Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Rude Awakening

I arrived in Montana in April of 1980.  It was a bit of a shock both culturally and environmentally for me.   As a born and raised North Carolinian, I had become accustomed to both rural and city life.  I was used to four seasons that came with almost complete certainty.  Montana stood in stark contrast to everything that I knew to be normal.

Anyone that knows me realizes that I am an outdoor person.  If it can be done under the open sky I will do it.  My passion is water, and water means fishing, swimming, exploring. Montana provided everything I needed, and then some.

Memory is shaped by many factors such as smells, temperature, sounds...May 18th, 1980 provided all three of these to shape a memory that never fades.  So, let me set the stage for this flashback to the 80's.

I was lucky enough to have the day off from my military duties, and as with any day off, my friends and I were going to live it up on the Missouri River.  The Missouri River runs through the middle of Great Falls, Montana.  Great Falls gets its name from a series of very large waterfalls that were chronicled by the American explorers Lewis and Clark.  Of course the Great Falls have changed quite a bit since the Corps of Discovery passed through.

The biggest change being the establishment of dams that use the power of the Falls to generate power.  My favorite of these Falls are the Black Eagle Falls (so named because of Lewis seeing what he thought was a Black Eagle in the area), The Rainbow Falls (when running at full speed they create a perpetual rainbow in the mist), and the Horseshoe Falls (well, they are horseshoe shaped).  Starting at Black Eagle Dam, the Missouri river runs through a deep, steep-walled canyon.  Our goal on this day was Rainbow Dam.

Rainbow Dam

We picked Rainbow Dam for several reasons...first it was fairly isolated.  It had a small island that remained above water when the dam was open. Most importantly, the wind was normally calm at the river bottom.  Great Falls has a wind we used to refer to as the Hawk.  It was fast and a cold blooded killer. To reach the dam you had to traverse a very steep and treacherous series of cliffs to reach the river bottom. This meant we would travel light.  Our plan was to fish all day on Sunday, camp on the island (actually a great big rock), then fish most of the day on Monday.

The Rock Island and Cliffs.
The Island is the one to right.

The weather was warm with temps in the 60's and the sky was clear.  Certainly a day where Big Sky is the best description of Montana. None of us had been in Montana long enough to know the danger we were placing ourselves in.  Weather, especially in spring, can go from wonderful to deadly in the space of a few hours.  But we were young and could manage anything.

The trip to the river bottom was uneventful, with the exception of a few slides here and there we managed to make it to the Island in just over an hour. Since the canyon was so dangerous and deep the rule was, if you couldn't take your supplies down in one trip...then you didn't take it. So we were very light...and skipped taking sleeping bags and chose to take only field jackets with liners, a canteen of water each, a bag or two of snacks (we planned on eating fish by dinner time), a couple of us brought handguns, and of course fishing gear.

Sunday was a bust.  Our only discovery was that some Suckers had setup home in the rocks around the small island we were on, but none of us were that desperate to eat those. Near sunset we started a small fire as the temperature began to dip into the 40's. Like all good fishermen and poor gamblers, we expected the next cast to bring a big payoff, we fished through the night.

The Sucker Fish.

As the night progressed, the stars which had been brightly sparkling above, were now covered by a shroud of mist.  We figured it was just fog.  Most of us were good southern boys and fog was part of our life.  Nothing to worry about.  Something that should have clued us in was...that as the fog grew thicker...the warmer it was getting.  In fact, it became downright comfortable. At some by one..we gave in to the sleep monster.

I remember one of the guys waking us all up.  It was now early morning, about 6am or so.  The sun was obscured by that same fog, but the land around us was covered by a thin layer of grayish dust.  In fact, it was clinging to our clothes and skin. We rinsed it off of our eyes and skin with the cold clear water from the river and began to try and make sense of it all.

Of course, since we provided security for nuclear weapons, our first thought was that there had been a nuclear war and we missed it.  But we quickly dismissed this..since we were alive and not dead. Regardless of what had happened, we knew it was something on a massive scale and we needed to get back to the base. So we began the long climb out of the canyon.

Breathing was an issue.  The dust was easily disturbed and when we coughed we had to spit it out in clumps.  It took us nearly two hours to climb out, and left us exhausted.  At the top of the canyon, for as far as we could see, the Earth had gone from multicolored to gray, with the exception of the telephone poles and fences...the Earth was now the Moon.  My buddy's car gave us an opportunity to look at the dust.  It was very fine, almost like talcum powder and dissolved very easily from the moisture on our fingers.  Odd.

As we arrived on the base the guards at the gate all had their chemical gear on. This was an alarming sight, maybe we had missed the big war. The guards told us to go back to our barracks and stay there. So that is where we went.

At the barracks we learned that Mount St. Helens in Washington had erupted.  Of course rumors had it that we would all be dead men because we had breathed in the deadly ash.  Thankfully, this was not true...that I know of. For the next few days we were required to wear a dust mask if we went outside.  Because of the hazard that the ash posed to vehicles, we gained another two days off.  Bonus!

Mount St. Helens goes boom


Life in the Military was weeks of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.  I would not have traded that life for anything.