Search and rescue crews recovered the body of a 55-year-old Ontario man from Rock Creek Thursday, one day after the raft he was fishing from capsized near the area's famed microburst.
James Dewhurst, of Pickering, Ontario, is presumed to have drowned. His body was located in the water around 12:15 p.m. Thursday, tangled in a tree about 200 yards downstream from where the raft overturned, according to officials with the Granite County sheriff's office.
Crews from Missoula and Granite counties, as well as several volunteers, began their search for the man when he was reported missing at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday.
Dewhurst was on a guided raft operated by The Complete Fly Fisher, of Wise River. A guide and one other fisherman also were in the raft when it overturned, but they managed to swim to safety, officials said. The guide called 9-1-1 after he could not immediately locate the victim along the creek banks.
In addition to search efforts by Granite County officials and local residents, a Lifeflight helicopter scanned the waterway but those aboard detected no signs of Dewhurst. He was wearing waders but no lifejacket when the boat capsized approximately 27 miles up Rock Creek Road from Interstate 90. The search was called off Wednesday at dusk, but resumed at first light on Thursday.
Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin said the water on Rock Creek is cold, high and full of hazards, and only search and rescue members who were swiftwater-certified were allowed to navigate the creek during the search.
"There are a lot of hazards and the water is up high," McMeekin said.
Mack Long, a regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the twists and turns of Rock Creek are notorious for accumulating woody debris as trees and branches pile up against one another.
"Some of those corners just naturally catch logs," Long said. "This time of year with the water flows up, you might think a section looks good one minute and the next there are logs jammed up in there. It's just an extreme caution scenario right now. There is a lot of timber up Rock Creek that could wash in and cause problems. It's a dangerous time to be out on the river."
The fishing expedition went awry just above the microburst, near mile marker 27, a known hazard to those familiar with Rock Creek.
"The creek braids out and there are several ways you can go," said Deb Peltier, who owns Trout Bums fly shop and coffee bar on Rock Creek Road along with her husband, Joe. "The right channel looks like the safer option, but it's almost completely obstructed. He took the right fork and came up on a log jam."
Joe Peltier and outfitter John Perry aided in the search effort Wednesday night, floating from mile marker 27 down to mile 25, but they could not find the man.
Matt Potter, co-owner of the Kingfisher Fly Shop in Missoula, said the channels near where the boat capsized present an "optical illusion" of sorts, making it appear as though a tree is blocking the proper left channel and steering inexperienced boaters to the right.
"It's a known hazard that's been there for a couple of years," Potter said. "It looks like you don't want to go left but you do. The right channel is passable, but there is no margin for error."
Officials say a recent windstorm knocked cottonwood trees into the surging waterway, while the high water adds to the hazardous conditions. As for notifying boaters about known hazards that have existed for multiple seasons, information is typically spread by word of mouth.
"We don't have any updated maps of known hazards right now," said Paul Matter, Missoula district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. "It's a great idea, but it would require some regular updating because the conditions are constantly changing. It's not necessarily that only an expert can float Rock Creek, but it requires someone familiar with which route to take."
Matter said the guide who capsized the boat was licensed, experienced and has a good reputation in the outfitting and guiding community.
"The fact of the matter is, Rock Creek can be a dangerous area," he said.
Deb Peltier said in the more than two decades she has lived on Rock Creek, she has never heard of a boating fatality occurring. Peltier heard reports that the victim was last seen floating downstream with his head, shoulders and fishing rod above water, and speculated that his waders filled with water.
"As far as we know this is the first floating fatality," Peltier said. "We've been up here for over 20 years. That's not to say that there haven't been accidents, because every year there are. But this is the first time something has ended so tragically. It's just heartbreaking."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at email@example.com.