HEART BUTTE — No snow stuck to the basketball court where Sullavin Wells and Lalontae Nomee shot some hoops on Wednesday afternoon. The Blizzard of 2018 piled it all in a 5-foot-high berm right outside their front door, 10 yards away from the park.
The boys had been housebound since the start of February, when snow and wind began paralyzing the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and particularly this community of 600 on the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front. Asked what the worst day of the ordeal was, Wells said simply, “The last three weeks.”
The blizzard upends assumptions of what a winter disaster should look like. Most of the 36 miles of the Heart Butte Road to Browning sits bare and dry — except for the 53 snowdrifts at least 2 feet deep. That’s enough to high-center a four-wheel-drive pickup. Some were 5 feet thick and had cars embedded in them, abandoned after the drivers angled off the road in whiteout conditions. A snowball’s throw farther, horses grazed on bare grass.
From Marias Pass to East Glacier, buildings along U.S. Highway 2 had snow stacked a yard high on the rooftops. As the mountains declined to foothills, snow berms reached from the ground to the roof eaves, while the shingles had blown bare.
The National Weather Service recorded 78 inches of snow at East Glacier in February alone, setting a new record and burying the average 28.7 inches for the month. For the 2017-18 winter, East Glacier has accumulated 242.5 inches — more than double any other monitor site covered by the Weather Service's Great Falls office. The next competitor was West Yellowstone, which currently has 115.6 inches.
But sustained winds of 50 mph off the Front and temperatures always below freezing kept that snow constantly on the move. The landscape farther south around Choteau looks like a postcard Montana winter, with a solid blanket of white. The Blackfeet Reservation seems almost zebra-striped, with tons of snow here but not there.
In Browning, Four Winds Assembly of God Pastor Joel Toppen recalled one day that defined the strangeness.
“I stepped outside into sunshine, but a quarter-mile that way and you’re in trouble,” he said, gesturing up the main drag toward the north end of town. “You look over there toward the casino and it’s a ground blizzard. You couldn’t see anything.”
Blackfeet Disaster and Emergency Services Director Robert DesRosier started bracing residents for trouble on Jan. 4, warning that impending weather would put people at risk of isolation in the 1.5-million-acre reservation. A blizzard on January 12 dumped an impressive load of snow. Typical Chinook winds, which might have compacted and melted that accumulation, failed to follow. Instead, subsequent blizzards kept churning the drifts like a wolverine in a flour mill.
“We’ll be talking about this one for a long time,” DesRosier said Wednesday. “We’re in our 11th day of continuous operations trying to manage storm requests. We just got access to Heart Butte today for the first time in a couple weeks. We were rescuing folks on the highways a couple nights running. There’s been so much stuff coming at me, I can’t remember all the statistics unless I write them down.”
What DesRosier does know is roughly half of the 9,000 residents on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation live in isolated river bottoms and ravines. Cellphone coverage is sketchy. Even two-way radios don’t penetrate some wrinkles in the landscape. Often the only way to get food, fuel and medical supplies to some outposts was on a sled pulled by a horse.
Wednesday’s break in the weather had resupply missions heading off in all directions: Kiowa, Babb, Duck Lake and a dozen more unnamed collections of homes sprinkled across the reservation. At the Blackfeet Food Pantry, Roy Crawford had staff sorting three kinds of food: government commodities, donated groceries and sacks.
That last is the pile of brimming paper sacks, each stuffed with a loaf of bread, apples, potatoes, cans of soup and beans, peanut butter, jelly and applesauce. One bag holds enough to feed a family of five for about two days. Crawford keeps the pile replenished so every snowplow driver, game warden, tribal police officer, sheriff’s deputy and anyone else patrolling the snowdrifts can stash several in the trunk to pass on as emergency rations.
While pantry workers usually sort and distribute state-provided food, the scale of the blizzard problem dwarfed that supply. Instead, charities, churches and concerned citizens have been sending whatever can get through. Within an hour on Thursday morning, Crawford received a thousand pounds of frozen turkey gathered by Missoula-based Essential Eats Distributors and two semi-truck loads of food from Albertsons Corp.
