Floating/Boating: Staying safe on the Yellowstone

Eden Jones
Yellowstone Newspapers

When was the last time you put your life on the line?

There’s a good chance it was the last time you were on the river, according to Montana Whitewater raft guide manager Sam Bolinger.

“Coming up on the Fourth of July weekend, you always see all these private boaters, and their life jackets are just sitting in the bottom of their boats, or tied to their coolers, or something,” Bolinger said. “That is just about the dumbest thing I see on the Yellowstone River.”

With summer arriving this week many area residents are anxious to float the Yellowstone River, but experienced guides and state officials remind recreationalists to wear life jackets and take precautions.

Summer 2017 marks Bolinger’s twelfth season as a Yellowstone River adventure guide, but he’s had more experience on rivers than most. He’s run 23 different rivers multiple times across the country, and he said emphatically that “the most stupid thing people can do on the river is not wear a life jacket.”

Bolinger recounted once in the summer of 2007 when he pulled a body out of the river. 

“It was a fisherman who had fallen off the back of his boat and drowned. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket,” he said. 

Such morbid instances have prompted Bolinger to place utmost importance on personal flotation devices.

According to Bolinger, the Yellowstone River is currently running at about 17,000 cubic feet per second.

“Imagine a cubic foot being about the size of a basketball,” Bolinger said. “Except the basketball weighs about 56 pounds.” Basically, imagine being swept away by 17,000 56-pound basketballs. It’s a formidable image, but that’s the power of the river, according to Bolinger.

“It’s a friendly river to float and even swim in, but only if you’re wearing that life jacket,” Bolinger said.

Longtime Livingston resident and river enthusiast Chris Horn emphasized the importance of providing life jackets for children. “It’s absolutely paramount,” he said. The rest of his family — wife, Bobbie Ruby, and children — Jade, 12, and Mica, 8, were suited up and ready to go boating down the Yellowstone River during an interview Tuesday. Mica and Jade were both sporting secured life jackets. They’ve been living and boating in the Livingston area since 2002.

Horn recalled a summer several years ago when his family was in town and his stepfather accidentally rowed their boat directly into a downed tree. Mica, laughing, remembered a summer when their dog, Sunny, was swept away by the river.

“She could smell home, and swam across the river to it,” Horn said. The family ended up looking for Sunny for four or five hours before giving up and finally finding her the next day.

Sunny’s story ended without tragic incident, but many are not so lucky. In 2015, the U.S. Coast Guard counted 4,158 recreational boating accidents, involving 626 deaths, 2,613 injuries, and over $42 million in damages to property. The Coast Guard also reported that the average life jacket wear rate for 2015 was just 23.4 percent.

According to a recent news release by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, all boats must have at least one personal flotation device for each person on board, and life jackets must be worn by kids less than 12 years of age, anyone being towed by a boat, and anyone operating or riding personal watercraft.