Ontonagon couple heads West, swept up in a flood
The old saying, ‘when it rains it pours’ may be applicable in areas familiar with floods. It sure isn’t something those near the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park (YNP), in Gardiner, Montana would expect. This is an area that had been suffering from years of drought conditions, and a fire that took many buildings and businesses 2 years ago. As well as a big hit from Covid-19 when the park closed for an extended time.
Challenges continued in Gardiner when extreme flooding ripped through YNP and the surrounding area in June. The flood did millions of dollars in damage to roads and more.
“For those of us in Gardiner, we only have a single road in and out of town, as well as the North East entrance to YNP. Things got real scary when it was announced that bridges and roads were washed out and we were stuck!” explains Sandy Monville.
Sandy and her husband, John, were lifelong residents of Ontonagon.
“It’s like the storms we are familiar with in Ontonagon. It looked like a bad storm, we just didn’t know how bad.”
3 days of rain, plus snow pack in the mountains all contributed to this one in 500 year flood.”
The Monvilles move was sparked by Sandy’s wildlife photography.
“I attended a ‘Speak for Wolves Symposium’ in 2015 at West Yellowstone. A friend and I made the trip west and I simply fell in love with the area. The beauty, the wildlife, the opportunity to take pictures of the wolves, elk, bighorn sheep, bison, coyotes, and lots of other animals and birds,” commented Sandy Monville.
“I told John that he really needed to go on a trip there and see for himself what had me all excited. He agreed and we took 2 trips together to the Yellowstone area. He soon saw and felt exactly what I was feeling. Then we started talking about moving to the area.”
For John that meant he would have the chance to do some fly fishing on the beautiful Yellowstone River and see amazing scenery. He would also help with photography by driving Sandy around the park.
“I have fallen in love with fishing, something I did not do much of in Ontonagon, and I too fell in love with the abundance and variety of Wildlife, and I really enjoy the scenery,” commented John Monville.”
Sandy worked part time for the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce. Her love for the area, knowledge of Yellowstone National Park, and the wildlife, the Chamber was a perfect fit. If she couldn’t ‘sell’ people on visiting the Park, no one could.
“It was the prefect job for me as I loved to tell visitors about my adventures in the park as well as what they could soon expect to see” said Sandy.
Then on June 13, the clouds opened up. Aerial photos provided by the National Park Service (NPS) the following day, showed many washed-out roads in the park. Gardiner had lost homes, roads and bridges. NPS evacuated over 10,000 visitors the day of the flood, some with helicopters.
No lives were lost in the event, but destruction of the road into YNP would prove to be devastating to the small gateway community, especially along the Yellowstone River according to a US Geological Survey news release.
“When I got the flood warning on my phone I went down to the river. I couldn’t believe all the debris, including all the trees that were rushing down the river. I went to a friend’s house, close to ours. We stood on her deck watching the river rise. It went from being about 30 feet from the deck to a few inches in minutes,” explained Sandy.
“I was worried about John, who was in the Park. At that time I didn’t know that roads and bridges were being washed out. Which is good as I would have had a nervous breakdown.”
Monville’s residence was safe as it was about 100 yards from the river.
John called and said he was safe, he was helping park employees with evacuation. John was ultimately stuck in Mammoth Hot Springs for three days. The one road to Gardiner was gone. A road that used to take 15 minutes to get home, now took four and a half hours.
“You often see on the news the many natural disasters that take place around the world. You always sympathize with what people are going through, you never expect that you will be in the middle of one,” Sandy remarks. “I sat and watched a 5 family housing unit for park employees go into the river. They lost everything.”
The Monville’s state that a bridge down the road from them was lost to the raging river.
“At that point we thought. We are safe, at home, now what can we do to help others. Like every community that goes through such a tragic event, everyone pulled together. It was a crazy and scary time,” Sandy said.
With the North Entrance to YNP still closed down, it really hit the tourism economy in Gardiner. It also left Sandy without her part-time job at the chamber for a few weeks. She states that many people lost their jobs, businesses shut their doors for the entire ‘money-making’ summer.
“The flood devastated our small town. The summer months it’s the tourism economy that keeps Gardiner going.”
Tourists were no longer going to Gardiner to stay, eat and shop.
“Cancellations were the norm,” Sandy reports.
The damage to the road getting into Gardiner also made it difficult for the 900 residents of the town.
“With the road in and out of town being washed out, any emergency services were provided by helicopter.
“You just felt trapped,” Sandy explained, “I was so thankful I had just grocery shopped a day before and had plenty of bottled water and food. No one knew for days what was going to happen. How we would get out, or how John would get in! Gardiner was without clean water for weeks. I can tell you, the power of water is strong and violent.”
Not knowing when the road in and out of Gardener to the park was going to be repaired, the Monville’s thought of their dream to live amongst the wildlife may have come to an abrupt end.
“We moved here because we had close access to the park, and now it is inaccessible to us. For how long, who knows,” Sandy assumes. “We were used to going into the park 3 to 4 times a week. This broke our heart!”
They called friends back in Ontonagon to help them find a place to live. They knew their stay in Gardiner would be temporary. They did not plan on returning so soon.
The flood just changed everything. Having a hard time finding a place to live in Ontonagon ended up being a ‘god-send.’
“It means we get to stay here a little longer. I was ok with that as I was not ready to leave this beautiful place just yet,” Sandy states.
The North East Entrance to the park from Gardiner is still being worked on. The park service made the choice to use an old one way wagon trail that ran from Gardiner to Mammoth.
“Which is a big lift for the town folk of Gardiner. “We need that road open! They are working night and day to get this road done. It’s a huge project in a very mountainous area. It is not an easy task”, stated Sandy.
The park service is also still working on a badly damaged road in the park that goes through the famous Lamar Valley to the north east entrance.
Visitors have been allowed to travel it with 2 traffic lights added.
“Extremely strange to see traffic lights in Yellowstone,” John says.” But if it works to get visitors back in that area I am all for it. To be back in the Lamar Valley after 4 months is huge as it pretty much was our home away from home. We, as well as many other visitors, are very grateful for the hard work that has been put in repairing all the damaged roads. To say it was a huge Project is an understatement.”
So the Monville’s are staying in Gardiner for now. With apologies to an Ontonagon Gift Shop, they are ‘Living the dream.’ The dream of living next to YNP. They are back to taking hundreds of wildlife pictures and documenting every moment.
Sandy shares many of her photos with friends and family on her Facebook page. They also have a YouTube Channel with videos.
You can check out their YouTube page at: John and Sandys Wild Yellowstone.
Yellowstone is often called the Serengeti of the US. It has the largest concentration of viewable wildlife anywhere in the U.S.
“I have taken pictures of the wolves on the hunt, and sleeping as a pack. I have some great pictures of grizzly’s, some even closer than I wanted. I love documenting the seasons of the wildlife. Such as the elk, the bighorn sheep rut, and of course the spring season with all the babies running around. Everyone needs to see Yellowstone, it is just so magical.” Sandy states, with John quickly adding, “You better cut her off or she will talk to you for hours about all the pictures, moments and adventures we have been on.”
Sandy knows this has been a once in a lifetime opportunity and she has documented it well. As Sandy says, “It has been one daily amazing wild ride that you never want to get off. Even with a flood thrown at us, we have absolutely no regrets. The best move we ever made!”