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River rafters survive spill over Kootenai Falls

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| June 11, 2009 12:00 AM

A 20-year-old man was rescued by helicopter Saturday afternoon from an island downstream from Kootenai Falls after the river overturned his and a friend’s raft.

The man suffered a leg injury and was treated at St. John’s Lutheran Hospital in Libby, and his friend incurred no injuries, according to Capt. Roby Bowe of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.

Witnesses said the men, who are reportedly from Flathead Valley, scouted the river and appeared to know what they were doing when they took a raft over the falls, according to Terry Crooks of David Thompson Search and Rescue.

“To my understanding, it was their intent to go down the north side of the falls, in that channel, just a raft and two guys,” sheriff deputy John Graham said. “They didn’t make it.”

The uninjured man washed up onto the north shore and hiked to the Swinging Bridge to get help for his friend who was stranded on the large island just below the falls. 

They opted to take the most dangerous route down the river.

“The first wave ate the boat,” Crooks said. “They were very blessed to be alive.”

David Thompson Search and Rescue was paged to the scene at 3 p.m. after onlookers called 911. The man indicated by hand signals that his leg was hurt, Graham said, so DTSR was not able to ferry him across the river by a line and fixed anchors.

“He couldn’t move, so he couldn’t assist us in the rescue,” Crooks said. “There was no option to shoot a line down there.”

ALERT helicopter landed on the island and transported the man to St. John’s.

Crooks stressed how dangerous a raft is on Kootenai Falls.

“Very experienced whitewater kayakers go in there, but rubber rafts just don’t go in there,” Crooks said. “It’s not a runable rafting situation there. The hydraulics can just suck under a rubber boat.”

DTSR has made at least three river island rescues before, and ALERT helicopter has made at least one rescue to retrieve a fatality, Crooks recalled.

“Just off of the top of my head, I can think of four people who have died from the falls,” Graham said. “They jumped in, not realizing the forces that are involved and were swept away. It’s not a user-friendly (river).”