PARADISE — A physical disability often has the power to put everyday things out of reach, from simply walking to driving a car. But when there’s a will, there's a way and a newly designed drift boat is helping those with mobility limitations go with the flow.
A recent summer afternoon on the Clark Fork River saw river guide Steve Smith taking his friend Eric Hollen out for some fly fishing. The fish were playing hard to get but that’s okay because just being out there is the best part.
“It's really kind of a mindfulness process, right? You have to be present, in the moment. To be able to cast, you know, you can’t be thinking about all the bad things that have happened to you when you’re fly fishing," said Hollen who is a retired U.S. Army Ranger and Para-Olympian.
He would know something about that. Eighteen years ago, after serving as a Ranger, he was in a tractor accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“Initially of course the injury is what I like to call a catastrophic, life-changing injury. Like, it just fundamentally changes your life forever. Like, nothing is ever going to be the same, and you’re wrapped up in your head about the disability piece of it rather than what can I do from here?" Hollen recalled. "It took me about 18 months to come to grips with, ‘Hey, I might not recover from this the way I think I can.'”
But he has persevered, becoming a Para-Olympian, a world class shooter and now, as a therapist at the Kalispell Vet Center, he uses his own experiences of perseverance to counsel fellow veterans.
Sometimes even the strongest need a little help and a drift boat with a hinged back flap that allows Hollen to easily roll up and in.
“So for me, this is a really big deal. I can just roll into the back of the boat and off we go, and there’s no chance of dropping me. These things happen, you know?” Hollen said.
It was Smith who first learned about the boats designed by Willie Boat. There aren’t that many around yet but when he saw one he was immediately inspired and bought one.
“I've been rowing and guiding for a long time and I had a friend about 10 years ago that ended up in a wheelchair and moving him in and out of the boat was a real challenge," Smith said. "So when I saw this design I thought, 'That’s the way to go.' And to be able to provide access to those who haven’t had it for a while because of their injuries."
Hollen says he loves fly fishing so much that he’d find a way to get in the boat no matter what, but the back ramp allows him to get on and off without getting hurt. In fact, the interior of the boat can be reconfigured to accommodate power chairs, manual chairs or any kind of assistive technology.
That technology allows everyone to experience Montana on an equal footing.
"Anyone who is on the water enough sees the whole world as a current, a flow. And it just keeps going. You just have to deal with it. It’s just like running a rapid, you come around a bend and there’s something there. There’s a challenge and you have to take everything you have and apply it to what’s right in front of you," Smith said.
He is creating a nonprofit called Hydrologistics in hopes of buying more accessible drift boats because now that the floodgates are open, his hope is anyone who wants a day on the water won’t be denied due to disability.
“You know, I’d really like to see a community event where get a bunch of these boats together and float the Flathead River outside of Saint Ignatius. I couldn’t imagine not to be able to fish or row tomorrow If something appended to me," Smith said.
Smith is working with Camp Bullwheel in Ennis, a camp that also bought an accessible drift boat. There are even motorized reels to help bring in the fish.