EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s rare, but sometimes circumstances align, and a reporter comes face-to-face with an important and timely story with a personal connection.
This is one of those rare times.
For this story the Sun Times was able to get an exclusive interview with a member of the party that was evacuated by helicopter from the Bob Marshall Wilderness last Tuesday, June 19th.
I’ve known Megan Repass for about four years. I had never met her in person, but we had spoken over the years about a farm my sister and I own near Nashville, Tennessee.
About the 11th of June, I received a message from Megan that she was heading to Montana.
She flew into Great Falls on Friday the 16th, and we decided to meet for a beer. We met at the Cowboy Bar and Museum in Great Falls. I had never been there, and I thought it was a unique spot for a person visiting the Treasure State for the first time.
After a couple of beers, we went our separate ways, with the possibility to meet again before Megan would return to Tennessee.
Megan was in Montana with colleagues from Onsite, a Tennessee company where she works. More about that later.
As the new week started and the wet weather settled in, I thought Megan and her party might be seeing better weather in the wilderness. I assumed everything was fine.
On Tuesday, the UPS driver showed up with a load of boxes – the 2018 Augusta American Legion Rodeo programs that the Sun Times had published. In passing, I told the driver that I would be taking the boxes to Augusta on Wednesday.
“Augusta is closed,” the driver said. All roads into and out of Augusta were shut down due to flooding at that time. Later that day I headed to Simms to see how high the Sun River was. On the bridge across the Sun River I ran into a measuring crew from USGS. They did not sound optimistic about the river.
Tuesday evening, I was at home when a simple text came up on my phone, something to the effect of “I wanted to let you know I’m safe. I was one of those evaced [evacuated] out.” The text was from Megan.
Over the next few days Megan visited other parts of the state: Babb, Glacier National Park, Bozeman and, of course, Great Falls.
On Friday afternoon we returned to the Cowboy Bar and Museum for this interview.
Megan Repass grew up in the small Ohio town of Haskins. She describes the town as “Like Augusta,” but smaller. Teeny, with no stoplight, one bar and one church. Now 32 years old, Megan left Haskins at age 19 when she came west to attend National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming. She would take her semester with NOLS in the southwest.
At NOLS, Megan studied wilderness expedition to become a guide. After graduating from NOLS, she went back to school at Bowling Green State University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Education (outdoor recreation and recreation management). “Things like outdoor tourism,” Megan told the Sun Times.
After Bowling Green, she worked in outdoor education, traveling all over, but spending a lot of time taking kids canoeing, hiking and backpacking in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
In 2008, Megan returned to Wyoming where she worked as a horsepacker, packing out of the Wind River Range – the Tetons – at Boulder, Wyoming.
“The west is in my blood,” says Megan. “And the mountains are in my blood. I’ve been going to the mountains of Vermont, the Green Mountains and the White Mountains since I was a kid. My grandfather was from Vermont.”
In 2012 Megan moved to Tennessee to attend grad school at Lipscomb University, earning her master’s degree in psychology. She settled into a small community on the outskirts of Nashville, Kingston Springs. According to Megan, Augusta reminded her of Kingston Springs, even though the Tennessee town is larger, with about 2,800 residents. “It’s still a small town – one bar, three churches… it has the same feel as Augusta.” She said that, like Augusta, people are moving from the larger cities to Kingston Springs. But, she says, there is still that core of the community. “The people who have been there generationally love and accept those who have transplanted in, who are like-minded and hard working.”
Megan works for a company, Onsite, based in Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee. She went to work for Onsite one year ago. Megan’s venture into The Bob was work related, and she told the Sun Times that she “begged for this trip.”
Megan is the Director of Equine Therapy and Director of Adventure Therapy for Onsite. She is also Program Director for Milestones, a treatment facility for trauma at Onsite.
Onsite is a company, according to Megan, that provides workshops for individuals, companies and groups for “emotional wellness in lots of different areas.” Milestones, she says, is a 30 – 90 day residential treatment facility for adults with trauma. “The most resilient people in the world come to Milestones.”
