RIVER CONDITIONS IN THE SPRING
Memorial Day weekend is often viewed as the beginning of camping season in Montana. More often than not, it snows the very same weekend. In some ways, the end-of-May holiday embodies many of the factors that make rivers in the area more dangerous in the spring. Water is moving faster with runoff from melting snow and added precipitation in terms of rain or snowfall accumulating.
“When the water’s really high like that it usually is pretty muddy,” Sara Smith, boating education coordinator with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP), said. Mud adds an opaqueness to the water, making it difficult to see debris or hazards below the surface.
Smith advised water recreators to check with local FWP wardens and river guides before planning a trip. “Especially this time with high water, they’ve probably been out there more than anyone else,” she said of the specialists.
Shane Brozovich, FWP game warden in Ennis, mentioned a debris buildup that occurs almost every year near the Smiling Moose Bridge, a private bridge located near the Smiling Moose Ranch outside of Ennis. He sees ‘stringers’ in that area, logs that get washed into the river, likely from the West Fork of the Madison.
“Seems like every year we get a couple and people don’t see them until the last minute and it causes them problems,” Brozovich said, some cases involving capsized boats.
He brought up the Madison Powerhouse project below Ennis Lake. In order to upgrade turbines and generators, water is redirected through the bypass to reach the Madison Dam and Powerhouse.
Water is not expected to run through the pipe until this time next year, Brozovich explained. As a result, water levels in the canyon will be higher this spring below the dam and he cautioned fishermen and floaters to take heed.
River channels change naturally over time, especially if a lot of water is flowing through. These changes are part of the reason why different debris show up and get stuck in the river.
“Right now with the big flows, a couple have moved some trees around,” Elliot Budney, shop manager at Four Rivers Fishing Company in Twin Bridges said, referring specifically to the lower Big Hole area. Four Rivers has not sent many boats down there recently due to high water levels.
“Sometimes if there’s a lot of water and a certain part of the river gets washed out, the river could be going in a different direction than usual,” Smith said.
Safety tips from experts boiled down to using common sense and checking with local guides and FWP wardens before getting on the rivers.
“If there’s high water and you’re not familiar with an area, maybe wait a week or so before you go out unless you’re really experienced,” Smith said. Wearing life vests are always advised, but especially this time of year when the river flows are so high. A reminder that life vests for each adult are required on your watercraft and children 12 and under must be wearing them. “If you have to think twice about something or question the safety of the activity, there’s probably some risk associated with the activity that you don’t need to take,” Budney said.
Currently, the Madison River below Ennis Lake is above the 76-year average discharge measured in cubic feet per second (cfs). On May 20, the river reached 3,500 cfs while the average lay near 1,900 cfs.
Smith recommended carrying a throw bag filled with ropes that can be tossed out to a person gone overboard. Additionally, she recommended river users to seek medical attention if exposed to cold water for an extended period of time.
As of May 12, the Ruby River near Twin Bridges was 53.2 degrees, the Jefferson near Silver Star 42.3 degrees and the Madison below Ennis Lake 52.7 degrees. “If someone does go over and they’re in the water for very long, hypothermia is always something to be aware of,” Smith said.
“Every summer it seems like we get problems with people not having a life jacket on a paddle board,” Brozovich said. Deemed an approved vessel by the Coast Guard, paddle board users age 11 or younger must wear a life vest while on the vessel, and those older must have one strapped to the board.
In terms of wildlife, Budney saw the first couple of rattlesnakes on Burma Road in Twin Bridges a couple of weeks ago. Moose should be calving pretty soon and can get defensive, he said, encouraging people to keep an eye on their dogs.
Perhaps an obvious statement to make but an easy one to forget, if a popular area on any river is completely deserted the day you decide to go, Smith recommended it may be best to wait for another time.