When Kellen Bennett’s uncle offered to fly him into the Idaho wilderness for a fishing trip as an apology for missing his April wedding, the 30-year-old Minnesotan eagerly accepted.
Such an opportunity is a dream come true for anglers — to fish clear mountain waters for large westslope cutthroat trout that eagerly take any fly or lure. For Bennett, though, the dream almost turned into a nightmare.
The destination was deep in the 1.3-million acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness near the Montana-Idaho border. The large X of an airstrip was carved into a pine tree meadow in 1932 by the Forest Service at the intersection of Moose Creek and the Selway River. That’s where the Moose Creek Ranger Station had been built in 1921 as the base of operations for several surrounding fire lookouts in Idaho’s remote Panhandle region.
The airstrip was built at the beginning of the smokejumper era. The area also has the distinction as the first place that smokejumpers — Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley — ever parachuted in to fight a fire on July 12, 1940.
Now the ranger station is a stop for a different kind of adrenaline seeker — rafters and kayakers. Born in the Bitterroot Mountains, the Selway River flows about 100 miles before joining the Lochsa River near Lowell, Idaho. The Selway is prized by whitewater enthusiasts for its challenging rapids with daunting names like Little Niagara.
Moose Creek, which is almost as large as the Selway, flows in from the north, meeting the Selway, which flows in from the south. After they join, the melded waters turn westward and drop more rapidly. The enlarged flow enters a canyon with a three-mile stretch of seven Class IV rapids, called Moose Juice by river guides.
Bennett’s uncle, Billings Gazette photographer and veteran pilot Larry Mayer, offered to fly his son, Eric Mayer, and Bennett in to the airstrip so they could fish the Selway River and Moose Creek on Friday and Saturday. Mayer was concerned that with camping gear and three people in his Cessna 180 airplane, it would be too heavy to climb quickly enough to rise above the trees and surrounding mountains. Instead, the three would fly out at the end of each day about 40 miles southeast to stay at the West Fork Lodge near Darby to spend the night.
It never fails, though, that whenever Mayer flies into a backcountry airstrip something unusual happens. Longtime readers of this newspaper have read Mayer’s previous backcountry airstrip tales of naked folks frolicking and a curious wolf sneaking up on a fly angler. Mayer has repaired airplane brake lines in the woods and watched as a fellow pilot narrowly missed hitting a deer on a remote grass runway.
“He’s always got these bizarre stories he tells,” Bennett said. “Now I’m honored to be included in one.”
After spending last Thursday night at the West Fork Lodge, Mayer flew the two anglers in to the Moose Creek airstrip on Friday morning, landing at around 7:30 or 8. They then hiked up Moose Creek a few miles, fishing along the way in the deep green pools as Mayer snapped photographs. Whether tossing flies or lures, Eric Mayer and Bennett were consistently catching beautiful cutthroat trout, their bellies aflame with a soft crimson, the color of a mountain sunset.
As the trio was hiking along one streamside trail — which they would later find out is typically riddled with timber rattlesnakes — Mayer noticed the peak of a cabin’s roof. Hiking closer, they found a perfectly preserved cabin that had been abandoned when the area was designated wilderness in 1964.
The weather was already heating up, so Bennett decided to take off his fishing waders, throwing them on to the old lodge’s deck before beginning to fold them. Apparently there was a wasp nest under the deck and the impact of the waders riled some of the nest’s residents. One wasp came right for Bennett as he backed away, stinging him on the right arm just below the inside of his elbow.
It was only then that he revealed to his cousin and uncle that he found out about 12 years ago that he was allergic to such stings. It was about 11 or 11:30 a.m.
“Within about 30 minutes, I had welts all over me,” Bennett said. “But the last two times I was stung, I had a much smaller reaction. I just swelled up a bit.”
Rather than worry, he decided to wait another hour to see if the symptoms declined. So he went back to catching fish. Wading in the cool water initially felt good as he broke out in a heavy sweat. But soon the sweat turned to chills. He also noted that his heart rate had accelerated from about 70 beats per minute just after the sting to about 120 beats.
“Physically it was like a burning sensation,” he said. “Everything was swelling up on me. My lips started really tingling, and I could feel my heart pounding out of my chest.
