Lake Delmoe’s Ire

Saturday Jun. 1st, 2024

I am a fifth-generation Montanan who has lived in southwest Montana for nearly 48 years. I first joined Beaverhead Ski Patrol in 2018, earning my OEC (Outdoor Emergency Care) certificate. Since then, my husband and I have relocated to the Whitehall area, where we also volunteer at Jefferson Valley Search and Rescue. Many of the calls we receive are relatively minor (stuck vehicles or a “missing” person who has usually just failed to check in with their loved ones). But other calls do not end well. The following story is my first experience attempting to rescue, which instead turned into a recovery. Writing about the events that night helped me to process the inevitable emotions that follow a traumatic situation. My observations left me with more questions than answers. How do first responders maintain their humanity with repeated exposure to tragedy? What responsibility do we have to the deceased and their families? How will we preserve the integrity of human life even after death? I still ponder these questions today.

The silence of the water was punctuated by the dipping oars as my husband Matt, the raft’s captain, strained against the weight of the vessel and its passengers, which included myself and a sheriff’s deputy. Matt was new to this activity, although many years spent in the gym had prepared his body for the strenuous work ahead of him—or behind him if you consider his position as he rowed. I sat at the bow, the figurehead in front of the raft, straining with a different set of muscles. I squinted hard into the rippling black mirror of water as we searched for Ashley, the girl we hoped to rescue.

The moonlight played havoc with my vision. The natural light from a three-quarter moon created a glare ricocheting off the mountain peaks. What should have been an aid in the darkness now painted a chaotic landscape akin to a carnival hall of mirrors.

First a paddle slinked by, followed by an empty water bottle. The blue kayak slid by last. The upside-down boat foretold the scene an hour earlier. The molded plastic piece, cheap and narrow, was summer clearance sale fare and NOT a craft suitable for an adult woman, let alone two passengers and a dog.

A picture began to form in our minds about what may have occurred, a lake scene repeated throughout the years: playful twenty-somethings warmed by beer, compulsively launching their watercraft for a thrilling endeavor in the velvet night. The lovers’ splash and frolic under the light of a waxing moon. But this time, the giddy man and woman in the flimsy boat become unsteady. Their weight tilts just so. The narrow craft angles enough to one side that recovering their balance becomes impossible. The whole boat overturns. Once underwater, Ashley realizes that escape from the boat is challenging. Finally, she wrests herself free and the boat drifts away. Her cries pierce the silence of the night. Her boyfriend and the dog begin swimming to the shore. Ashley does not. It’s perhaps in that fearful moment that she has a seizure. Unable to swim any longer, she gasps. Water fills the lungs that moments earlier pleaded for help.

Chaos breaks out on the shore as her friends realize that her boat has overturned, and the playful splashes have turned to thrashing. The boyfriend yells out “we are drowning,” which is exactly what is relayed to Search and Rescue once the 911 call is finally made. He and the dog make it to shore, but she does not. The chaos calms but is soon replaced by the weight of dread filling the onlookers’ stomachs—just as the cold, black ink of water filled Ashley’s lungs.

Now, all that was left was the silence of the lake, occasionally interrupted by a radio as we received direction from a helper on shore. “One hundred yards to the south,” the anonymous voice commanded. “More to the right,” I barked to my husband. “Now left, more left.” I struggled to keep the heavy raft in line with directions. The raft looked more like a clumsy behemoth which weaved awkwardly through the water, unlike the fish which sleekly and silently darted below the surface.

It was then that I spotted a sliver of pale. At first, I mistook it for the bottle spotted earlier, but as the craft approached, the parallel slices of white skin contrasted against Ashley’s solid black swimsuit and hair feathered out like a crown, it becomes clear that she has been found—so small bobbing in that great expanse of water. It was only when we began to retrieve her form that the true meaning of “dead weight” was realized.

The deputy and I positioned ourselves the best we could. The deputy grabbed at Ashley’s arm and I hoisted a leg. His gun pressed uncomfortably into my thigh. Odd thoughts filled my  mind about the gun. It may have been the only time I would wrestle in a boat so near a deputy’s firearm. At least I hoped so. I gave up the struggle; my husband took my place, and soon Ashley came to rest inside the boat. We arranged her on a wooden platform. Her lips were a matte purply blue, akin to a fashion trend or emo punk vibe. Cyanosis, or lack of oxygen in the blood, was a very bad sign. Her eyes were closed, for which I was thankful. I fixed my gaze on the peachy square of jewelry hanging from the delicate chain around Ashley’s neck. The sheriff’s deputy began CPR. Ashley had been in the water nearly two hours at that point, but we were hesitant to give up hope. It was always hope which wrested us from the warmth of our beds; hope which now lingered like a wisp of smoke, still visible but fading quickly.

I braced Ashley’s head and performed a jaw tilt should any fluid be expelled. The deputy began compressions: “1, 2, 3… 30” Foam seeped from Ashley’s nose and mouth.

