Growing up in Havre along the barren Hi-Line of northern Montana, Mark Kuhr dreamed of deep seas. Every evening at 6 p.m., he would turn on his black-and-white television set, put on his snorkel and mask, and watch “Sea Hunt,” a show that recounted the scuba diving adventures of Mike Nelson, played by Lloyd Bridges.
Scuba dreams generally die cold deaths out in the plains. But not for Kuhr.
As a senior in high school, Kuhr used his savings to buy a set of diving equipment through a catalogue he had spotted at a local sporting goods store. When the gear arrived, it came with a small how-to manual that Kuhr said basically sent the message: “Go for it kid!”
So he went for it ¬– “it” being an over-glorified mud puddle in the prairie known as Fresno Reservoir. But Kuhr said the underwater sensation was enough for him to imagine he was in the ocean. He was hooked.
“Who would ever think that in Havre, Montana anyone would even think about diving?” Kuhr asked. “You would have to have your head examined.”
In hindsight, Kuhr concedes his initial foray into scuba diving – alone as a teenager and guided by nothing more than a 20-page manual – was dangerous: “That was back before we learned that diving with a buddy was probably a good thing – and taking lessons and learning to dive was probably a really good thing.”
Wes Wilkinson, Kuhr’s business partner at Kalispell’s Bighorn Divers, had similar precarious beginnings in the scuba diving world. As a junior in high school in Missoula, he bought a scuba diving how-to book, purchased some gear and jumped in Bearmouth Hot Springs in the middle of winter. He put bolts and nuts obtained at a hardware store in his pockets to help him sink. Wilkinson also was, at least partially, inspired by “Sea Hunt.”
Now 40 years later, as diving continues its steady growth in popularity in Montana and especially in the Flathead, both Kuhr and Wilkinson are pleased to see that scuba opportunities are available for the general public, not just for crazy high school kids. They no longer have to use welding and patching to prepare for a dive.
“As you look back through all that stuff, you realize it was really kind of foolish,” Wilkinson said. “But at that time there just wasn’t anything around. So if you wanted to do it, you just had to do it yourself. So we did.”
Kuhr and Wilkinson are a big reason for the expanded scuba opportunities in Montana. Kuhr opened Bighorn Divers in Bozeman in 1984 and then moved it to the Flathead in 1988. Business grew so rapidly here, Kuhr said he “wasn’t able to keep up with it.” But as fortune would have it, he met up with Wilkinson and another local diver, Steve Golleher.
Those three are still the owners of Bighorn Divers, which is now located between Kalispell and Whitefish near the Spencer and Co. steakhouse. Also, Salty Dog Dive Shop opened in 2004. Located on North Main Street in Kalispell, it is owned and operated by Libertie and Rod Barkley.
Both shops offer lessons, from beginner certification to advanced, as well as gear for rent and purchase, guided scuba adventures and plenty of advice for the diver looking for some good Montana water. At Bighorn Divers, lessons are conducted in a 12-foot-deep pool at the dive shop, while Salty Dog uses a private pool located offsite.
Though some divers use the shops as starting points for exotic scuba adventures to coastal waters, many are building up their skills to dive instate. The three most popular destinations in Northwest Montana are McGregor Lake, Flathead Lake and Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. But Bonnie Kuehne, manager at Bighorn Divers, said “most of the lakes around here you can dive.”
According to Kuhr, scuba diving reached its apex in Montana – and elsewhere – in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Who would ever think that a state like Montana, which is landlocked, would be good for scuba diving?” Kuhr asked. “But it is.”
McGregor Lake is known for its clear water and visibility, as well as its large crawdads. Divers scoop the crawdads – or “Montana lobsters” – off the lake’s bottom and bring them back to shore where boiling pots of water wait. Annual crawdad cookouts are held for divers and foodies alike.
Flathead Lake’s clarity is suspect at times, but it does offer impressive rock formations and underwater cliffs, Libertie Barkley said. There are also boat wrecks, encounters with curious lake trout and the general phenomenon of exploring the depths of one of the most impressive lakes in the nation.
For some divers, Lake McDonald offers the most memorable experience. One of the biggest draws is, quite literally, trash. Years ago, people from the lodge would throw unwanted items – especially old tools like shovels – out on the ice in the winter. When the ice thawed, the garbage sank. Over the years, divers have collected the artifacts or sorted them. Shovels have been placed upright to form what is called the “Shovel Garden.” There is also an underwater forest.
Treasure hunting is a primary activity for some Montana scuba enthusiasts, Barkley said. She has encountered abandoned cars on “drift dives” down the Flathead River. Also, a diver can usually find plenty of personal items and trinkets like rings and sunglasses in the river, Barkley said. In Lake McDonald, many a whiskey bottle has been harvested.
For those who want to understand what it feels like to be a penguin, there are ice diving opportunities in the winter. But they require proper training and are reserved for experienced divers. Essentially, divers cut a hole in a lake’s ice and plop themselves in, protected by a dry suit.
Fish occasionally pause to regard the strange finned creatures with tanks on their backs, Kuhr said, but the bubbles emitted by the diver usually send the fish scurrying. But not always, particularly if the curious fish is a northern pike. Kuhr describes pike as “pretty cantankerous.”
Kuhr recalls one time when he was helping a friend anchor down a dock on Whitefish Lake. A pike eyed him closely and while Kuhr worked he would glance over at the pike, finding the fish a little bit closer each time. Another time on Fort Peck Lake, there was no eyeballing involved. The pike just bit him.
“I pulled back my arm and said, ‘Son of a gun, he took a little piece of my wetsuit,’” Kuhr said.
Sometimes it’s the other way around, where the human is the curious one. Kuhr said he has grabbed the tails of massive sturgeon in Fort Peck Lake. He said they’re docile enough to allow a human to roll them upside down. Kuhr has seen sturgeon as large as 12 to 14 feet.
There are some spear-fishing opportunities in Montana, but they are limited and regulated. Divers are advised to check in with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Kuhr said some people spear-fish in Montana to sharpen their skills for when they head to the ocean. Similarly, a lot of Montanans dive instate to help prepare them for bigger trips to places like Mexico, the San Juan Islands and other coastal locales, Kuhr said.
While divers are often independent-minded adventurers, the Montana scuba community has grown increasingly tight-knit in its social endeavors. In the summer, Bighorn Divers hosts weekly group dives and dinners on Wednesday evenings. All skill levels are welcome.
Kuhr calls scuba diving the ultimate family activity. It lacks the competitive aspects of sporting events and doesn’t separate families by skill levels like skiing. Technological advancements have made gear user-friendly and safe, which Kuehne says is the primary reason diving has grown so much in popularity. It’s no longer just for adventurers.
Scuba diving, as described by most divers, is a life-altering experience. Humans spend most of their time on land or in the air or on top of water, but rarely venture below the water’s surface for extended periods of time. There are new worlds down there.
“It totally changes your life,” Barkley said. “Once you go underwater you see things with a totally different view.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.