Let’s face facts. Western Montana’s reputation as a recreational mecca was built almost entirely on its altitudes: Measurements of vertical feet for skiing, annual snowfall tallies above the treeline for backcountry snowboarding, the number of rock faces and waterfalls that attract climbers in summer and winter alike, the accessibility of spectacular high-country vistas for hikers and backpackers in the Bitterroots, the Pintlars, the Missions and Glacier National Park. As flatland natives new to the area soon discover, the word “mountain” in “mountain biking” speaks more about the burn in their thighs than the width of their tires. From hang gliding to snowshoeing, telemarking to kayaking, Montana recreation is almost exclusively about first heading upward—and then coming down.
Or so we once assumed. In fact, for those adventurous souls looking for new outdoor thrills on land or in water (or both!) there’s an entire world of exploration that lies, quite literally, at our feet and just below the surface. This week, the Independent looks at three sports often overlooked by outdoor enthusiasts in western Montana: scuba diving, caving and geocaching, sports that require skills, equipment, instincts and physical fitness not all that different from many other sports commonly practiced around here. So dive in and discover what the Sunken Treasure State has to offer.
Montana’s still waters run deep
No need to ask Jerry Moss, owner of Grizzly Aquatics and Scuba in Missoula, about the coolest thing he’s ever found on a dive. In the first place, he might not tell you. Secondly, there’s a spectacular set of trophies right next to the entrance to his dive shop of South Higgins: a pair of early 18th century anchors, slender and elegant in their flaking rust, that he found under 35 feet of water off O’Neal Island in the San Juans. He used to display them outside the Spokane dive shop he ran for 27 years, and one day excited researchers from Washington State University in Pullman asked Moss if they could analyze a scab-sized piece.
“1703,” says Moss. “That’s when they were forged. They didn’t have any molding process then, so they’d take hot, flat pieces of metal, stack them on top of each other and bang them together with a hammer. They’re probably from a Hudson’s Bay Company boat.”
For trophies of marine life, there’s the stuffed pair of formidably spiny Puget Sound brown box crabs, perhaps 12 inches wide by 10 deep and about seven inches tall, that Moss keeps in a marine diorama set up in the store’s glass display case. The walls are decked out with maps of Puget Sound and Pacific islands, splashy posters for diver’s paradises from around the world, a Marine Fauna of Maldives poster in English and Arabic, and an illustrated instructional poster confidently exhorting divers to Communicate Under Water Using These Signs. “Shell” is a hand cupped to the ear. “Stuck” calls for the index and middle fingers of one hand to be thrust back toward the upper chest. “Octopus” is hard to explain, but it looks like an octopus when you see it. From both the text of the poster and the curiously absent expression of the diver modeling the hand-sign, it’s not clear whether the octopus is supposed to be a problem, like “Stuck,” or merely an attraction like “Shell.”
This being Montana, however, and not the Spanish Main, most of the small finds on display in this inland Neptune’s curio cabinet lack a particular maritime glamour. Divers in the waters of western Montana are more likely to find dentures than doubloons, pocket knives and disintegrating wallets than pirate cutlasses and pieces of eight.
“Rings, wallets, watches,” says Grizzly Aquatics dive instructor Dave Walker. “You wouldn’t believe what people leave on the gunwales of their boats and then knock off. And it’s usually a depth of water that’s too deep for them to recover. Anchors are a really common item, too. Lots of people throw their anchor out but forget to tie the other end of the rope off,” Walker chuckles. “You find a lot of anchors with 50-foot ropes on them in really deep water.”
“A lot of public swimming areas, you know, people lose things,” adds Moss. “There’s always the jealous girlfriend who takes the ring and throws it in the creek. When you’re diving, you can put your face in the water and things just glitter right back at you.”
As with any sport, the price and quality of equipment for diving in Montana or Grand Cayman starts at the affordable and mostly good and runs well into the prohibitive (for beginners) and very professional. Moss goes over the main components, starting with the aluminum tank that provides the diver with the most fundamental of requirements for breathing underwater: air.
A 48-pound aluminum dive cylinder from Grizzly Aquatics contains 3,000 pounds/square inch (psi) of compressed air, some six to seven pounds of it, enough to fill about 80 cubic feet at atmospheric pressure. It’s a mixture of 80 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen, filtered and compressed into each tank with a $45,000 electric air compressor on the premises. Don’t try this at home, kids—a gas-powered air compressor will fill your tank with carbon monoxide with possibly fatal consequences.
