SURVIVING THE “WIND ANOMALY” AT GRANITE LAKE, MADISON COUNTY, MONTANA
My wife Kathy and I (Bill) took our side by side and rode up to Granite Lake by Pony, Montana on August 11, 2019. We arrived there and it was starting to rain and hail, so we started back. Just after we left the lake area we ran into a young couple, Donnie and Megan, who were on a traditional ATV and had strung a tarp over the top of their machine and themselves to protect themselves from the weather. We stopped and visited with them for about 5 minutes, then started on our way back to our camp.
The rain and hail increased substantially in the next few minutes, so my wife and I decided to sit it out in the trees that were ahead as we were in the open. We no sooner stopped, I had not even had the chance to shut the engine off, when the sky turned black and this horrific wind came up out of nowhere and seemed to be 100 mph or stronger. Trees started falling, and there were branches and chunks of trees everywhere in the air. A whole tree, about 20-foot-long started to fall on the front of our machine and as it was falling, I crammed into reverse and stomped on it as my wife Kathy yelled: “there is a tree behind us”. The Can-Am that we have is 132 horsepower. The machine jumped over the tree behind us and as I was looking back a tree of about 12 inches in diameter 20 or so feet long was hurtling through the air like a helicopter blade just feet above us.
Just as we pulled out from the one tree that was on us, another 3-foot diameter tree fell exactly where we had been. We got back to the opening, probably about 30 feet and stopped, and just as we stopped so did the wind. The wind only lasted minutes, but the damage in front of us was unbelievable. We then decided to go back and see how Donnie and Megan were.
Driving back, we encountered a huge tree jam, so we started to walk to where they were. I and our little dog, Emma, a Boston terrier, quit after a while. I gave Kathy my pistol and said: “fire a shot if you need me to come up”. Pretty soon Kathy and the other couple came on Donnie’s machine. It had been raining extremely heavy during this time and we were all soaked to the bone. When we got back to our Can-Am we gave some extra cloths and hot coffee to Megan, we also used our $2.50 Walmart blanket for our dog to wrap Megan up with and then used it to tie up the rain pants we put on her.
We all discussed staying with the Can-Am and texting, using my Garmin In-Reach, for friends to come and chain saw us out. At this point, we had no idea how extensive the damage was. It was decided to go ahead and walk out, after all, we thought it would only be a scramble of a few yards to get to the other side of the jumble of trees in front of our machine. Donnie had a lighter and we had some headlamps, a little water, some light rain poncho’s ($1.59 specials) and Donnie’s tarp. This was about 3:30 pm in the afternoon, Megan was now warm enough to start out, so we did. About 4:00 we heard a shot that sounded like it was below us and maybe on the other side of the canyon. So, I fired back and sure enough, we heard a reply shot. Donnie and Megan started yelling and said they could hear someone. My wife is 64 and I’m 73, so our hearing is not great. They said they could hear someone, yet couldn’t understand what they were saying and of course, Kathy and I couldn’t hear anyone. There was no way that we can to help, and we had figured out by now that we are in a “heap” of trouble.
There are 1000’s upon 1000’s of trees down. The wind covered both sides of the canyon about 1 mile wide and 2-3 miles long. We could not get down to whoever was there, let along find them. We kept going, it was about 7:30 pm, and after 4 hours into trying to get out we had covered less than a mile from where we started. Trying to go over trees, under them, around them, back and forth, up and down the mountain, again the number of trees that were jumbled together, some piled as high as 10 feet that went in length to 50 yards or more, were unbelievable and impassable. We were blessed that Donnie was able to act as a scout to find possible ways to get through the tangle of trees and branches. All at once Megan tried her cell phone and was able to get 911 in Ennis, MT.
The 911 operator wanted to know our location, so I decided it was time to hit SOS on my Garmin In Reach, which I did. Within seconds my cell phone rang, and it was the dispatcher from In-Reach in Texas asking what our problem was. I told him our situation and ask that he call the Madison County Sheriff’s office and give them our co-ordinate’s. He informed me that had already been done and asked if there was there anything more we would need. I told him we would probably need help to get out, and he said he would stand by and we could text him as we proceeded. About 8:00 pm we decided we were “screwed” for the night.
