Blodgett Canyon

Blodgett Canyon

by O. Gary Lauer, Debra a. Lauer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781475993905
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/19/2013
Pages: 178
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.41(d)

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Blodgett Canyon


iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 O. Gary Lauer and Debra A. Lauer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4759-9390-5


She couldn't contain herself. Every time Leon caught a fish, Patches went bonkers. The three-pound kokanee salmon Leon was reeling up through the hole in the ice was no exception.

"Hang on, girl. Take it easy," he told the wriggling ball of fur. Leon Banes was having the time of his life with Patches, his one-year-old border collie.

The ice at the Silos on Canyon Ferry Lake measured nine inches thick, and the temperature outside Leon's ice-fishing hut was ten below zero. Inside, a toasty seventy degrees prevailed, thanks to a small wood-burning stove venting the smoke up a galvanized pipe and out through the top.

At forty-nine, Leon was finally living his dream. After landing the salmon and tossing it into the bucket, he gulped down his second beer, turned to Patches, and said, "I gotta pee, girl. How about you?"

Patches pulled her head from the bucket where she was keeping a close eye on the flopping salmon. Leon unzipped the canvas door of the hut, and Patches bolted out onto the frozen, snow-covered lake. "Wait a minute, girl. Forgot the camera. Gotta take pictures of you on your first ice-fishing trip."

With camera in hand, Leon thought of the magazine article he wrote that would be published in next month's Montana Monthly magazine. "Race to the Sky Fever" would be a tribute to the annual sled dog race that begins and ends outside of Helena each February.

Leon had set his hut on the lake about three hundred yards from the shoreline. The weekend crowd had gone. He valued privacy and wanted to be alone on the ice throughout the week. As he headed toward the shoreline to the outhouse with Patches, he saw a fishing hut setting up two hundred yards away. They got the whole damn lake and look where they park—right next to me.

A big man with a red beard was smoking a cigar outside the hut while another person remained inside with their back to the door.

"Catch anything?" said the man.

Patches ran over and greeted him like a long-lost friend.

"Just a couple of kokanee and a few perch. You?"

"We're working on it. We'll catch a big one soon." The man reached down and scratched Patches behind the ears.

"Well, good luck."

"You too," said the man.

"Come. Let's go, girl." Leon didn't want to intrude and had to call Patches several times before she left the man.

On a breathtaking January day, Canyon Ferry Lake was frozen from one end to the other. Lake ice faded into snow-covered mountains that merged into cloudy winter skies, a splendid panorama to explore and photograph. Leon spent the better part of the afternoon capturing one majestic snapshot after another with his digital thirty-five millimeter telephoto zoom lens camera. He knew Becky, his fiancée, would love this.

While Leon was absorbed in taking pictures, time flew by. He and Patches had wandered over a mile from the hut. His fingers were starting to cramp through his gloves, and Patches stopped more now, alternating her paws above the ice, a sure sign her pads were burning. The sun was setting, the temperature was dropping, and storm clouds were looming on the western horizon. This meant snow. They were hungry and cold. He wanted to call Becky but remembered how he had left his cell phone back at the hut.

Heading back across the ice, Leon carried Patches. Holding her tight in his arms with his head buried in her thick, jet-black fur, he shielded his face from the piercing wind. Her coat smelled sweet and musky, and he breathed it in as he talked to her along the way. "Am I gonna have to buy you some boots? I thought you were tough, like a sled dog."

Her ears perked up and down, and she wagged her tail and leaned her head against his in response to his voice.

"No," he teased, "you're just an old, wimpy sheepdog." The wind picked up, and he whispered in her left ear, "I'm so glad you're with me now."

When they reached the hut, Patches curled up on his sleeping bag while Leon turned on the lantern and started a fire in the stove. He found his cell phone and was about ready to dial Becky when it rang and startled him. Instead of him calling her, she was calling him.

"How's it going? I tried calling but no answer."

"I forgot to take the damn thing with me. Sorry. We just got back. I got some awesome pictures."

"How's Patches?"

"She's having a ball."

"You're not spoiling her now are you?"

They laughed because they both knew the truth. He was spoiling her rotten and enjoying every minute.

"How are you holding up, honey?" He knew she had been working overtime.

"Spent all day in a meeting with the governor and the Japanese trade delegation. Mitchell is leaving for Thailand tomorrow, so we had to finish everything up today. You guys staying warm?"

"The stove is perfect."

"A front's moving through; the temperature's going to drop. That means snow. Could get wild out there tonight, so be careful. Call me if you need me. I love you guys."

After they hung up, Leon wished Becky was with him. He remembered one of their first camping adventures together. They had hiked seven miles up Blodgett Canyon to High Lake, a beautiful place in the Bitterroots, where he had shown her a dazzling display of stars. He so loved sharing life with this gorgeous, self-assured brunette.

