JEFFERSON RIVER — It was late summer and close to dark when the call came into emergency services that a group of floaters on the Jefferson River in southwest Montana were attacked by otters and needed assistance. Montana State Highway Patrol Trooper Barb Armstrong didn’t hesitate to jump into action.
"Honestly, I’ve never even heard of anyone getting attacked by an otter before," says Armstrong.
But the MHP trooper is a Montana native and lives in the Whitehall area, so she knew the women needed help.
"So being familiar with the area, I knew how remote it was and so I thought, well, I could at least go and help get them loaded in the ambulance," says Armstrong.
But it wasn’t that simple. For almost an hour, Armstrong and other first responders drove up and down U.S. Highway 2 before stopping at a home located over a mile from where the phones were pinging and where they could hear the women screaming for help.
"Fortunately the landowner was really familiar with the area and so he was pretty much a godsend for the whole thing," says Armstrong.
She set off with an EMT, the landowner, and his dog as dusk set in.
Along the railroad tracks about 10 feet above the river, they encountered the first woman who was walking out to find help.
"She says my friends are further down and so we kept walking and we ran into the second gal and she had some pretty good wounds on her," says Trooper Armstrong.
"I said, well where’s your friend? And she pointed across the river and she said she’s over there."
Armstrong knew she would have to swim.
The EMT stayed with the second woman to treat her wounds and with the help of a guiding light from the landowner and a dog named Rose, Trooper Armstong began to swim.
"I was far enough in I didn’t want to leave any of my gear to come back for it and leave it unattended. And there was a possibility that we might need my pistol. So I was like, well I’ll just keep it all on and go," she says.
She began to swim what she estimates was about 100 yards of water with the extra 20 pounds of weight from her belt and vest and medical bag, but she didn’t even think about otters.
"I had the landowner’s dog next to me so I felt pretty, pretty safe. When I had got about I would guess about 80, 90 yards across it, I was getting pretty fatigued."
About the time she was getting fatigued enough to worry about making it across, Trooper Armstrong’s foot touched the bottom and after scrambling up an embankment she finally reached the injured floater.
"And once we got up to her she was basically covered head to toe in blood and missing a sandal."
The woman was going into shock but everyone’s hopes were lifted as a helicopter approached to take the victim to the hospital.
Armstrong then took account of her equipment that was damaged in the swim and called to check in with her sergeant.
"That was I guess my first sign of maybe something odd was about I because he was like, “You did what? And so up until that point, I really didn’t think anything remarkable had happened."
Recently Trooper Armstrong received the Medal of Valor, the Montana Highway Patrol’s highest award for heroism and bravery.
"For me, it was just more feeling empathy for the woman and wanting to get her the help that she needed and she was in a situation that nobody ever expected for her to be in, let alone herself," says Armstrong.
Armstrong has been with the Patrol since February 2015 and is currently stationed in Butte as a member of the MHP’s Criminal Interdiction Team. She has previously earned three Hedstrom Awards, which are given to troopers for going above and beyond the call of duty in saving a life.