Water Sports

Windsurfing the Columbia River July 1986 L. Croucher photo

Shredding at Deadman's by Craig Pierson Northwest Sailboard, Fall 1988

Signs at the lake warn boaters that high winds can rise suddenly. A rare dance party swings @ Graves Hotel in Harlowton. Craig Pierson developed Hood Vista Sailpark in the Gorge.

Even a sunny summer day can't hide the ominous and desolate nature of Deadman's Basin, a treeless, 1900-acre irrigation reservoir of the Musselshell River in central Montana. The river gets its start in the high plains, flowing lazily into the Fort Peck reservoir of the Missouri River. The cover of the first "Life" magazine featured Fort Peck Dam 52 years ago. Few dare to windsurf Fort Peck since a rescue on the far shore requires a 200- mile drive. Instead, wind-addicts sail at Deadman's.  It is said a body was found during building of the dam giving the project its grim name. Today, brightly colored sails glow in stark contrast to the subdued golden brown landscape of the Basin and the nearby Snowy Mountains. Signs at the lake correctly warn boaters that high winds can rise suddenly. Few water skiers and fishermen use the area because of many "wind-ruined" week ends. Sailors can launch from all but the north shore, choosing between windward speed-reaching runs, side-shore winds or shore-breaking surf and wave jumping.

One day I arrived and watched Brit Miller getting thrashed using a 3.7 sq meter sail, and measured gusts to 48 knots. That and two other days we were forced to sit and wait until the wind died to 30-35 knots to fit our smallest sails in the 4.0 sq meter range.

On this beautiful September day, a group of sailors from Billings rigged 6.0- 6.5 sails for 20-25 knot cruising winds. We parked our vehicles as wind breaks on the beach and tossed in a buoy for inside jibes. At about 3 pm, the wind notched up to 25 knots and most sailors rigged 5.0-5.5's. Ben Parrish kept his 6.0 because he was having too much fun to stop. An hour later the forecasted cold front hit, bringing with it rolling black clouds, cranking up to 30-plus knots and dropping the temperature to the low 60's. I struggled in with my 5.5 and watched Ben get thrown, water-start and get catapulted again. In what seemed an eternity to Ben, he drifted to the far shore, where we met him, cold and exhausted, but safe at last. No one cared to rig 4.0's and risk getting frozen and pounded in the gathering dusk.

The rest of the crew packed up and drove the 80 miles home to Billings, while I drove 14 miles west to Harlowton, for dinner and a stay at the Graves Hotel. The sky was threatening rain, and Sunday was forecasted to bring more wind. I decided to stay, ready to shred again after a needed rest.

Harlowton's Graves Hotel opened in 1908 with a musical gala, and was considered an oasis for ranch­ hands and railroaders. Now the Milwaukee Railroad is gone, memorialized in the city center, and marked along U.S. 12 by rotting grain elevators. The night I visited, posters in the lobby announced a birthday party and dance in honor of Cecilia Baxter's 87th. Bob Conley, hotel owner, told me it was only the third time the Graves had hosted live music since opening-the last was a Governor's Ball in 1939.

Here I was, about to share in a bit of Harlo's history due to my interest in a high-tech sport. In 1939, dirigibles were not self-de-rigging sails but silent warships--and the plastics we take for granted were only a dream in chemists' research labs.

Cecilia's friends jammed the lobby and danced to the delightful music of area rancher Bud Lode (vocal, guitar and accordion) and his wife, Mary-Pearl, on piano. Conversations reflected the guests' happiness that the rains had finally come. I left the party around 1 am, in need of a good sleep after another great day. On Sunday morning a cold wind lashed through the trees during breakfast and followed me to Deadman's. White caps glowed under the black sky, and I found myself alone in this foreboding place. Not wishing to sail alone, I headed home along U.S. 12, which is being rebuilt along the "Musselshell Deathway," a half-mile dangerous stretch of roadway.

Back at Billings' Lake Elmo (whose 55 acres are not enough for St. Elmo's fire), I joined about 15 delighted planing and jibing sailors. Anyone en-route to the Gorge ought to check out Deadman's and

Harlowton (which has a nice campground down town, or try Martinsdale Reservoir nearby) to have an unforgettable high-wind experience. Another 90 miles west along U.S. 12 is Silos at Canyon Ferry Reservoir, near the state capital of Helena. Next time I go, I think I'll bring some piano music and not let the Graves go another half-century without live entertainment.

A similar story by Pierson was published in WindRider Magazine, June 1989.

Pierson developed HoodVista in White Salmon, WA 1987-1995, with Bill Kline

Hood Vista
Hood Vista Sail Park


KayakingKayaking the Stillwater River Nov 1983

Kayaking 2
Craig in Stillwater Slalom 1978


Top: Craig in Stillwater Slalom 1978, Bottom left: Craig’s kayak waiting for Red Moshannon (PA) race, Bottom right: Craig Pierson in 1983

Pierson on board
Betty Birrell coaching Craig

Windsurfer Clinic party as Liberty July 1986
Windsurfer Clinic party as Liberty July 1986

Summer skiing at Mt. Hood
Summer skiing at Mt. Hood

Windsurfing the Columbia River July 1986 L. Croucher photo

Windsurfing Deadman's Basin, Harlowton, MT 2010


Windsurfing at Hood River, OR
Windsurfing at Hood River, OR - Craig centered using yellow sail