That evening out on the lake with Patches, Leon heated up a can of beef stew and fed Patches her favorite meal, a can of liver dog food. She wolfed it down, and he ended up sharing some of his stew with her. Afterward, he turned on the fish finder, loaded up his hooks with maggots, and cracked open a beer. Fishing had resumed for the night.

The wind picking up outside and the sleet pelting the hut pulled his eyes from the fish finder. Glancing back, a large object was registering. He watched the blip on the screen for a few more minutes until it moved off. Either that was the biggest fish in the lake—or my fish finder is on the fritz.

While adjusting the electronic device, the tip of his fishing pole bent forward in a steady, slow manner, a sure sign he had hooked something. Just before the pole slipped through the hole in the ice, he grabbed it. This sudden movement alerted Patches to take her usual stance next to the hole. The fun had begun again.

"Damn. What the hell did I snag? This is no ordinary fish, Patch."

Leon struggled for more than ten minutes, reeling it to the surface while Patches remained vigilant. When he yanked it through the hole, he was surprised to see a gigantic brown trout flopping on the small floor of the hut. As he tried to unhook it, Patches growled, whined, and snapped her jaws at the huge fish. Every time it moved, she tried to stop it with her paws.

"What's wrong, girl? Never seen a fish this big before, eh? Let's see how much it weighs." He grabbed the scale from his tackle box, hooked it up to the big brown's lower jaw, and hoisted the fish into the air with his right arm. It measured off the scale. "It's a new Canyon Ferry Lake record." Patches barked.

After he put his prized catch outside to freeze, Leon called it a day. He crawled into his warm sleeping bag, reached over, and turned off the lantern. Patches curled up next to him. In the midst of a winter storm, they nodded off to sleep listening to the wood crackling and hissing in the stove. A perfect day had ended.

At seven forty-five the next morning, Patches woke him up. He unzipped the door, and she ran out into the faint light of dawn. After stoking the fire, he stepped outside, zipped up his parka, and checked the outside temperature from a small thermometer attached to the hut. It was twenty-five below, and a brisk wind made it feel even colder.

Patches came alive in the half foot of new snow blanketing the lake. Joy filled Leon's heart as he watched her play. She stuck her nose in it, sniffed it, scooped it, and ate it. When the ice creaked and cracked below, she jumped high into the air and pounced on it, like a fox or coyote might do hearing a rodent scurry about under a snow bank.

Scanning the frozen landscape, Leon felt exhilarated by the dawn of a new day and the promise it held for experiencing life to the fullest. He noticed the other hut was gone. Man, I must've passed out last night. I didn't even hear those guys take off. Alone on the lake again, just how he preferred it, he started walking toward the outhouse.

Leon heard several loud cracks, and the ice ripped open all around him. He saw the hut slide into the water as he plunged ten feet under the bitter cold water. His eyes burned as he strained to see an opening. He surfaced, gasping for air, and looked around for Patches. She was trying to get a foothold on the jagged pieces of ice. Leon became entangled in the sunken fishing hut, fighting his way to her. A vicious cramp stabbed through his right leg and down into his foot, causing his toes to curl. He wanted to reach down to pull them straight to make the pain go away, but every time he kicked, the pain increased.

"Hang on, girl. I'm coming." He couldn't imagine losing her. Icy water weighed down his clothing and boots. His skin burned as the cold air froze his wet, bearded face. He clawed his way toward Patches. When he reached her, he heaved her up onto solid ice where she collapsed. Blood flowed from a gash in her side. He tried lifting himself up to help her, but his weight kept crumbling the edge away. The more he tried, the more the edge crumbled, and the more exhausted he became. Desperate, he shouted for help but knew he was alone. Leon Banes tried one last time to save himself but knew hypothermia had sealed his fate. With his last ounce of energy, he reached up and touched her nose. She didn't respond. I love you, girl. He looked up into the dawn. Thank God Becky isn't here. I hope she forgives me. He passed out and vanished below the ice.


A bitter cold and cloudy morning greeted Becky Wilkes while she sipped hot coffee at the kitchen table. Helena had received four inches of new snow from the previous night's storm. She was taking the morning off from work to surprise Leon by joining in on the fun. She knew he'd be excited when she presented him with a thermos of strong, hot black coffee and his favorite meal, her delicious homemade Butte pasty, a pie-dough-wrapped blend of meat, onions, and potatoes. She couldn't wait to warm it on his stove and see the delight in his eyes as he smelled the robust fragrance.

* * *

Highway 12 to the Silos at Canyon Ferry Lake was slippery in spots. Becky was glad Leon had convinced her to buy a new four-wheel-drive SUV. Studded tires were reassuring too. The drive took more than an hour. Along the way, she phoned Leon twice to see how he and Patches had coped with the storm. What good is having a cell phone if you don't take it with you?

At the Silos, she turned left onto a snow-packed dirt road. On the weekend, local ice anglers from Townsend, Helena, and Three Forks flocked here to ice fish. Today was a weekday, and the place was deserted. Driving parallel to the shoreline, she found Leon's truck and parked next to it. She scanned the surface of the frozen lake. Blowing and drifting snow and heavy overcast skies made for poor visibility.

