High flows and debris: Crews suspend search for missing man on Clark Fork

Search and rescue crews temporarily suspended their search for a missing Clark Fork River boater, citing dangerous water conditions. They urged users to stay off the river until the flows subsided, though some area surfers took to the water on Monday regardless. (Missoula Current)

Missoula County Search and Rescue crews on Sunday night ceased their search for a 70-year-old boater who went missing on the Clark Fork River the day before, citing high water and dangerous conditions.

Brenda Bassett, spokesperson for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, said the search will resume once river conditions improve.

“The water is really high right now and there’s a lot of hazards right now,” Bassett said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “It’s just not a safe time to put divers in the water or have search and rescue boats go in.”

Search and rescue deployed at 2 p.m. on Saturday to reports that a drift boat had overturned in high water four river miles north of Turah. One of the boaters made it safely to shore while the other was allegedly trapped under a log jam and didn’t resurface.

Crews suspended their initial search on Saturday due to lightning and again on Sunday after river conditions were deemed unsafe. Bassett said search and rescue has identified areas of interest based upon water activity.

“When that water drops eventually, they’ll go back to those points of interest,” she said. “From the time they started to the time they ended, the river went up 800 cfs.”

The Clark Fork River has been in the flood stage for more than a month, at one point reaching the major stage. Early runoff and spring rains have caused the river to rise and fall, eroding river banks and creating new channels.

Bassett said the boaters deemed the river safe when they began their journey, though they quickly encountered new river braids and log jams. The force of the water, which remains muddy and at high flow, created a deadly situation.

“With the recent flooding, the channels are braiding and there’s some choke areas, and because of the debris, the movement of sediment and trees, nobody can get through in boats,” Bassett said.

“When we have search and rescue folks who go through hours and hours of training and swift-water rescue, when we’re saying it’s not safe for them to be in the water, it’s certainly not safe for people who are inexperienced to be on the river,” she added. “Even if you are experienced, things have moved so much and have been carried so far, it’s not familiar to anyone right now.”

Bassett said the name of the missing boater won’t be released until next of kin are fully notified.