“It was a really weird feeling.”
Anaphylaxis is the term given to the allergic response a person has when they have eaten a food they are allergic to or are bitten by a wasp or bee. Symptoms of a reaction can include swelling, hives and a drop in blood pressure. In severe cases, a person will go into shock — called anaphylactic shock — which can be fatal if not immediately treated.
Mayer’s plane was tied down at the airstrip two miles away. As Bennett’s symptoms worsened, the group decided to begin walking back to the plane. Along the way Bennett began to get woozy and finally sat down in the shade, almost passing out.
“I started seeing spots and losing my eyesight,” Bennett said.
Mayer said the initial red splotch where the wasp had stung Bennett had quickly spread across his nephew’s entire upper body, transforming from red welts to a solid angry red swelling. It was only then that Bennett agreed to use the EpiPen he always carries for just such a scenario. He didn’t realize until later that he had grabbed the wrong pen for the trip — one from 2009 that probably was less potent.
“I was a little apprehensive about using it,” Bennett said. “I didn’t want to use it if I didn’t have to,” since it was the only one he had brought along.
“I barely had enough strength to stand up, pull down my pants and give myself a shot. I fell over and was looking at the mountains and thinking” this could be the end.
About two hours had elapsed since Bennett was stung.
“It was a feeling like no other,” Bennett recounted. “You think about how small you are. This little bee comes along and puts everything in perspective. You think about your family. It was definitely scary. But I kept telling myself that this is all in my head.”
EpiPens contain .3 milligrams of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. The medicine relaxes airways so breathing isn’t constricted by swelling associated with the allergic reaction.
Mayer ran ahead to ready the plane to fly to the nearby hospital in Hamilton, only about 40 miles away. At the airstrip he was hailed by a woman whose husband happened to be a doctor. The California doctor examined Bennett upon his arrival, gave him some prescription-strength antihistamines and wrote a prescription and a list of other items he should purchase at the drug store, including another EpiPen, and wished him well.
“The EpiPen buys you time to get to the hospital, but it’s no cure,” Bennett said he learned later. “The hives were starting to go away. I thought it couldn’t get any worse.”
With a thunderstorm rolling in, Mayer was concerned about the plane being able to clear the trees at the end of the runway. But with no other choice for evacuating his ill nephew, he gunned the plane down the runway. By 3 p.m. the trio had touched down in Hamilton, and Bennett was already feeling somewhat better.
Mayer called his sister, Bennett’s mother, to tell her about the incident. She advised her son to go to the hospital.
“I wouldn’t listen,” he said. “I wanted to go fishing.”
Back to the backcountry
That night, Mayer advised Bennett and his son to take it easy, relax and rest. But after dinner that evening at the West Fork Lodge, they decided to go fish the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. Bennett admitted to being a little nervous about going to bed that night and how excited he was when he woke up the next morning.
“The hives were still there the next day,” he said, and his feet and ankles were so swollen that he could barely get them into his boots.
Still, on Saturday Bennett was feeling good enough to talk his uncle into flying them into the Moose Creek airstrip for more fishing. This time, the day unfolded without any mishaps making the excellent fishing even more enjoyable. With bad weather moving in to the area on Sunday, Mayer decided to fly his crew back to Billings.
Bennett began driving back to Minnesota on Sunday. After arriving in St. Cloud, Minn., on Monday, his first duty was to visit his doctor with his still new wife at his side.
“He basically said that given all the symptoms I described that I was pretty fortunate to be standing here,” Bennett said. “So it was an eye opener, a life lesson.”
His doctor told him he had undoubtedly gone into anaphylactic shock after the sting and couldn’t believe that he had continued fishing that evening and the next day.
“‘You’re pretty healthy,’” the doctor told him, “‘but I’ve seen people in better condition than you die of anaphylaxis.’”
His doctor also told him that such an old solution of adrenaline probably shouldn’t have worked so well. Now, Bennett plans to carry three or four of the EpiPens with him when he travels.
“I love Montana,” he said. “It’s beautiful country. I’m not going to let this experience keep me from doing the things that I love. But I will be more cautious and aware of my surroundings.
“It was a really memorable trip.”