by Jesse Alberi
I would like to tell everyone about the unique fishing opportunity we have to offer up here in the mountains of Montana, but first I should probably give you a little background on myself and how I came to be sitting in this position in life. My story actually starts with me being fortunate enough to have grown up in the mountains of southwestern Montana. I was raised by a dad and grandfather who both taught me how to live off the land. This sparked a love affair with the outdoors that has guided me through most of my life. I feel privileged to have grown up in the rural ranching town of Dillon where the amount of cattle far outnumbers the people and it seems that everyone knows and cares about their neighbor.
Looking back, two things stick out from my childhood memories. The first was my ambition to hang a state championship banner in the rafters of our gymnasium, and the second was to be outside exploring our incredible countryside. Dillon just so happens to lay on the banks of the Beaverhead River where back in 1806 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traded their canoes for horses in order to find a path over the Continental Divide and on to the Pacific Ocean.
Although this was pounded into our head all through grade school, my friends and I were mostly concerned with the monster rainbow and brown trout that call the Beaverhead their home. We were always running some gravel road to wet our lines in a creek or mountain lake and searching for our next secret fishing hole.
Upon graduation, I accepted a track scholarship to Jamestown College in North Dakota, and I quickly learned that nothing can make you miss the mountains more than living on the plains of North Dakota. Perhaps this was what inspired me to make the move up to Alaska after I finished school. I lived and worked in Eagle River building log homes and fishing whenever I could. The long summer hours were perfect for salmon, dolly and halibut fishing, but looking back it’s easy to see my best catch while I was there was of my wife Emily. After a year of dating I convinced her to marry me and we eventually moved back to Montana to start our family.
It’s important for readers to know that being able to talk about this one night of my life comes only after much time of healing. For me to be able to think about the hours that changed my life, much less write about them, has been a work in progress for the last eight years.
The events prior to that night began like any other Thursday. I got up at six to get ready for work and to drive the 45 minute route to KB Construction where I was a foreman on one of the crews. I was driving an old Subaru that day that I’d picked up to keep the miles off my truck, so after work I decided to stop at home and get my Dodge before heading up to the Allison’s house. Em and our daughter Briley were already up there at our friend Brice’s birthday party, and as it was October 25th everyone was wearing costumes for Halloween. Briley was a Lady Bug, Brice was a cowboy and I wore the same thing I always wore to costume parties, a bright blue pair of polyester pants with matching butterfly collar shirt. The kids bobbed for apples and opened gifts while the dads talked of heading into the timber to see if we could cross any elk tracks in the snow.
After the party ended, the guys did what all quality dads would do and sent the little-uns home with their moms while we snuck out for the mountains. We never found any tracks, but we did get ourselves into deep enough snow that we had to dig out and put chains on all four tires to get back down. We returned to the ranch around midnight where we parted ways and made our paths toward home. For me, it was just 5 miles up a gravel road I’d driven a thousand times. I punched the throttle, aimed it toward home and looked down to find the perfect road song.
The next thing I knew I was laying in a field of sagebrush with no memory of where I was or how I’d gotten there, and that it was cold! I immediately noticed I couldn’t move my legs. I remember thinking to myself ‘Ain’t no big thing. Don’t freak out. A little time on some parallel bars and I will be good as new.’ When I reached down to push myself up I watched my left arm flop out to the side awkwardly. My left humerus bone was broken in multiple places. For the next seven and half hours I lay in that spot focusing on surviving the night. I knew if I could make it through that I’d be ok.
I remember not being impressed with the insulating quality of polyester and wishing I had on my Patagonia jacket that was in the backseat of my truck. At an elevation of almost 7000 feet in late October, the temperature that night fell to 17 degrees. At one point I realized that my feet were bare. I hadn’t been wearing my seat belt so when my truck rolled over I was ejected and my boots and socked had been ripped off. I can still remember looking at my bare toes trying to get them to move and realizing that if I didn’t get them warmed up they were gonna be frost-bitten. My truck was on its side but the Cummins engine was still running, and I thought that if I could just get closer the heat of the engine might help keep me in my 70’s swag from freezing. I probably should’ve stayed still, but I didn’t. I clawed and scratched and drug myself until I passed out from exhaustion.
After coming back to, I began to holler for help. I would shout a bit and then catch my breath and listen. I did this for only Lord knows how long then during one of my pauses I heard a shout. I thought I am saved and started yelling my location and telling them about what was wrong with me. I listened and again I heard another shout so I yelled even more that I was hurt and needed help. It was then that I realized that the shouts I’d heard in the darkness were not from elk hunters but a pack of coyotes. They came directly toward me and I could hear them walking in the sage brush around me, barking to one another as they circled. With my right arm, I desperately began searching the ground for rocks as I yelled at the top of my lungs in my deepest man voice, hurling obscenities at them about what I would do to them if they came in. I couldn’t see them in the night but could hear them breathing and yipping as they looked me over. After what seemed like hours but was probably closer to five minutes, something in my tantrum worked because the pack moved down into the meadow to look for an easier target.
