Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)
PROPHETS AND PARIAHS
Alias Benowitz Shoe Repair
I FIRST HEARD ABOUT GEORGE OCHENSKI from a friend of mine who happens to be president of the Montana River-Snorkelers Association. We were in a fancy restaurant, as I recall, and there was wine involved. Ochenski had come to my friend’s attention in the course of his (the friend’s) presidential duties, which in strict point of fact are nonexistent. I should explain that the MRSA presidency is a purely honorary title, self-bestowed actually, because the MRSA is a mythical organization. This is quite different, please note, from labeling the organization itself nonexistent. Certainly the Montana River-Snorkelers Association does exist (mainly over wine and beer at various bars and restaurants, occasionally also around a campfire); it just isn’t real. An actual mythical entity, then, the MRSA, of roughly the same ontological status as the NCAA national championship in football, or the domino theory of international relations. You should look into this fellow Ochenski, my friend told me. He can be reached care of Benowitz Shoe Repair, in a tiny town called Southern Cross, up in the Flint Mountains above Anaconda. Have some more cabernet, I said. But sure enough, it turned out to be true. Benowitz Shoe Repair is another mythical entity, existent in its own way but not real. George Ochenski is both mythical and real. Are you with me so far?
Ochenski must certainly be the preeminent river-snorkeler in the Rocky Mountains. He has talent, commitment, infectious enthusiasm, broad experience, state-of-the-art equipment, and a measure of lunatic daring. He has precious little competition. Most importantly, he has self-abnegating dedication to a larger purpose. Sometimes you have to snorkel a river, Ochenski believes, in order to save it.
So dedicated is George Ochenski, and so scornful of risk, that—if necessary to make a point—he is willing even to snorkel the Clark Fork River downstream from the Anaconda smelter.
A river-snorkeler, in case this isn’t self-evident, is someone who swims downstream in a river with his face underwater, enjoying the ride, watching the scenery, breathing through a little tube. It’s a lazy, hypnotic pastime best practiced on pellucid trout streams in midsummer. A few of us have been toying at it for years.
But George Ochenski does not toy. He jimmies himself into a full wetsuit, adds fins and a hood and neoprene gloves and a fanny pack holding three cans of beer, pulls a pair of skateboarding knee pads into place, defogs his mask, and jumps into rivers. Gentle rivers, and raging whitewater monsters. Last year, for instance, he did 38 miles of the Salmon River in Idaho without benefit of a boat. Also last year he leapt into the Quake Lake trench—an unusually steep and ragged stretch of the Madison River, created by rockfall during an earthquake, famous for biting kayaks in half—and nearly died. On that run his mask was ripped off six times while he tumbled head over teakettle through a garden of sharp boulders. The trench experience, George admits today, was a miscalculation. In Montana this kind of behavior does not pass unnoticed. By word, and more discreetly by the looks on their faces, people frequently tell him: Son, you must be out of your everlovin’ skull. But they said that to Orville Wright, and they were wrong. Then again, they said it to Evel Knievel, and they were right. George Ochenski figures somewhere in between.
He has an enduring though ambivalent attraction to what he calls “death sports.” Huge squinting grin from George as he acknowledges this ambivalence. Mountaineering. Ice climbing. Scuba. Never a major injury, never a bad accident—unless you count the time he fell 600 feet down a rock slope in the Alaska Range and did a self-arrest on his nose. Back in those years he traveled exotically for serious climbing, with generous sponsorship from the equipment companies, and took part in the first successful ascent of the west face of Alaska’s Mount Hayes. Scaled some breathtaking frozen waterfalls. Around the same time, a consummate autodidact, he turned himself into an expert cobbler, because he wasn’t satisfied with the professional repair work on his climbing boots; before long he was doing work for his friends too, and they had rechristened him, whimsically and metonymically, “Benowitz Shoe Repair.” Today he mostly stays close to the little wood-heated cabin at Southern Cross, in the front of which stands a bass fiddle. The fiddle is a logical switch from tuba, which he played for thirteen years. Benowitz is a man of many skills.
Several years ago, in response to pressures both internal and external, he gave up the glorious climbing, thanked the sponsors, and settled down to being useful politically. He had come to feel that he owed something back to the mountains and rivers; meanwhile, there happened to be a certain crisis brewing near home. He now makes his living as an editorial assistant to an author of textbooks on environmental science. The cabin is filled ceiling-high with an eclectic library. On one wall is a quote from Congressman Ron Dellums, a statement of mixed metaphors and straightforward passion: “Democracy is not about being a damn spectator against the backdrop of tap-dancing politicians swinging in the winds of expediency.” Ochenski himself, by disposition and habit, is certainly no spectator. Some people, particularly among interests on the opposing side, might still take him for a wild-haired, good-timing, reckless flake. They would be grievously mistaken. George Ochenski has an excellent brain, he has chutzpah, he has focus.
