A recent event occurred that has reawakened our family to how vulnerable, temporary, perhaps insignificant the lives of the wild birds, animals, vegetation, our beloved families, and our pets (mostly dogs, we are dog people), can be. These amazing rivers that we have chosen to recreate, hunt, fish, float, and work on are not forgiving and take all life with no malice at times.
This 2020 season has been busy, better than average river flows, and I’ve had many return guests who we really looked forward to seeing and take fishing. I could go on about the hatches, the beautiful trout, eagles, moose, otters, snow capped mountain views etc, etc… but I want to tell you how my family and I are currently feeling.
Two days ago around noon my son and wife met up with our two dogs and I at a public access sight. Our plan was to leave our drift boat temporarily on the river so my son Pride could take his friends on a float later that day. His friends were still in school and at 3:30 they were going to float down this beautiful section of the Bitterroot river just north of Stevensville MT for a nice afternoon outing. My boy grabbed his bbq grill, prepared some elk burgers, threw in a couple of fly rods, and was going to also cook, and teach his teenage companions how to fly fish on the river. Pride is a very competent rower of our raft and our drift boat, I don’t worry about him too much. Due to ensuing events his trip didn’t happen.
We were going to leave our drift boat unmanned briefly at this public fishing access sight, I get nervous leaving my boat unattended at a sometime busy spot so in stead of just docking the boat in plain view and accessible I asked my son to wade it over to a gravel bar/island in the middle of the river. The river was low and slow here so my reasoning was at least if my boat was on a gravel bar it might deter someone from messing with it, or who knows what, shoving it off and watching it float, what ever! Our son easily drug the boat to this gravel bar.
In the meantime our two bird dogs Fenris and Silas were having a blast swimming, running up and down the bank, fetching and splashing around on this 65 degree warm, sunny October day. I try to take our dogs to relatively safer places, and this spot seemed safe, but about 80 yards below the gravel bar there are a couple of downed cottonwood trees with shallow water, less than a foot deep leading into them. One stuck about 20 feet into the river at a 90 degree angle but it looked like an easily avoidable obstacle with shallow water on one side and the gravel bar on the other.
While my son anchored and secured his boat both of the dogs swam into the log spot and immediately got stuck and couldn’t get away. Pride ran down there and hopped in and vigorously barely pulled one dog Silas out of the jam, and had his hand on Fenris’s collar but he was also getting pulled under the logs. I ran across the river and heard Pride scream, I can’t hold him and we watched Fenris disappear into this dark abyss. Once I got there I realized how dire this spot was. The current sped up and the force was extreme just as the water went into the logs, it was more than 10 feet deep, and had a mangle of huge limbs, sticks, and other river debris disappearing into this dark mass. If the dogs would have went 10 feet right or 10 feet left they would have missed it entirely, it really isn’t a sweeper, just a bunch of fucking logs on this side of the river with water diverting under.
Fenris never came back up. We frantically pulled branches, sticks, logs from behind the logjam, but it was so deep and fast that he had zero chance of surviving here. My son told me he thought he was going to die and had to let go, the last thing he saw was his orange collar going down this awful spot. We stayed there for an hour or so, and it was just so deep and fast that our dog was stuck down there and we couldn’t even see him.
Fenris was 5 years old and the happiest, most loving dog I have ever owned. He was an excellent pointing dog and loved hunting pheasants. My wife and I had a bird hunting trip planned next week to eastern Montana. He was always with us and slept in our beds, made his rounds and checked on the kids, just a huge personality. He was so bouncy, beautiful, healthy and my heart is breaking as I am writing this. He had time for everyone and loved us all equally. When I had my ACL recently repaired last December Fenris would wait for me at the top of the stairs and walk down with me while I was holding his collar for support, he was never bad, just always happy, playful, and made us laugh.
The next day my daughter Logan, my wife Sandy, and I returned to the log jam with a saw and some rope trying to possibly recover Fenris’s body and our Daughter Logan, who picked and named Fenris, needed some closure and wanted to understand how we had lost her dog. She was at work during the accident. We pulled more logs, cut out some, branches, but it is impossible. This spot is Fenris’s burial site.
The trauma of almost losing your son and knowing that he feels so awful for not being able to save his dog is currently overwhelming
The last twenty years rowing guests down these rivers, we have become skilled at navigating our boats through treacherous spots with ease. Our guests probably usually don’t realize how quickly the day can go from a fun trout outing to a disaster. Safely rowing a boat takes years of experience to master. Some of my clients based on their health, mobility, or weight can’t be taken on certain sections just for everyone’s safety. Some rivers and sections are more dangerous but every river here can be lethal. I have rescued dogs, people, deer/elk calves, just to name a few from drowning. I’ve also had to help recover fisherman who didn’t make it off the river that day.
We are now so thankful that our amazing son Pride is still with us. We will be ok after a while and have fond memories of Fenris and his contagious, loving spirit, but losing our child, that’s horrible to think of, we wouldn’t survive that.
I know this blog is depressing, and is a bit of a knee jerk reaction but I wanted to factually convey what happened to us. Local fisherman, hunters, floaters, dog walkers, outfitters, guides, and many others have experienced similar events on our rivers and waterways. We love what we do and where we live but right now we are trying to realign and put some pieces back together. Our house now is so quiet and almost sterile. It is not the same here without having our Spinone Italiano Fenris, really the best dog ever!
We love you Fenris, until we meet again buddy!