After shopping for seven years, Powell’s Christy and Larry Larsen finally found their dream cabin in the shadow of Pilot Peak in the Beartooth Range.
Christy, a third-grade teacher at Westside, likes to spend her summers at the cabin. Larry is the market president at Big Horn Federal Savings Bank in Powell and hopes to someday retire to the property. But this year, they’ll miss the views and the fresh air for the most part. A large chunk of shifting land is hanging on by a thread above the couple’s retirement plan.
“It’s a little unnerving to stay there right now,” Larry said Friday while waiting for news.
The large patch of land, situated in the Shoshone National Forest above them on Hunter’s Peak — their backyard — has moved 4 feet in the last week. Families further north have already seen their memories, packed in vacation homes, swept away by mudslides.
The Beartooth Range had record amounts of snow this past winter. The snow came early, insulating the ground before frost could develop. Now, as the snow melts, the water is soaking into the ground instead of rushing into the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. When the water content becomes too great, the heavy ground on the slopes break loose, taking with it everything in its path.
“They’ve been gauging the snowfall every year since 1935 and this is the most we’ve had, including that year,” said Richard Zickefoose, co-owner of the Beartooth Lodge across the highway from the hillside.
Charlie Cooley’s family cabin backed up to Hunter Peak and was surrounded by second homes, owned by nature-loving, like-minded people. Cooley has enjoyed tooling around on ATVs and having fun with his drone in the area. This past weekend, though, the drone became a tool: Cooley used it to get photos of his cabin and the surrounding area devastated by the mudslides.
On Wednesday, Cooley was able to rescue some family heirlooms. Sliding mud and debris had knocked the cabin off its foundation, but it was still in mostly one piece. Cooley was going to attempt to divert the water and possibly save his property.
Then on Thursday, the cabin was pushed another 70 yards down the hillside and split in two pieces. Rushing water from above poured into the home, carrying debris and threatening to send it further down the hill.
“It’s a monumental loss,” Cooley said of his cabin. “We’re still sifting through it all right now.”
Cooley and members of his family purchased it from his grandmother just a little more than a year ago; it’s been in the family since 1993.
Mud covers most of the land, feet deep in places.
“I’ve been in that mud and it’s a mess — I don’t think any of it’s safe. You could have a tree come down at anytime. The water is still coming down — it just keeps flowing. There’s nothing they can do,” Zickefoose said.
Next door, the Smith cabin was beginning to move in the same direction. The deck and parts of the cabin were already sliding downhill with more rain in the forecast.
“We really feel bad about this,” Zickefoose said. “This was their dream place. ... it’s a total loss.”
Not only are the cabins destroyed, but they may not be able to be rebuild on the property, stripping the real estate value from the land. And cleanup could cost thousands more. Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover landslides, Larsen said.
Above the residential area is a plateau that collects a lot of moisture from above. Elk summer in the space, using a natural spring. After the mudslide, the spring was blocked by debris and diverted to the north. Local residents also relied on the spring, said Misty Streeter, year-round resident and treasurer of the Higgins Pipeline, which served about 20 customers in the area.
“The pipeline doesn’t exist anymore. It’s gone,” Streeter said Monday morning. “What used to be our spring has channeled into another section and is coming down over the Cooley place.”
Streeter’s home is also jeopardized by loose ground on the slope behind her home. She said it has stopped moving as it dries — for now.
“It makes you a little nervous, especially after what happened down the road. Right now we’re more worried about runoff next year,” she said.
Residents would like to take measures to shore up the land, but it’s complicated, because the unsteady slope is Shoshone National Forest property. Several residents have attempted to contact the agency, but had yet to receive return calls as of Monday morning.
“We can’t touch it without permission,” Streeter said. “I guess if it’s going to come, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Forest Service engineers were unavailable for comment as of the deadline for this story.
Longtime residents have worried about those building on the slope. Rick Wogoman, 75, has seen several area landslides over the past decades. One of the most devastating slides — triggered by an earthquake — created Quake Lake in southwest Montana in 1964, Wogoman said. He’s not sure if the question is if a slide will come, but when.
“The whole side of the mountain could come unglued,” Wogoman said while inspecting the damage near the Cooley cabin. “We’ve seen this coming for years.”