“Perhaps it’s the last of the beer she consumed on shore,” I thought. Other liquids emerged. Up and down, and up and down; the deputy’s arms kept pumping, but Ashley’s mouth remained slack.

Still cradling Ashley’s skull, I brushed back the wet hair from her face. It was a programmed response, as any mother would do as her child vomits. “Come on girl, you can do it. Get it out,” I whispered, but the futility of the deputy’s actions settled in. There was no miraculous expulsion of lake water from Ashley’s throat. No Hallmark sputter right before cutting to commercial. No. Ashley had already slipped into the night.

My husband rowing, we had only 100 yards to go. The red and blue lights pulsed off the water, but instead of a rave, a plethora of emergency agencies stood gathered. Their members’ gazes riveted toward the boat as the four passengers finally emerged from the cloak of night.

“What compelled you to think that CPR was necessary,” an EMS woman asked the deputy. Silence and a wide-eyed stare followed as we three rescuers thought to ourselves quietly, “But isn’t that why we’re here...?” A strange feeling of shame passed over us.

“Is this something we are to feel badly for?” I wondered. “Perhaps, she just needed to assess prior signs-of-life,” I reasoned. I shrugged. The EMS woman turned to Ashley and pulled down her swimsuit, exposing her breasts. Someone had finally retrieved the AED machine from the ambulance. “I guess she’s assessing for her own attempts to rescue?” I thought.

Only moments had passed before I heard the EMS woman state; “Time of death: 11:39 pm.”

I turned toward the parking lot. A young man staggered towards a friend and, with his arm around her shoulder; they carried one another toward the waiting pickup. A much older gentleman stood before the pickup, a look of shock painted over his face like a costume. His expression was illuminated by the truck’s headlights. He stood upon a stage of brief denial as the vision of his granddaughter played out like some Shakespearean tragedy seen only in the theatre.

“I’d like to see her before you put her in that bag,” he said. But his words were drowned out by the commotion of the agencies as they buzzed around completing their work.

I turned around to seek the attention of the Sheriff and relay the unheard request, but others advised me to keep out of their way. I continued to stand and observe the crowd. A few men who were gathered behind the ambulance conversed, and an occasional chuckle could be heard. I recoiled in embarrassment, aware that the family members were looking on. Perhaps the conversation was irrelevant to the situation, but the family would not understand the light-hearted mood. I wondered if the men had grown calloused; perhaps it was their method of coping with repeated trauma and exposure to death. I pondered the concept of dignity and the value of human life, while observing Ashley as her body now lay alone on the wooden board of the boat, her skin glowing in the illumination of the moon and the various headlamps and lights from the ambulance as the workers prepared to take her away. Her swimsuit top remained pulled down and I cringed, imagining my own daughter laying exposed, as if her modesty, privacy or dignity no longer mattered simply because she was dead.

“What does it take to remain humane in such a difficult line of work?” I asked myself.  Where feelings must be compartmentalized to complete grisly tasks. A concise separation of the senses.

“Please don’t hurl,” the deputy had admonished me when we began to pull Ashley’s body from the lake. “Hurling” is my least favorite bodily response, and I’m diligent in controlling the action whenever it’s threatened to happen. It was also the last thing on my mind, but I speculated that given much time in the water, the situation could be very different. Maybe I could handle it, I thought, but I hoped I would never have to.

I wished to comfort the grandfather or offer meager condolences, but my peers were adamant that I not interact with the family. “They’re drunk,” said one man. I wondered why that mattered.

After everything was documented and photographed, Ashley was sheathed in a heavy rubber bag. The EMS woman and her assistant and the ambulance driver, with the help of the coroner and several others, heaved the gurney onto its track and loaded Ashley’s body into the back of the van. The heavy doors were slammed shut and she was taken away.

I walked over to the raft and removed the bags containing the throw bags and other miscellaneous equipment which now floated in lake water along with perhaps a trace of whatever Ashley last consumed. I felt foolish for not wearing the proper protective equipment and made a mental note to include non-latex gloves in my water rescue pack for the next time. “Hopefully, there won’t be a next time,” I thought. But deep down inside, I feared there would be. The workers then surrounded the boat, and just like they had with Ashley, they forced the cumbersome boat into the gaping mouth of the trailer and bolted the door shut.

I slowly walked to the Search and Rescue truck and climbed into the backseat. Its inhabitants remained silent, as the Dodge roared to life. And as the vehicle pulled away, I looked back and could see the Ashley’s grandfather standing in the same spot. The shock and perplexity continued to mask his still form. The boy and girl remained in the front seat of the red pickup, still embraced, and stared straight ahead. As the truck slowly rolled away, I watched as the family was left in the returning stillness at forest’s edge near a lake, again blanketed by moonlight, and darkness and grief.   

Jaime Chapman is a fifth generation Montanan, wife, and mother of two adult children. She spends most of her days in the wilderness hiking, hunting, biking, and skiing. In her spare time, you can find her in the kitchen baking, volunteering with Jefferson Valley Search and Rescue and Beaverhead Ski Patrol, and writing about her adventures outdoors.