We made our way back to what was left of the uncovered road and went to build a fire. Donnie then discovered that his lighter had fallen out of his pocket in scrambling over and under the trees. Now we are literally screwed, our chances to survive just went from 100% to maybe 20%. I found a spot under a jumble of trees that was fairly dry and texted the dispatcher “we can’t make it out before dark. No matches send help and he confirmed via text. This last text was at 9:00 pm as I remember seeing the time on my in-reach. Megan had got a little worried, just before this and ask Donnie to take her back to the point where she had cell reception to try and call 911 again. It was not far from where we were, so Donnie took her back there. In the meantime, Kathy and I cleared a spot in the trees for us all and Kathy and I huddled up to wait for Donnie and Megan to return. About 9:30 pm they got back and told us that the Search and Rescue along with a crack sawyer team from the Forest Service were on their way. They had left Pony at about 9:00 pm. Donnie and Megan then joined us in the “huddle”.
I was starting to shiver so we all decided I could use the dog blanket. Now remember it had rained most of the afternoon and all the trees and brush were soaked which in turned soaked us. Each of us was wet from top to bottom and everything we had was soaked. We were at 8,000 feet of elevation, and as it got darker the temperature went down. I said with the help of God and a little luck they would be here by midnight; we WILL make it. In my mind I knew as wet and cold as we were, we would not make it to the morning. The 3 of us would have Hypertherm elated. Donnie was doing ok.
Along about 11:30 pm Kathy, Megan and I were really shivering, our little dog Emma was shivering too but still warm enough to help out a little. Everyone has told me my dog is too fat, yea right, yet her fat body was warm. And then we heard voices, it was 4 members of the Madison Valley Search and Rescue. They had literally crawled over jumbled up trees, some piles they said were 10 feet deep. The first Search and Rescue member asked who had the In Reach. I said myself and he then said, “had you not had the In Reach relaying the GPS Coordinates to them, they would never have found us tonight”. Thank you, Garmin In Reach and the very helpful dispatcher. Boy, they were a welcome sight, as they had blankets, food, and water and then we started a fire. I have to say these guys really deserve extra credit. One fellow had just completed a 21-mile hike and came up to help out. These folks didn’t have to come but knew we were in a perilous situation and came anyway. There is no way we can thank them other than to say “God Bless” them and their families.
Now we get to the Forest Service saw crew. They stated at about 10:30 pm that same night cutting a tunnel through the trees to get to us, and I do mean a tunnel. We were only about 400 yards from getting out and it took them until 2:00 am to get to us. Their crew boss asked them to quit as it was really getting dangerous for them. These folks were sawing with their headlamps as light and wouldn’t quit till they got to us. They backpacked all their equipment in the 2 miles and after working extremely hard for about 4 hours, backpacked all the equipment out. They were, just as the 911 operator said, experts. We most heartily say thank you and God Bless them and their families. None of these folks had to come up that late at night for they could have waited till morning, but they all knew we were in a perilous situation.
The 4 Search and Rescue guys, and all but myself heard another gunshot at about 11:00 pm, so the one fellow, I think Tim, fired off a shot but we never heard anything more. In the meantime, the Search and Rescue team had called for 2 Black Hawk helicopters from Great Falls with heat imagining equipment to search for the other person below us. They showed up about 1:30 am and started a grid search of the area yet turning up nothing. One left and the other asked if any of us wanted to be evacuated by them. My wife and I said no as we didn’t want to get someone else hurt and all 4 of us were now ok thanks to the Search and Rescue team. Megan said she wanted to be airlifted so the helicopter tried to get in position to lower a litter basket. After a couple of tries with the rotor wind moving trees, they called it off. It was not long after that the saw crew got to within 20 yards of us and we all decided to crawl over the trees to get to the tunnel that the saw crew had cut out of the jumble of downed trees. I told the Search and Rescue crew Kathy and I were fine to just stay with the fire and they could leave. We would walk out at daybreak, but they all said no, we will not leave you. I cannot say how kind, gracious, and giving these folks all were. I must say there were a few women on the teams including the saw team.
Lessons learned: Never leave home without God, Garmin In Reach, waterproof matches and a pistol.
Speaking for all 4 of us survivors, we will forever be grateful to the 16 or so people that took a risk of their own wellbeing to come to our aid.
Bill & Kathy Bahny