About this same time Emily awoke and realized that I was not at home. She called my buddy Eric and Brice’s dad Scott and told them that I wasn’t at the house. Eric said that he knew at that instant that something was really wrong and he jumped in his rig and headed for a tight little S-curve that had claimed a few trucks in its day. But I wasn’t at that curve or anywhere between his house and mine. He arrived at my house and went inside to try and calm my understandably scared wife. Meanwhile, Scott had started down from his house and as he rounded a big sweeping curve spotted my truck in the field. Scott was able to reach Eric over the CB radio so the best man at our wedding had to be the one to tell my wife what was unfolding just up the road. Emily’s one question to Eric was “Is he breathing?”
I don’t remember much from that morning, but my friends piled blankets and coats on me to try to warm me up while we waited for the ambulance. I know I’m alive today because of Dr. Moore and the crew at Barrett Memorial Hospital in Dillon. I woke up in the ER covered in heated blankets as a chopper sat outside waiting to take me to Missoula. My body temperature was 82 degrees.
When we finally lifted off I looked down to see my close friends and family standing outside the hospital seeing me off. Briley celebrated her first birthday while I was in the intensive care unit at St. Pats in Missoula, and two weeks later I was headed to Craig Hospital in Denver, CO.
People ask me all the time how it is I’m able to do all that I do and I tell them it’s because of Craig. Craig hospital was a place of hope and hard work and they took Emily and I and my whole family in and made us their own. Today I am the person I am because of two things, my wife and Craig hospital. I spent 45 days rolling around there as a T-10 para struggling to learn how to live again.
Bristol Hope Alberi joined our family on July 29th, 2014. I had the true privilege of being able to stay at home with her for the first two years of life while Emily worked at her preschool. I made countless adaptions to my chair and our house to make things easier for me, like mounting her crib to the wall so I could roll under it to put her in and out. She turns three in July so now she gets to spend her days at the big kid school with her mom. This change has allowed me to indulge myself in my true passion… being outdoors. Since my accident in 2008, I’ve had to relearn everything about being in the mountains and out with Mother Nature. My friends and family have made sure that doing what I love remains a constant in my life and that along with my willingness to try just about anything is what continues to drive me forward.
One of the things that has increased since my injury is offers to float down the river to fish. I have a lot of buddies who spend their summers guiding on the water around Dillon and they are adamant about getting me in the boat. I don’t know how to explain it but there’s something special that happens when I’m out on a river in Montana. I’m able to leave my wheelchair on the bank and sit in the pedestal seat just like I used to. It’s almost like I am leaving my disability on the bank.
In 2014, I was floating the Big Hole with my friend Steve Miller and we began talking about taking this passion we share and offering it to other folks with disabilities. It was in this moment that Access Unlimited was born. Access Unlimited is dedicated to offering people the same opportunities I have had after my injury, the chance to get outside. We secured our 501c3 status and gained the support of some notable names in the industry. Last July, we joined up with Craig Hospital, the High Fives Foundation and GoPro to host our first AU Fish Camp. We invited six High 5’s athletes that had gone through Craig to join us at the Big Hole C4 Lodge for four days of fishing and country livin’. Although the fishing was an overwhelming success, we found that it was the smaller things too that folks enjoyed just as much. Like sitting around the fire at night, ripping the RZR and shooting some targets. These are things that I take for granted because I’ve been doing them all my life. I feel privileged now to be able to share this knowledge with others that have been down a similar path.
Being able to offer these opportunities to other people has been way more rewarding then I ever thought it would be. Anytime you are a part of something bigger than yourself for the benefit of others, it always seems to benefit you anyway. We recently gained the support of Hyde Drift boats who helped us design one of the first, if not the first, Adaptive Drift Boat. They worked with our ideas to get me out of the front seat and back into the row seat. Before then, it had been eight years since I was shoveling water and able to put my friends on the fish. We moved the anchor rope into a position I could reach and put covers on the rod holders so that we wouldn’t break rods as we transferred in and out.
We have also gained the support of Action Track Chair. Their Track Stander has allowed us to fish water and hunt ground that was not possible before it. We have a small stream that runs through our family’s place and last fall I was able to use the Track Chair to work my way up the bank and pull a nice brown trout out of the same hole I used to fish as a kid.
This summer we will be upping our game as we will invite seven adaptive athletes to join us in June for the AU Fish Camp. If anyone is interested in applying for one of our fishing trips or camps, log onto https://www.challengelimitation.org/ and apply for an event. We’ll be more than happy to take you out and show you something you can’t find anywhere else. Mention that you saw the article in this magazine and we will do all that we can to provide a trip of a lifetime. AU is my new passion and it provides me with so much drive to know that we are making a small difference in other people’s lives. I know it’s made one in mine. It’s given me purpose and I feel like I am passing forward something which I was lucky enough to have been passed on to me.