Aluminum dive cylinders began to replace the heavier steel tanks in the 1970s, when manufacturers began touting their reduced weight (Moss says the 48-pound tank is about two pounds negative in water, while the combined weight of the gear is close to neutral) and resistance to rust and corrosion. So how long can a diver stay submerged with all that air?
“It depends on the depth,” says Moss, who has been diving since 1966. “I could stay at 30 feet for most of an hour. If you and I went out right now, you could probably stay under for about 20 minutes. It’s because of my experience. I’m calmer.”
Empty aluminum tanks tend toward the surface as the air in them is consumed. To adjust for buoyancy, a diver uses a buoyancy compensator, which looks a little like a life vest hooked up to the dive cylinder. Like the aluminum tanks that replaced their steel predecessors, buoyancy compensators have largely replaced the older method of adjusting for buoyancy with trim weights. The scuff- and puncture-resistant 400-denier to 1000-denier black nylon or cordura vest feeds directly off the air tank and can be inflated or deflated with valves in the front. It’s the buoyancy compensator, in fact, and not the air cylinder itself, that Moss refers to as “the single most important piece of equipment on your body.” In an emergency situation, a diver can slowly inflate the vest and rise to the surface. But fill it too rapidly, Moss cautions, and you can get into an uncontrolled ascent.
An uncontrolled ascent is dangerous for a number of reasons, most famously because it can lead to decompression sickness, better known as the bends. But the physical properties of gas under pressure as they pertain to the volume of air in the lungs also spell trouble for the diver spiraling too quickly toward the surface.
“Boyle’s Law states that as pressure increases, volume decreases,” Moss says. “As pressure decreases, volume increases. If you take a balloon and blow it up on the bottom, tie it and let go of it, it’ll break before it gets to the top. It would do the same thing with your lungs. That is why the first rule of scuba diving is never, ever, ever hold your breath.”
But Moss prefers to downplay the dangers of scuba diving, extolling instead the virtues of excellent training that produces confident divers.
“Amateurs teach amateurs to be amateurs,” he says, “There are dangers with diving just like any other sport. We like to say we sell fun.”
“We don’t live along the French Riviera,” Moss continues. “We don’t have salt water right at our back door, so if you want to be a diver and you want to live in Montana, you have to be creative.”
There are also advantages, Moss adds, to the cold, freshwater diving that Montana offers almost exclusively.
“Visibility, for one thing, is very good in fresh water,” he says. “There’s a couple of lakes north of here, Holland and McGregor, that are just crystal clear. Probably 80-foot visibility.”
And then, says Moss, you’ve got the juicy local lore that attaches itself to almost every body of water in the region. Honest to goodness history, too. In Flathead Lake, for example, there’s the watery grave of Marine Reserve Capt. John Floyd Earheart, the former University of Montana athlete and Korean conflict veteran who crashed an F9F fighter plane into the water near Pinkerman’s Orchards at approximately 400 miles per hour one March day in 1960. A battered crash helmet is the only personal effect of Earheart’s ever recovered, and that kind of Davy Jones appeal holds a definite attraction for grail-seekers drawn to the macabre.
“I’ve had a lot of people try,” Moss says. “There’s a lot of rumors. Just about every lake, something big has happened there. I’ve heard all the stories.”
Both Moss and Walker cop to favorite diving spots, not just in Montana but around the world. Moss names a place on the Egyptian Red Sea coast as his all-time favorite. He says the shop specializes in Hawaii and the Caribbean, Caracas, Venezuela, and Chuuk Lagoon (formerly Truk), where U.S. Navy bombers pounded the remnants of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s 4th Fleet during Operation “Hailstorm” in April, 1944. Chuuk is a mecca for wreck divers, with more than 60 battleships, destroyers, submarines and aircraft within diving reach and brilliantly reclaimed by soft corals and a Technicolor spectrum of exotic marine life.
Closer to home, Walker says that if he were hard-pressed to pick a favorite, he would go with McGregor Lake southwest of Kalispell. “Because of the scenery,” he admits, “which is just beautiful. Blue Bay in Flathead Lake I really like, and then Salmon Lake. It’s got a little murkier visibility, but there’s lots of cool things to find.”
So when is the best time of year to get started? Is there even a best time of year to dive in Montana?
“As far as I’m concerned, yeah,” says Walker. “Whenever you’re not working! Generally, though, for most divers, unless they own some really good quality gear, your summer months, June, July, August, through September and October.”
Walker started diving about 15 years ago, but adamantly insists he’s only been diving—full-fledged, full-time, professionally—for one year come June 23. He has about 100 dives under his belt. And what’s the coolest thing he’s ever recovered while diving?
