon, June 19, and didn't reopen until the following Friday, after a temporary military bridge, known as a Bailey Bridge (the only one in the state), was erected over top of the sagging structure.
“It's a great feeling to be back in your own home,” Molly Burks, 57, told the Pioneer. She has lived on the island since 2006. “I think the DOT [Dept. of Transportation] did an extraordinary job putting this together.”
When she first heard the bridge was going to be closed, Burks rushed home to rescue her dogs, but by the time she got there the bridge was already shut down. By the next day, 15 island residents and about 30 pets had been evacuated from the island via helicopter, but not everyone left. Burks said neighbors that stayed on the island side of the channel took care of her pets while she was away, and that neighborly attitude seemed to typify the community's response to people affected by the collap-sed bridge.
“I can't say enough for the people that stepped up on both sides of the water,” said Burks. “It wasn't that hard on me until the seventh day or so. That first night some island residents were pretty freaked out, however.” She said many folks had their money or medications stuck on the island, with not many options.
“The whole time I kept thinking about [Hurricane] Katrina,” Burks told us. “Those people were piled on top of each other in that stadium…we all had places to stay.” She said that even the checker at the grocery store offered her a place to stay, and Burks added that the Park County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator, Belinda VanNurden, also offered a stranded island resident a roof over her head that first night.
“The sense of community that came forth was amazing,” she said. “People were offering food, clothing, shelter…the community support was really nice. It was very disorientating at first…we all have our own little routines…but now we can get back to basics.”
Traffic to and from the island is restricted to residents, guests, and law enforcement, and weight restrictions on the Bailey Bridge are also in effect.
There's a lot of snowpack left to melt in the mountains, and the Yellowstone River will continue to run high and fast well into July. The stretch of river between Carter's Bridge and the Interstate is now closed to boaters, and the public information officer handling the Ninth Street Bridge incident, Maebeth Seidlitz, said the ban will be “heavily enforced,” according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Olson agreed that “from Carter's Bridge to the KPRK bridge that stretch of river's pretty wild.”
Chris Dover, 56, of Absaroka Search Dogs, has been involved with search and rescue operations on the Yellowstone for decades. She told the Pioneer that “lots of people underestimate the Yellowstone…no one seems to learn.” She said the “big thing” about the Yellowstone is the current and the snags. In late June she took part in a search and rescue operation looking for a boy who disappear-ed in the Yellowstone near Worden, Montana, a few miles downstream from Billings.
“He got too close to the current and it got him,” Dover surmised. “It gets someone every year.” She said the key to surviving the Yellowstone [or any body of water] is to wear a life preserver—a personal flotation device (PFD).
“When you caution people, they often blow you off,” she said of swimmers without PFDs on strong rivers like the Yellowstone. “Nobody plans to have mishaps, they just happen. But the canoers near Livingston survived because they had PFDs.”