High Water

The thing about a flood, a forest fire, a famine… when you're in it, you are hyper-conscious of two things: whether it's getting worse or whether it's getting better. You could certainly argue that your primary concern is for the welfare of the people you love and the property you own (absolutely in that order), but trend-spotting becomes a serious preoccupation. After all, if the fire is abating, you can stop clearing brush and focus on feeding your family. If the famine is easing, you can stop stealing food and start planting seeds. In my case, if the water is receding, you can stop filling sandbags and turn your attention to pumping water. Last weekend we very nearly lost our house. The highest recorded elevation of the Milk River through my valley is 33.2 feet. That was back in 1952, when the combination of ice jams and snowmelt pushed the river so far out of its banks that it swallowed entire towns, stranded most valley farms and prompted years of levee building and flood prevention efforts. To put this elevation in context, flood stage is 25 feet. So when the river started to rise, we took it seriously. On Saturday morning flood water pushed across the flat alfalfa fields around our house, and then topped a dike (see Fighting the Flood). At one point the water rose 2 inches every hour. Our low-slung house would be flooded. We started moving equipment, decking it on the elevated county road, where it looked like the aftermath of an Ozark's divorce.
We didn't sleep Saturday night. Instead, I prowled our sandbag line while my wife tended the sump pumps, which were whining non-stop in a valiant effort to keep the basement dry. But the water rose overnight, and threatened to top our sandbags. So we called Chris, one of those friends who can be counted on in any situation. We filled and stacked dozens of more sandbags.
This photo is from just about the high-water mark. The house is an island in a lake that varies in depth from 2 to 5 feet.
We are cut off from the road, from our outbuildings. If the river rises another few inches, we will probably have to give in to the flood and let the water reach our foundation. Our pumps probably wouldn't be able to keep up with the seep.
Here's where the trend-spotting is both a curse and a blessing. My kids' job, besides stacking sandbags, was to keep planting tent stakes at the water's edge. That way we could know at a glance whether the water was rising or receding. As we saw the water rising, we put extra effort into stacking and positioning sandbags, pumping water, even baling the foundation with old coffee cans.
We could also get an idea of the water's status by watching animals. When the water came up, this cat stayed on the bags and wouldn't get off for anything.
And our barn looked like a staging area for Noah and his arc. Horses, chickens and cats all crowded in the higher portion of the barn, edgy and hungry.
But even nervous chickens lay eggs. When I had a moment, I relied on a more sophisticated barometer of the flood's progress. The National Weather Service has a series of river gages that are checked every few hours, the results posted on a website that is refreshed with every new posting. Notice the crest of the Milk on Saturday night into Sunday morning. The river topped out at just under 33 feet. That's the very same time we worried most about water topping our sandbags.
Just when we thought we couldn't handle another inch of water or another hour of fighting it, the level started to back down. We woke Monday morning to a solid 2-inch drop. So, even though they had to wade to our vehicles and be taken a long way around the flood zone, the kids got to school.
And when they got home, after doing chores, they still read books on the couch, more or less oblivious to the new lake in the front yard and corral.
Our neighbor wasn't so lucky. His house filled with floodwater in a matter of two hours on Sunday afternoon. On Monday, the empty house radiated a sort of eerie calm, and even the ducks weren't shy about paddling around the new habitat.
Meanwhile, our county road remains disabled by floodwaters.
But another neighbor asked me to help him string up a railing of sorts across the rapids. We'd have to boat to the spot.
In floods like this, small nimble boats with either low-horsepower gas motors or electric trolling motors are more valuable than big v-hull walleye boats.
After we string the rope, Bob takes a test wade.
The current is swift and the scour holes in the roadbed deep, but as long as you trust a wading staff (and not the rope), the hand-hold provides additional stability.
Meanwhile, the water takes its time leaving my house. Notice the value of sandbags in this photo. The difference in elevation between the wet side and the dry side of the sandbag line is about 4 inches. I entered this flood as a skeptic of the ability of sandbags to keep our house dry, but I'm a total convert. You have to fill and stack them correctly but when laid correctly, they can literally turn a tide of water. We are expecting another river crest this weekend, but hopefully our sandbags are tight and our will is strong. We can deal with high water. As long as it isn't too high.