“That right there is one of them,” he says, pointing to a fly rod leaning in nearby corner. “That’s a $200 rod and reel. I know that guy was real, real upset when he lost that one.”
Walker unhooks his gold-rimmed reading glasses from the neck of his sweater and lays them on the table. He found those, too. He and Moss have both helped salvage vehicles ranging in size from snowmobile (“If you hit the gas on a snowmobile, it will go over water. That’s what this guy didn’t do.”) to Toyota 4-Runner (“The guy took his wife’s truck out on four inches of ice on Thompson Lake. Oops.”), and they even get hired from time to time to recover items of personal or sentimental value. Moss has a great story about a fellow whose dentures he recovered and handed back to him right in the boat. The guy, to hear Moss tell it, put the dentures in, smacked his lips, and said, “Yep, they’re mine.”
Walker is also fond of diving the Blackfoot River, starting at Whitaker Bridge and floating from hole to hole.
“Bridges are an amazing thing to dive. People like to throw things off bridges. I mean refrigerators, bikes, mattresses, things like that. But it’s very, very technical diving, and you have to be very careful. I just don’t like to dive anyplace I can’t see. If the visibility is poor I’ll abort the dive, because I’m down there to see things to begin with.” River diving also lessens the chance of getting injured or killed by boaters who fail to observe the 200-foot radius around the “diver down” flag buoy, (a slanted white band on a red background, just like the Van Halen album), which Walker describes as his worst fear about lake diving in Montana. Still, there’s always the freak occurrence to be reckoned with: Last summer, Walker surfaced on the river to find a float plane bearing down on him.
“Needless to say, he didn’t even see me,” he says. “So I just went right the heck back down. He was doing touch-and-goes on the river. That’s about the last thing I expected to have to look out for.”
Moss and Walker instruct their own students in no less than five half-hour lecture sessions, each one followed by a pool session at the Montana Athletic Club, before taking the to open water.
“We get wet from night one,” says Walker. “Confident divers. That’s the philosophy we dive by. And if after five sessions someone isn’t ready, it usually only takes one more before it clicks. It’s just that quick.”
“You can have a great experience or you can have a horrible one,” he concludes. “I don’t know of any of my students who have had a horrible one.”
Notes from the Underground
Have you ever suspected that you have the explorer’s gene? Does it chafe you to be born in a time where there is no more undiscovered country to speak of? A time when all of the accessible mountains, rivers, and natural features have been seen, surveyed, and mapped? Where the phrase “been there, done that” is a reminder of just how many people are out there skiing, climbing, hiking and river running? Do you feel like outdoor skills, which used to be a means to an end, have evolved into discrete, almost academic exercises almost devoid of context? Look at the way that rock climbing has become an end unto itself and now can be done exclusively in the comfort of the heated gym on fake rocks. Look at the telemarkers on the lift-served hill who do not own a pair of climbing skins. In short, if you have ever dreamed of using your outdoor skills to go where no one has gone before—within a reasonable budget, no less—then this is just one of the reasons that you might want to investigate caving in Montana.
First, a brief primer on Montana caves. Geologically speaking, where there is limestone, there are caves. Almost all of Montana’s mountain ranges have limestone, and due to upthrust geology there are many so-called “alpine caves.” Alpine caves are found above the treeline, have vertical passageways, are sometimes wet and are always cold—ranging in temperature from 32 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Although sections of caves have names like “The Birth Canal” or the “Gorilla Shit Tube,” caves in Montana are not all tight squeezes and smothering crawls. The caves in Montana are much more apt to be vertical, and it’s not uncommon to have open chambers as large as a good sized building.
Montana also has relatively few cavers, so the 300 or so known caves have not received the use and abuse suffered by more famous cave systems in the east. The result: There are many more opportunities for organized parties of trained cavers to make significant discoveries. In the Bob Marshall Wilderness alone there is a cave system which has the potential to be the deepest cave in the United States.
Many Montana caves are on public land though much about them is unknown because the federal agencies charged with overseeing those resources do not have the expertise—or until recently the interest—in properly reconnoitering the land below ground. To that end, it’s standard practice when caving to map, survey and re-survey your route, taking note of the geological, anthropological, and hydrological features you encounter.
Also, be advised that cavers hate to be called “spelunkers,” which connotes images of drunken yahoos with spray paint bombing around underground getting stuck, getting hurt and damaging things.
