(Mis)adventure in the Bob Marshall Wilderness – Accidents Happen but Being Prepared Pays Off

Outside an emergency room entrance, an unfamiliar town stretches ahead. I’m unsteady and wobbly on new crutches and wearing a hospital issued suit of sweatpants, a t-shirt, and a single anti-slip sock. A flimsy plastic bag held all my belongings, a vial of narcotics, and $150 in cash. No wallet, no ID, and no phone. It was not a good way to end a day.

 

Earlier that Day

The Continental Divide Trail ranged ahead toward its terminus in Canada. Closer was the famed Chinese Wall in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Closer yet was our lunch destination in the aptly named Pretty Prairie. In one of the nation’s most scenic areas, I was annoyed.

This was supposed to be day two of a ten-day pack trip through the Bob and we hadn’t yet decamped from the trailhead. I’d been planning this trip for months and wanted to get going. Instead we were going on a day ride to a location I’d visited dozens of times before.

The South Fork of the Sun River sparkled in front of us as it raced to the Gulf of Mexico over 1,000 miles away via the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. We would cross the Sun River twice before we made it to our luncheon spot near the Pretty Prairie patrol cabin overlooking a glade in the forest.

Preparing for a pack trip is an involved process that becomes more so the longer the trip and the greater the number of people coming along. The basics of food, water, and shelter are the same regardless of the wheres and whens of any camping trip. Complications grow with the number of people and animals that accompany you and the number of days you’ll be out.

Our group of four humans and eight mules and horses included me, my wife Celeste, plus Joe and Jenny—dear friends of ours from our local mule club. This was the first “Bob” trip for my three companions, and I wanted it to be special. As it turned out it was certainly memorable for all involved.

This early season trip was one of my few recreational runs into the 1.5 million-acre expanse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Most of my visits to this spectacular country had previously involved hauling tools and materials for backcountry work parties, not the lounging and loafing that I was looking forward to on this adventure.

Below me, barely reaching my mule Ruger’s knees, the river rushed over polished stones of green, gray, red, and black. Each rock told a story of time and geology before forming the shifting and slippery riverbed below Ruger’s shoes. Having passed through this ford many times over the years I knew that if the river was knee-high just 10 feet from the bank it would be belly-deep by midstream and that would mean my short-statured pack animals might have to swim if we continued.

Caution being the better part of valor, I decided that this side of the Sun River would make for a fine, and much drier, lunch spot with acres of ample grazing for the mules. With the pack string in tow we turned into the current, facing upstream to exit the river and make our way on to lunch.

It may be cliché, but time moved slowly as Ruger first shifted his weight, attempting to navigate the smooth unstable stones under the surface. He then dropped onto his side, my leg trapped under his bulk as I sat on the riverbed, water up to my chest. Once the current caught his mass, the big red mule rolled over me, forcing me under water as we spun over one another on our way downstream. Celeste (my much better half) had a ringside seat for the show as Ruger and I tumbled in the swift river. Things had suddenly become sporty.

By the time I lunged and heaved out of the river like a half-drowned rat, Celeste and Joe were already at the bank and helped reunite me with dry land. Other than coughing up quite a bit of the frigid river water I thought all was well, if a bit wet. Then I tried to stand up. Ruger fared much better than I. He clambered ashore wet but otherwise unharmed save for a few bumps and scrapes.

Thank Heaven for trained medical personnel. When not on the trail and spreading the good news of mules across the Pacific Northwest, our friend Jenny (who was riding with us) is a nurse. She immediately went to work assessing what impact my unplanned mule rafting journey had wrought. Celeste and I both keep current with our first aid and CPR certifications but having a professional on hand made things a lot less frightening.

It was quickly determined that riding out was not going to be the best option. It was time to call for help.

 

Reaching Help

Satellite messengers are game changers, and we don’t go off grid without one. Most of the time they’re simply a reliable tool for communicating with family and friends when cell coverage is only a dream. It’s during exciting times that the utility of these handheld devices really comes home. For the past several years I’ve carried the SatPaq device which uses a cell phone as the interface and display. With extremely low latency and high reliability the SatPaq has always handled all my needs. Until the phone broke.

The downfall of keeping the 10 essentials on your person is that if you have a wreck there’s a chance that your emergency tools can be damaged. Despite a strong protective case, the water pouring from the insides of the battered phone told a tale of irreparable damage. The SatPaq wasn’t coming to the rescue today.

The space shuttle had redundant systems and so should you. We always carry backups for critical systems including communications. Celeste carries a Personal Locator Beacon from ACR on our rides. A PLB may not be able to send non-emergency messages, but it also has no subscription fees. We’ve carried the PLB for years without having to utilize it. Now was the time to put our “when the stuff hits the fan” tool to use.

Once the PLB was activated, the only thing left was to wait for the signal to make its way from space to a US Air Force command center in Florida, then on to the Helena, MT sheriff’s office, where aviation support from Two Bear Air was arranged. Once the helicopter rotors were spinning it was a 52-minute flight from Kalispell, MT to my location at the confluence of the south and west forks of the Sun River, within the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. In only three hours word of my wreck had traveled thousands of miles— coast to coast and back— and returned to my riverbank in the form of two paramedics and a pilot traveling in a shiny blue helicopter. A PLB works.

 

3-H: Helicopter, Helena, Hospital

Snacks are always welcome. Especially in an emergency. Not only did the gleaming Bell helicopter arrive with two paramedics ready to work on their patient, but the pilot also brought freshly baked banana bread that he shared with my companions as the paramedics readied me for transport.

The twin engines of a Bell GlobalRanger create over 1,100 horsepower and the pilot whipped each horse as he sped to Helena—80 air miles and many mountain ridges away. My journey from a dusty riverbank to a spotless ER took only 34 minutes. Celeste’s trip out of the Bob was going to take much longer as she single-handedly led a string of 3 mules and a horse back to the trailhead miles away.

ER staff determined that I had neatly relocated part of my lower leg bone, specifically the medial malleolus. For layman, this is the projection on the inner side of your ankle joint. Find it, then imagine the bump moved to a brand-new location. Injuries like these hurt like heck but they’re a long way from the heart.

Once the docs and nurses had my injuries stabilized and ready for an orthopedic surgeon to take over it was time to turn me loose on the town of Helena. This is where the day continued its interesting turns.

 

The Aftermath

My wallet, with ID, credit cards, and cash, jumped ship at some point during my river excursion. Although the ER staff had arranged overnight accommodations, my lack of ID proved troublesome as I tried to check into the hotel. After more trouble than it should have been and multiple phone calls back to the hospital, they reluctantly agreed to accept my hospital wrist band as ID and let me into a room. It would be a long night waiting for transportation the following morning to get me home and into a surgery theatre over eight hours away.

And that, my friends, is the story of my 2021 pack trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. My wife and I go through a post trip debrief after every ride to see where things could have been better and how we can improve our future trips. There’s been a lot of discussion regarding this adventure.

I don’t know what we could have done differently. We didn’t take untoward risks. Indeed, the accident happened as I was avoiding a potentially dangerous situation. We were prepared and equipped for emergencies and our system redundancy plans worked well. Sometimes accidents happen and I feel that this was one of those times. Celeste and I are both looking forward to revisiting the Bob together next year and finishing this 100-mile loop.

 

See this article in the September 2021 online edition:

September 2021

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