Adventure on the Kootenai

By Jerry D. Haight


The Kootenai River is the third largest tributary to the mighty Columbia River but before becoming so, it has its own life and vitality as it travels more than a thousand miles. The river originates in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park in Canada and from there  flows 485 miles into northwest Montana, through the towns of Libby, Troy, on to Bonners Ferry in northern Idaho, then back into Canada and Kootenay Lake becoming part of the Columbia. Sixteen miles north of Libby, the Kootenay river is held back by Libby Dam and power generating station forming a 90-mile long reservoir. The electrical needs dictate the rate of flow below the dam and beyond and no notice is ever given when it is adjusted up or down. Part of the Kootenai is made up from another river.


The Yaak River originates near Yahk Mountain in southeast British Columbia. It  flows south, crossing into Montana where it receives the East and the West Fork Rivers before curving broadly west, then south to merge with the Kootenai near Troy. The larger river is quite deep and rarely fished by wading, so small boats such as a Crawdad becomes necessary.   


A Coleman Crawdad is a small twelve foot long, four foot wide two person boat weighing 131 pounds. The craft comes equipped with two swivel pedestal seats designed for fishing. Propelling it is done with a small 3 HP outboard gasoline engine and two oars for use in an emergency. The thing is reportedly quite safe with double-hull construction, extra flotation, reinforced transom and bow members. Its two occupants, the author and his son Bill, that day weighed close to the 420 pound capacity, a formidable cargo for the small Tanaka.


 Rated at 3 HP, the Tanaka is a lightweight (24 pounds) two cycle engine that mounts on the transom of a small boat or dinghy. The best use of the Tanaka is fishing as it is capable of slow speeds, ideal for trolling. The unit fits perfectly with the Crawdad.


At the confluence of the Yaak and Kootenai is a small beach and campground, a favorite spot for the Haight family to recreate, playing among the tall cedars, enjoying the cool shade under the crystal clear Montana sky, playing at the edge of the Yaak and, yep, fishing.  


As the Kootenai passes the campground on the way to Bonners Ferry Idaho, it is shallow but swift. Then as the Yaak water forces its way into the Kootenai, it's current is slower as it merges with the Kootenai. On the far side of the larger river, some sixty yards away, as the saying goes; "the fishing is always better at the other side". There a large cliff juts out into the river catching the current forming an eddy that flows backwards toward upriver. The best strategy is to float with the eddy upstream close to the bank then move into the river and back again toward the cliffs. Fishing was excellent that day with our prey practically jumping into the boat.


After a couple of hours of shear fishing pleasure the two decided it was time to return to the other side and so with the Tanaka at full throttle, the author at the helm, the small craft started across. We had no idea then the terror that was about to descend on us. In our mind, the reverse crossing would be as uneventful as the initial trip but  we were so wrong.


Initially I pointed the bow across river with a slight upstream angle in order to  compensating for the current, just as before. But this time it began carrying the craft and its occupants downstream anyway.  In response, I turned steeper into the current until the little craft was pointing directly upriver.  This helped, but only a little and we were unable to make any headway toward the campground on the other side. Still the current was moving us down river toward the Yaak en route to Bonners Ferry 32 miles away.


Just after the confluence with the Yaak river, the Kootenai enters a deep canyon with  large boulders, narrow fast moving rapids, high cliffs on either side and a large fall. The river in that stretch is very rough and rated class IV and V (Intermediate to Advanced) kayaking. But we were not kayaking and not equipped for that kind of ride in our small Crawdad.


"Quickly",  I hollered to Bill; "Get the oars out an start using them". Bill didn't realize at the time what was happening and his reaction time cost us precious ground against the river. And, yes, we were battling against the mighty Kootenai, a contest we could not hope to win, or could we?  As Bill finally started rowing, we began to hold station against the current, but with every turn of the tiller, the current would push us further downstream toward the point of no return. Since it was about 5:30 in the afternoon and the sun was dipping toward the mountainous horizon, the thought of spending the night in the canyon loomed ominous. We needed an answer . . . and fast.


The situation was desperate and any wrong decision could easily lead to disaster for the two occupants of the tiny boat stacked against one of the mightiest forces on earth. If a solution was not forthcoming, the speed of the current would take us to Bonners Ferry (the only place exiting the river would be possible) somewhere around 11 or 12:00 p.m.,  but getting there in the impending darkness, navigating around massive boulders and  through the narrows; all obscured by darkness . . . and then the falls. . .


The energy of the mighty Kootenai could be felt through the hull as a persistent quiet hum under the boat. The deep crystal clear water, big sky, spectacular scenery was a sharp contrast to the danger of the moments and were mesmerizing and I could sense Bill wearing out as he manned the oars.


Then I noticed something quite unusual.  there was a thin trail of white flesh in the water. It was now obvious what had happened, they had opened the gates at the dam increasing the flow of the river. The flesh was remnants of the fish chewed up by the turbines and I noticed something queer. The trail of chewed fish left the main current about 10 yards away from our station. As I studied the trail, it appeared it was caught up in another current that moved toward the confluence of the Yaak and Kootenai where it seemed to slow down in the Yaak confluence.


Just maybe a solution was at hand. If so, it would require some fancy navigation. At just the right time, I would have to turn the boat around (it was still headed into the current) let the current propel the craft downstream while steering toward the trail. For that to work, Bill would stop rowing, I would move the tiller to the left and the flow of the Kootenai would now be our ally and would move  us downstream toward the point of no return but the tiny engine would be able to move us toward the thin trail of fish parts where we would be guided into the slower stream of the Yaak. Once there, our Tanaka could manage the current and land us on the west side of it where we could just  get out of the boat and walk across the river to the campground. Voila! We were more than conquers as we immerged from the Yaak towing our Crawdad with a small rope.