She retrieved binoculars from her glove compartment, searched the frozen lakebed, and spotted a black dot in the distance. When she adjusted the lenses, the dot came into focus. Patches. She's not moving. Where's Leon? I don't see Leon. Or the hut? I don't see the hut. Fear gripped her when she saw large, irregular jagged pieces of ice protruding. He's broken through.

She bolted from her vehicle and ran as fast as she could onto the ice. Her breath turned to ice in her nose. Gusts of wind swirled the snow around her, and she pulled her coat collar over her ears and nose. When she got to Patches, five inches of water had refrozen, reclaiming the fifty-foot-diameter hole where pulverized ice chunks of various sizes and angles protruded up through the new ice. The stovepipe to Leon's hut had pushed up into the middle of the debris field, and some of the green hut was visible from the surface. Patches lay in a pool of frozen blood close to the edge, her fur frozen to the lakebed. Becky knelt down and placed her hand on Patches's face. She's dead.

Standing up, she searched the snow for footprints and saw only hers. She knew Leon wouldn't leave Patches. That's when reality hit her. As much as she didn't want to admit it, an accident had claimed their lives. The proximity of Patches to the edge suggested Leon had tried to save her but hadn't been able to save himself. He was somewhere beneath her, either at the bottom of the lake or entangled in the fabric of the hut. She stared at the hut and remembered how they had planned to photograph the world, share life's ups and downs, and grow old together. In an instant, her dream was over.

"How could this be happening?" she cried out as the subzero wind bombarded her face, freezing the tears on her cheeks.

She heard a faint moan and turned around. One of Patches's paws twitched.

"She's alive." Becky rushed to the dog's side and pried her from the ice. "Hang on, Patches. Hang on. I'm here."

Patches moaned again as Becky took her in her arms and ran back to the SUV, determined to save the life of the dog she and Leon Banes loved so much.

Becky carried a sleeping bag in her vehicle as a safety measure during winter, a common practice among Montanans. She wrapped Patches in it and laid her on the floor next to the heating vent. Speeding down the snow-packed dirt road, she set the temperature on high and called 911.

"911, I need your name and location please."

"Becky Wilkes. I'm on Highway 12, heading north for East Helena. My fiancé, Leon Banes, has fallen through the ice."

"Please give me the location of the accident."

"The Silos, Canyon Ferry Lake, about three-hundred yards out on the ice from the outhouses. You can't miss it."

"A life flight helicopter with a diver will be dispatched. Please go back to the accident scene so you can be of assistance when emergency services arrive within a half hour."

"I can't. I've got an injured dog. Please call Dr. James in East Helena. I'll be there within an hour."

"Roger that."

Becky drove as fast as she could on the two-lane highway. God, please keep us safe. Let Dr. James be there for Patches. She can't hang on much longer. Fifteen minutes out, she saw the life flight helicopter heading to the accident scene.

Ten miles left, Becky's cell phone rang. It was Jim Newman, Helena's police chief. She had worked with him on several fundraising events sponsored by the governor's office. He was monitoring the tragedy underway and took a chance on reaching her with an update that had just come in.

"I'm so sorry, Becky," he said. "Here's what I know. Life flight's reporting the recovery of Leon's fishing hut and a few personal items, but the diver didn't find his body. This may take some time. Divers can spend about forty minutes underwater. In this extreme cold weather, their gauges freeze up before they can get into the water."

Her voice quivered. "Will they ever find him?"

"The Missouri River feeds into Canyon Ferry Lake. The water's deep and cold, and the current stirs up a lot of silt. A lot of dead underbrush and trees are down there from before they damned up the lake. Recovery will be difficult."

Diverting her eyes from the road to the dreary sky above, she couldn't believe how her day had begun wanting to be with Leon and ending with the pain and grief of losing him. Entering the outskirts of East Helena, she kept telling herself to wake up from this nightmare.


Becky sped into the gravel parking lot, slammed on the brakes, and slid to a stop inches from the east wall of the clinic. Marcella, Dr. James's veterinary technician opened the door. Becky rushed through with a blood-covered Patches in her arms.

"She hasn't moved since I carried her off the ice."

Dr. James grabbed the dog from her arms and ran to the treatment room. He checked vital signs with his stethoscope above the chest wounds where blood was seeping. Her heartbeat was faint, breathing was shallow and irregular. Marcella inserted a rectal thermometer to check Patches's core temperature, which registered fifty-two degrees Fahrenheit. They started an intravenous drip for easy drug administration and peritoneal dialysis to bring her core temperature up. Dr. James sealed off the bleeders and dealt with the frostbite on her nose, paws, and ears.

Excerpted from Blodgett Canyon by O. GARY LAUER, DEBRA A. LAUER. Copyright © 2013 O. Gary Lauer and Debra A. Lauer. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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