On Sept. 5 of last year, Laura Churchman and her husband Matthew lost their newborn son William to a chromosomal abnormality that affected both his lungs and heart. They had learned just a few weeks before his birth that his body was not compatible with life outside the womb.
“We had time to prepare to the extent that we were able, but nothing could fully prepare us for the loss,” Laura said. “His little life had a huge impact on ours.”
On Friday, the Churchmans joined more than a dozen other people who have lost loved ones recently for the Blackfoot River Outfitters Memorial Float. They shared stories, donned colorful beads and costumes, and dropped river rocks – with the names of those lost laser-engraved on one side – into the water as an act of remembrance.
The beauty of the event is that all the guides for the two main groups – one fishing, one just a scenic float – donated their time. That means the proceeds will benefit the youth education programs at the Clark Fork Coalition, a local nonprofit that has a mission to preserve water quality and to promote awareness about local aquifers, streams and rivers. This year, the event raised more than $10,000.
“This is a way to remember people that have been lost, in a way that is kind of different,” Churchman said. “It’s fun, but it’s also an opportunity to do some good. Obviously, living in Missoula, everyone is very connected with the river."
The decision to donate the proceeds came because, as Churchman explained, the organizers want to contribute in a meaningful way to the healthy and sustainable legacy of the Clark Fork River.
Diane Lee and Deb Duffy, two Bitterroot Valley residents, were both taking part in the event to honor their late husbands.
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Lee’s husband Craig taught her to fly-fish, and Duffy said her husband Lanny Rosenbaum did the same for her.
“We spent a lot of time fishing in the Bitteroot,” Duffy said. “When I found out about this float, I knew right away I wanted to be a part of it.”
Kelly Williamson, an environmental law student at the University of Montana, was taking part to honor her late father Robert Lynch.
“He was big into the outdoors, and I heard about this float and thought it would be a good way to honor him,” she said. “I have his ashes with me.”
The original Memorial Float was held several years ago to honor Blackfoot River Outfitters co-owner John Herzer’s father Moe, as well as their longtime client and friend Steve Bryant.
Matthew Churchman manages Blackfoot River Outfitters, so when he and his wife celebrated their late son’s life at the home of John Herzer and his wife Terri Raugland, they were inspired to revive the event this year.
Kathi Nickel took part in the original event, as she was married to Steve Bryant. She decided to take part in this year’s event as well, because she’s so close with everyone involved.
For her, it’s more of a celebration than a solemn day of grieving. Not even a light drizzle could dampen her spirits as she and her family shoved off from the boat ramp and into the mist.
“It’s very exciting to see all these people here,” she exclaimed, clutching a stone with her late husband’s name. "And it's a beautiful day."