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River accident baffles man's paddling partners

HAMILTON - The three scouts in kayaks had barely set off down Marsh Creek on Sunday morning when they saw the problem.

A log hung across the narrow creek that eventually becomes part of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The run past the log was doable, but it required a good set-up, precision rowing and a last-second duck to make sure the paddlers got underneath the log.

Larry Daum pulled his kayak out of the creek and ran back upstream to tell the remaining 14 members of the paddling party about the obstacle. Jimmy Montieth, a passenger in a raft rowed by Matt Bartley, later told his friends that he and Bartley heard Daum's warning in time to get ready for the run past the log.

"Matt was the most skilled oarsman in our group," said Jim Haynes, a District Court judge from Hamilton who was part of the paddling group. "He was just a superior rafter."

Craig Stirling, in a kayak, and a raft paddled by Paul Haynes, were nearby as Bartley moved his boat into position. Sitting up front, Montieth got down as the raft's bow cleared the log, and the oarlocks came under without hitting the log.

"We will never know why Matt didn't get down," Jim Haynes said Thursday, just hours after he and most of the group were flown off the river. "Maybe he tried to take one more stroke."

As his companions watched, Bartley, a Hamilton contractor, was knocked out of the boat by the log. Although it hardly seemed possible, he never came up.

"We had four sets of eyes on him and they never saw him," Haynes said.

Montieth got to the oars, Haynes said, but was quickly swept into another logjam. Within moments, another raft from another party swept under the big log and collided with Montieth. Those boats got entangled and then Montieth was swimming. Within seconds, yet another party came through the mess with two women in the water.

"Within minutes, we'd gone from having a pleasant breakfast to just a disastrous situation," Haynes said.

Just the night before, the mood had been hopeful and upbeat. A handful of the 17 people - paddling three rafts, three cata-rafts and nine kayaks - on the trip had been doing the 100-plus-mile Middle Fork trip together for years, and although the river was high, the five miles they'd floated on Saturday had left them confident.

"We'd gotten in tune with the river and it felt good," Haynes said.

Now that confidence and good will were shattered.

The boaters gathered themselves and continued to search for their friend, but they also knew they had to move downstream. They covered the dozen or so miles to Dagger Falls, where they made camp. Haynes and two others hiked several miles to an airstrip, where they were able to get a note about the tragedy to a pilot, who made sure Nansu Haynes, Jim's wife, was notified.

"I knew that she could get the word out about what happened," Haynes said.

Back in camp, the boaters sat in a circle and shared, person by person, their recollection of the day.

"It felt like we had just had our heart cut out. We needed to get clear on what happened," Haynes said. "We knew Matt wasn't going to come walking into the camp that night."

They also had to decide what to do next. They decided to lay over on Memorial Day, working through every aspect of their river-safety precaution, Haynes said.

"We'd lost our best boatman, and if the river can do that, it can do anything," Haynes said. "We knew there was no room for complacency."

The group, now 16, put on river again Tuesday, with a plan to take out at the Indian Creek guard station. The moved downstream carefully, even more mindful of the deadly consequences of a mistake.

"We just had to make sure we were doing everything right, being as careful as we could be," Haynes said.

In a way, the trip became an almost mechanical event. The boaters, Haynes said, had been robbed of their spirit, and the journey was no longer about recreation and enjoyment; it was all about getting back home, about telling Jo Gmazel, Matt's wife what had happened to her husband.

"Once our heart was taken out, it was time to come home and give her whatever information we could, and show respect to her," Haynes said. "We didn't have that spirit an attitude you usually have when you're on the river Š We had to pay attention to that."

The boaters reached Indian Creek on Wednesday and most made arrangements to be flown out Thursday morning. Four boaters stayed on to paddle to Cache Bar, the usual takeout on the main fork of the Salmon, but the other 12 turned for home.

Haynes flew direct to Hamilton and headed straight for the Bartley-Gmazel home.

"It was time to go and see Jo," he said.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 370-3330 or at mmoore@missoulian.com

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