Locally, cavers can be found in a club called the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto (NRMG) which is a chapter of the National Speleological Society. They meet in Missoula on the third Tuesday of every month at the Missoula Fire Station on Pine Street. The group is largely concerned with the safe exploration and surveying of caves in Montana and around the world, and they conduct training sessions throughout the year to teach skills from beginning to advanced. Last week, the incoming and outgoing chairmen of the NRMG, John Citta and Joe Oliphant respectively, spoke with the Independent and provided me with much of what I know about this subterranean sport.
Just last week while alpine caving in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness these guys skied five miles into the cave packing in all their camping and caving gear—dry suits, stockingfoot waders, and yards and yards of rope. In addition, they also brought scuba gear and two divers from out of state to try to plumb a deep pool that had stymied them on a previous trip. One of the more technical aspects of this trip—not counting the underground scuba diving—were the waterfalls that had to be ascended and descended. Although this sounds merely wet, cold and slippery, there is real danger here.
“In this particular waterfall several cavers have flipped upside down while climbing it,” says Oliphant. “Then it takes someone climbing the rope, unclipping the upside down caver and carrying him down to safety. John and I have practiced this maneuver and so we can approach something like this waterfall with a greater degree of confidence. I don’t think I would go up that waterfall without knowing that someone could come up and rescue me if I were flipped. I estimated that upside down in the 34-degree Fahrenheit water, 15 minutes would be a long time to survive.”
Both Citta and Oliphant stress the team aspect of the sport as well as the necessity for practice and safety. A real sign of what they were facing last weekend was the agreement that they had with a group of Canadian cavers who were on standby and ready to head south by helicopter at a moment’s notice if a prearranged beacon signal was tripped. Joe explains that local search and rescue teams do not have the specialized training or experience to navigate an alpine cave environment. “It could easily turn into a case where the rescuers end up needing rescue themselves,” he says.
It’s not hard to feel the walls closing in as Citta and Oliphant blithely talk about getting lost and stuck (a person is easier to remove after he passes out) and flailing (it will only get you more stuck). But there are some things that morbid curiosity impelled me to ask about, “just in case.”
Missoula Independent: When you are down in the dark, how do you find your way in these caves without reference to the path of the sun, or stars or any sort of landmarks?
Oliphant: One good way is to always look back, because when you reach an intersection looking back at the way you came from many times helps you remember where you came from. On these trips you realize that the human mind is capable of remembering 500 or so different turns and intersections. The first couple of times you may not get it but it takes experience. ...The best example of how it works is driving through this town or any town. You start to find the major routes and you learn that if you turn here it is a shortcut to go there and you learn by experience that this road dead ends here, etc.
MI: So, have you ever gotten lost and kept going down the wrong passage?
Citta: Well, yes. (Long pause)
MI: Doesn’t that tap into some kind of deep primal fear of being buried alive or stuck?
Citta: Well, in general caving does tap into that fear, and the great thing is that it is one of the few things where the common person can truly go where no one has ever gone before. Most of the mountains in Montana have been climbed. Most of the caves in Montana have not been bottomed and the only things that are really comparable are exploring in the deep sea and outer space. So it is the exploration that really excites people, but on top of that it is pretty challenging. And the mental challenges, I would say, are as great as the physical.
Oliphant: For example, you are descending down a single rope into a pit, you don’t know how deep it is, you don’t know what is at the bottom, you are going deeper and deeper, you are carrying a lot of weight and you are wondering how you are going to get back out.
Citta: And then there are these squeezes which are pretty tight and so the whole time you are going down you are wondering about whether you will be able to make it back through that tight spot.
MI: What about a broken leg down there?
Citta: Yeah, think about it. If you are mountaineering and you break your leg, in the worst case you may have to call in a helicopter to come and pluck you out of there, which is mainly embarrassing. You can’t do that when there is 500 feet of rock on top of you. ...Then take into consideration that in Montana, many of the caves are in remote areas. You could make it to the surface and still die because you are five miles or 30 miles away from help.
If you are wired for this type of thing and this all sounds like a ripping good time, then you might want to get in touch with the NRMG. As the interview winds down, the talk turns to cave fauna and at the mention of bats Oliphant shivers involuntarily.
“I hate bats,” he says. “I don’t know what it is but they just creep me out, absolutely. Sometimes when I’m caving a guy behind me will take his glove off and flap it at my ear and that just freaks me out.” And so, right there is the proof that cavers are human after all. Here is a guy who spends 10 straight days underground for fun in Mexico and is frightened by some harmless flying mammals.