And in a small trailer up the hill behind his cabin, he has an Apple computer, its floppy disks full of damning information concerning the Anaconda Minerals Company.
On September 29, 1980, the Anaconda Company announced that it was closing its copper-smelting operations at the town of Anaconda. This came as a severe shock to the 1,000 smelter workers suddenly unemployed, and marked the end of a century of awesome environmental pillage. For one hundred years the Company (as it’s known in Anaconda and Butte) had cut down forests, poisoned streams, smelted copper and other valuable metals, piled up vast mounds of slag, filled the air of the county with a sulfurous smog, and preserved its standing with the local community—despite such depredations—by dispensing regular paychecks. Now the economics of copper had shifted. Goodbye, thanks for everything. “The Company thought they could just lock the doors and walk away,” says George Ochenski.
He and a few other Anaconda folk, some of them former smelter workers, think otherwise. They are after the Company like a fice dog after a bear. They have formed an enraged-citizens’ organization, pressured the governor, pressured the congressional delegation, pressured the EPA. They want more than goodbyes. They want reclamation. They want accountability. At the very least they want precise information about the nature and magnitude of the poisonous mess left behind.
With sulfur dioxide no longer pouring from the smelter stack, the chief concern now is over toxic metals: lead, cadmium, mercury, zinc, copper itself, and especially arsenic. One hundred years of copper smelting have left various concentrations of some or all of these in the waters, in the plants, in the soil, in the animals of the county. George Ochenski and his compatriots want to know: how much? How much was dumped in the ponds, how much was buried, how much is still blowing free off the smelter site? How much is already in our lungs and our bones? How much is ingested with each rainbow trout from the Clark Fork River, if a person should be so lucky as to catch one of the surviving fish and so foolhardy as to eat it?
How much lead? How much cadmium? How much arsenic? The Anaconda Company no doubt devoutly wishes that these questions would go away.
Sometimes you have to snorkel a river in order to save it. Guided by this dictum, George Ochenski loaded his gear into the back of my car. It was late in the season, Labor Day weekend, with the air already growing cool. We paused briefly, where the gravel lane down from Southern Cross joins a paved county road, to check the Benowitz Shoe Repair mailbox. Then George led me off on a pair of brief but illuminating tours.
We went to the Big Hole River, across the Continental Divide from Anaconda and clear of the war zone over heavy metals. The Big Hole is still a pellucid trout stream. We jimmied ourselves into wetsuits, added fins and hoods and neoprene gloves; I pulled George’s one extra skateboarding pad into position over one of my knees, leaving the other to chance. Masks were defogged, snorkels adjusted, and we jumped in.
The view was beautiful. Trout and whitefish looked me in the eye, aghast, and skittered away. Sculpins darted discreetly for cover. I observed the differences in underwater behavior among three different species of stonefly. I gazed at the funnel webs of Arctopsyche caddisfly larvae, down between rocks in the fast water, which I had read about often but never before seen. I found a mayfly nymph equipped with an elephantine pair of tusks. We passed through a few modest rapids, where the current abruptly accelerated and the boulders came at us like blitzing linebackers who had to be straight-armed away. After two hours of cruising, we were nearly hypothermic, but the experience had been delightful.
Our other tour was to the Clark Fork River, downstream from the settling ponds into which the Anaconda Company has voided its years of industrial offal. “We’re off to snorkel the Clark Fork,” George told a friend as we pulled out of town. The friend looked puzzled. Huge squinting grin from George. “Then we’ll come back and glow in the dark.”
We snorkeled a long section of the Clark Fork. Here the water was turbid; visibility was poor. The rocks of the streambed were largely cemented together with silt, leaving no habitat for stone-flies or Arctopsyche. I didn’t see a single fish. I didn’t see a single insect. Some people claim that the Clark Fork today is actually much improved over its sorry condition two decades ago, before the Company adopted certain technical measures to mitigate the toxicity of its releases. Maybe those people are right. But I remain skeptical. The river I was swimming through, with my eyes open and my nose very close to the bottom, was definitely no basis for passing out congratulations.
This dramatic lack of vitality proves nothing, of course, about what causal role the smelter wastes and the erosion from denuded hillsides around Anaconda may or may not still be playing. It simply correlates. Consider it, if you wish, purest coincidence. It is not, however, mythical. It is real.
Later Benowitz and I were careful to shower ourselves down with clean water. “River-snorkeling,” he told me, and he should know, “is not supposed to be a death sport.”