The group that came with Megan to Montana was an Onsite workshop. Onsite has had a long relationship with Augusta’s Mills Outfitters. “Onsite has been coming out here every summer for more than 20 years doing a program in the Bob [Marshall Wilderness] for people who are seeking some emotional growth by stepping into an environment that they can learn from… the mountains, the horses… just disconnect from society for a while and focus on themselves.”
Megan assumed that Montana would be like Wyoming. “I was so wrong.”
Megan has guided youth, young adults and adults into the backcountry for ten years. She is very familiar with this kind of trip.
I asked her how, if she was - before her visit - asked to close her eyes and describe the picture she sees – how her mind would paint Montana, she thought for a moment. “Cold. Mountains. Large ranches. No bull. Show up with your resiliency. That’s how I would have described Montana.” Megan continued, “Be ready for an environment where the weather can change at any moment. The heritage and the culture here are so deeply rooted.”
But what about the people? “Grit. Tough.”
Recalling her mental picture of Montana as “cold,” I ask if it was cold up in the wilderness. “Mountain cold? No. But when you’re soaked to the bone, no matter what rain gear you have on, at night, it’s hard to stay warm, to stop shivering.”
They left the trailhead at about noon on Sunday, and Megan describes the weather as they headed into the wilderness as a sometimes hard rain; sometimes sleeting... cold and miserable. She said that every single person in the group was so appreciative to be in Montana, “despite the nasty weather, we were all smiling.”
So, compared to her mental picture, did Montana deliver? “A thousand times over.” And the people in Montana… in Augusta? “The people delivered in a way I did not expect.” She said Montana people were “salt of the earth, deeply rooted in their heritage and culture; no BS, hardworking… they will show up and do anything for you, no questions asked. That’s just their way of life.”
There is a video, first posted by the Helena Independent-Record, taken by a camera mounted on the Two Bear Air helicopter that evacuated the Onsite party and took them to Augusta. I asked Megan if she was one of the ones in the scene, with a small group standing outside of a tent as the chopper searched for a suitable landing spot. “No,” she tells me. Megan was in the flooded camp’s kitchen, keeping the fire going in the stove. “We knew that Amy and Tucker (Mills) were going to be staying behind.”
Asked about the clients taking photos with the cell phone cameras of the helicopter hovering over them, Megan said that there was, of course, no cell service in the wilderness, so everyone had conserved their phone batteries, using them to shoot photos. But, as Megan described it, the “densest fog” hid the Rocky Mountain scenery from the party. “You couldn’t see 100 yards in front of you.” Sure, said Megan, everyone has seen a helicopter, “but there is a big difference between seeing a helicopter and being picked up by one in the “middle of a flash flood.”
She said a lot of credit goes to Two Bear Air. “The landing zone was tiny and flooded. And the ground was moving. It was like the pilot threaded a needle” to put the chopper down for the evac. Megan stressed how great the folks at Two Bear Air were. “They came to get us when no one else would, and there was no charge for their service.”
Was there any sense of panic? “No,” said Megan. “Zero. Tucker and Amy know what they are doing. We made the decision – you always make the decision to evac – before you’re unsafe. The decision we made was the right one.” She said that right up until they boarded the helicopter, everyone had “smiles on their faces, were working hard, and keeping the fire going. Our group of people were more than incredible – they were always able to find the beauty amongst all circumstances.”
The party had moved their camp repeatedly, trying to stay above the growing river. Even though the camp was “washed out,” Megan said that lives were never in danger.
Did Megan and the party see things that, if the weather had been clear, that they might not have noticed? “We didn’t see the mountains of Montana, but we saw the heart of Montana in Tucker and Amy. We saw what this state represents.” She said she did see vegetation and wildflowers that we might not have noticed under better conditions.
How about wildlife? “No. They [the wildlife] were all smart as crap. They were hunkered down, saying ‘it’s pouring, man.’” Still, Megan said that she did see a chipmunk and a squirrel (jokingly), and heard a bird she had never heard before, which she was grateful for.
