With a smooth stroke, David Benson cast a fly onto the Teton River. Water gently rippled past his old float boat with playful swirls, shimmering almost gleefully in the much-welcomed morning sun. Benson, a 21-year-old local from Teton City, ID, was out beating the crowds on a beautiful Saturday morning on June 5, 1976. The sun was warm, the fish were biting and there was no place in the world Benson would rather be.
Little more than a mile upstream, the newly opened Teton River dam was pushing 90 percent capacity as a result of warm spring weather and increased mountain runoff. At 11:55 a.m., the right embankment of the dam leaned inward and disintegrated. Within a matter of seconds, 80 billion gallons of water tore through the dam, unleashing a furious, roiling fresh water tsunami upon the Teton River. Witnesses claim that the water seemed to ominously hang in mid-air for a second before it came crashing down. Of 14 people who would lose their lives, David Benson would be the first.
Thirty-four years later, I’m driving with a friend out to the old dam site, working off beta from a local gear shop that decent undeveloped bouldering may be found. After a bit of un-marked dirt-road route finding, we park our truck and descend into the canyon. It looks like Soviet strip-mine gone bad: random jagged pipes protrude out of the ground, huge pieces of scrap metal balance unnaturally on top of old trees and worn-out concrete structures. The river slowly snakes through a canyon lined with grotesque erosion-scarred walls hundreds of feet high. And sure enough, there are boulders.
Small leaks at the base of the dam were noticed three days before the breech, but weren’t considered serious until just a few hours before the dam collapsed. As dam operators began to realize the potential threat, bulldozers and crews were called in to plug the leaks. However, crews were only able to work for one hour before the “leaks” literally swallowed two dozers (the operators had to be yanked out of the abyss by ropes tied around their waists). Finally, at 11 a.m., local law enforcement was notified about the dam’s imminent failure … a window of just 55 minutes before the tsunami would hit.
As 80 billion gallons of water thundered out of the reservoir, the downstream Idaho communities of Wilford and Sugar City were literally wiped from the map. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and over 13,000 cattle were killed. As the water approached the larger community of Rexburg, it swung by a large lumberyard, snapping lumber from its moorings and rupturing a gas line — producing a burning logjam of timber barreling toward the city. The carnage was finally stopped over 100 miles downstream, when the American Falls Dam held the surge.
Today, the boulders of Teton Dam are improbably distributed around the valley floor, sometimes with entire trees perched on top. While by no means world-class, the Teton Dam Boulders offer a plethora of uncrowded bouldering options with good landings and easy access (that is, if you live in rural eastern Idaho). Bouldering venues, by their very nature, offer fascinating geology lessons. In this case and many others, we are reminded that our fun and games are simply byproduct from the powerful, destructive and irrepressible forces of nature.
A poem that appeared in the Rexburg Standard Journal the summer of 1976
Bill to Uncle Sam
It was the fifth of June,
an early summer Upper Valley day.
I was workin’ in the garden
and the kids were in the yard to play.
At 12 o’clock we all went in
and cleaned our shoes off by the door,
So as not to track the mud in
on the shiny kitchen floor.
Then the guy on the radio said,
“Believe me if you can,
Because there’s 80 billion gallons
headed for us from the Teton Dam!”
My hubby said, “We’ll probably
get a little water in the basement, dear.
But just in case it’s worse than that
let’s take the kids and get on out of here.”
I told him, “Bring some diapers
and a baby bottle if you will.”
And we loaded up the family car
and headed for the college hill.
We found out downtown Rexburg
was a crazy, panicked traffic jam.
’Cause there was 80 billion gallons
headed for us from the Teton Dam.
When we heard the water covered up
the steeple of the Wilford church,
We knew the folks in Sugar
would need to find a higher perch.
Then by three o’clock, the valley
was covered by a raging lake,
And all the cows in Hibbard
went surfin’ on a twelve-foot wake.
And huge logs from the sawmill
tore through buildings like a battering ram.
The day that 80 billion gallons
were flushed out of the Teton Dam.
Well, our photos and pianos
are soaking in the smelly mud.
Our basement’s full of water
and our garden’s covered up with crud.
If we can find our houses
we clean them out for what they’re worth.
They’ll be scraping up the muddy mess
for years from here to Firth.
If I sound a little bitter,
it’s for certain you can say I am.
Because right now the Upper Valley
isn’t worth a Teton Dam.
Chris Dickey lives in Jackson, WY, where mountains are plentiful and assessable bouldering is not. When he’s not hanging out in old wrecked dam drainages, he can be found working as an outdoor PR consultant at Purple Orange LLC.