“Someone from their distribution office just called while they were getting on a plane in Miami (Florida) and said ‘What can I do?’” Crawford said. “They’re sending 478 cases of dry goods, 50 cases of beef brisket and a team of drivers. That’s what it’s been like. You get one load taken care of and start getting ready for the next one. I got 160 cases of chicken and it was gone within half an hour after we got the word out.”
Gov. Steve Bullock declared a winter storm emergency for the Blackfeet, Fort Belknap and Northern Cheyenne reservations on Wednesday, and visited Browning on Thursday. DesRosier said that relieved the concern as to whether all the overtime, fuel and supply bills would get covered. The state also provided extra snow-removal equipment and a team of mechanics to keep them running.
Pantry worker Lonnie Pemberton said the only time he could remember a crisis this intense was the winter of 1979.
“They called that the ‘Cap’n Crunch Winter,’ ” Pemberton said. “They helicoptered in loads of Cap’n Crunch and Quisp cereal. My mouth was sore for a month trying to chew all that Cap’n Crunch.”
Another difference, Pemberton said, was the prevalence of social media this time — both high- and low-tech. Tribal authorities have been using Facebook and other apps to update road reports, food distribution opportunities and requests for aid. And Pemberton and friends have been operating their low-power FM radio channel to spread the word to those without cellphone connections.
A mile south of Browning at the Bump Ranch, Sheriann Hill has been coordinating donations provided through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). A major function has been coordinating chainsaw volunteers to break down semi-loads of logs into firewood.
“We’re sending out a half-cord of wood per household,” Hill said. “At our house, we’re getting drifts over our horse barn. We’re climbing 12- to 16-foot drifts just to feed the animals. But we have people stuck in homes in Home Gun Ridge, St. Mary’s, Kiowa, Babb — just about every outlying community has been affected. As soon as they got roads opened, the winds picked it back up and shut it again.”
Heart Butte may have drawn the strangest hand from this winter’s deck of surprises. As the blizzards ground into gear, so did the Heart Butte Warriors boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. They headed out on Feb. 10 for a thrilling run through the state Northern Class C divisional tournament in Great Falls, along with many family members and friends. Most couldn’t return for two weeks as Heart Butte all but vanished off the road map.
“We couldn’t get into this street for two weeks,” said Heart Butte resident Cat Vance, standing in a berm just outside a row of houses next to the outdoor basketball court where Wells and Nomee were playing. A rotary plow had cut a lane barely wide enough for a single car — five times. At the next row of houses, a trio of children ran across the snow from their yard to the eave of their roof, just because.
“We made homemade bread, homemade soup for days,” said neighbor Cyan Wagner. “We lost water for about two days when a snowplow ran over a fire hydrant and flooded the area in the middle of the blizzard.”
With the brief break in the weather last week, attention turned to a coming crisis. All that snow has to go somewhere when it melts. Road crews not detailed to cutting through drifts have been assigned to dump truck relays hauling thousands of gallons of future floodwater to a well-drained field south of town.
“My nightmare is we get a cold spring and then a hot rain and it all melts,” Pastor Toppen said. “I’ve already ordered 100 sandbags for the church property. We got heavy snow last year and water pooled everywhere. This year, we’ve got two times as much.”
Three miles north of Browning, Gordon Azure and Keely Carrette were walking to town for groceries for the first time in a week and a half. That involved almost stepping over the stop sign on Blevins Road, still buried up to its octagonal disk in a drift.
“People can’t find the road, so they’ve been driving through our yard,” Azure said. “The UMCOR folks brought us some firewood, but they had to toss it off the truck and I had to slide it over in a toboggan. I can’t wait to get to town and get a good, greasy hamburger.”
As they slid down the drift toward the bare asphalt of Duck Lake Road, Carette pointed out a large bird flying their way.
“That’s a golden eagle,” Azure said. “When you see one, it means good luck.”