The weather that shrouded their views, Megan believes, caused the group to focus more on their horses on their ride to camp. “A horse that is born and raised and worked in the mountains is different than any other horse you will ride. They have a different mindset; they are more surefooted, more grounded. It’s kinda like going into their world for a second, and it’s an honor to be in their world.”
This was the seventh trip for the other two Onsite staff, and their clients all had some level of riding experience. “But,” said Megan, “that doesn’t matter much when you go back with someone like Tucker or Amy.” As Megan explains it, the Mills pair a horse with the rider, picking the right horse for the rider, considering the rider’s experience and ability.
Asked if the party was sad as the Montana adventure came to an end under the spinning blades of a helicopter, Megan said the attitude as the abbreviated visit came to an end was gratitude. “Immense gratitude for Tucker and Amy; for Two Bear Air, for the people of Augusta. For people like Amy’s parents – it was her dad that came and picked us up when the helicopter landed at Augusta and drove through floodwaters to get us to a hotel.”
Was there disappointment? “No, more like appreciation and acceptance, that it turned out exactly the way it was supposed to turn out. It’s one of those things – you get exactly what you came to get, but it didn’t play out exactly the way you thought you were going to get it.” Megan said the clients are eager to come back, “of course they want to see the peaks and ride more. Onsite’s an incredible company, and we will arrange something for them to do in the future.”
With all that happened, I asked Megan if she was able to spend much time in Augusta. “Yes, I spent some time there before we headed out, and when we returned. I was there yesterday [Thursday], helping Tucker and Amy unload the gear they brought out for us. That was so kind of them to do that.” And she and her party were able to meet the people of Augusta, and under the worse possible conditions, see the best – not just in Augusta or Montana, but in humanity: “We were evaced out Tuesday morning. There were four groups – four rides. I was on the last one. The first group went to the diner in Augusta, Mel’s Diner, and it was flooded. The people there were so sweet, they did everything they could to feed us warm food. But the cook had to leave, her home was flooding, so one of our facilitators jumped in to help finish cooking the eggs and we served ourselves.”
Even the local deputy helped put everyone’s mind at ease. “When we got off the helicopter the deputy was there to pick us up. It was pretty disheartening, as we approached Augusta in the chopper you see the town and all this water as far as you can see; you see the rivers converging, and the roads flooding. It’s scary to be taken out of the mountains and into a town that’s flooding. But the deputy picked us up in his truck. We were laughing and happy, and this deputy was so calm and level-headed. He told us, ‘Well, ya’ll might be stuck here. I don’t know if you can get out.’ I was like ‘WHAT?’, and the deputy said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be stuck here, too.’ That calmed me. Just so grounded.”
Megan continued, “Amy’s parents, Mark and Renee, God Bless them. Mark picked us up in his SUV and drove through water he probably shouldn’t have, but he knew that we needed to be with the rest of our group. I think we were one of the last cars to leave Augusta.”
With her background, I take the opportunity to tell Megan about the wounded veterans that visit Augusta, and how just being in the shadow of the Rockies seems to have a healing power. I ask her what it is about this spot that seems so therapeutic? “It has more obvious creation that has never been tainted by man. The wilderness provides an environment for you to be surrounded by something that was created by a power greater than yourself and everything in the wilderness has a purpose. And where you’re surrounded by things that have a purpose, and you’re in an environment where everything is working the way that it should, it naturally helps you believe that you have a purpose, despite your circumstances. The wilderness changes with grace, and we can, too.”
After getting dried out, Megan made use of her time in Montana and visited Many Glacier, Babb, Great Falls and Bozeman. But did any of them touch her soul like Augusta? “No, the town of Augusta stopped what they were doing to put visitors first. Not many towns would do that.”
As we wrap up the interview, I ask Megan if she has any final thoughts. “Tucker and Amy are the most professional and experienced guides I’ve ever been with. I trust them with my life. I can’t wait to come back. Every decision was made correctly and ahead of time so that we never got into a place of danger.
It’s hard for me to leave. I don’t want to get on the plane tomorrow.
I want to stay.”
This article appeared in the June 28, 2018 edition of The Fairfield Sun Times. The story was later uploaded to our newly designed website.