Flooding, oil spill do serious damage at popular walking area

The Gazette Staff
By Chelsea Krotzer

Kelley Gililland didn't let a little bit of water ruin her daily dog-walking routine.

Gililland, owner of K9 Play Time, a dog-walking service in Billings, purchased a pair of waders and carried her aquaphobic clients through thigh-deep water, just to get to the dry, dog romping high areas on Norm Schoenthal Island.

She did the routine for two weeks until she simply had enough.

"A couple of days you couldn't walk them through at all," Gililland said. "One day there was a current across the island, then I saw a fish swimming down the trail and said, 'It's out of control.' "

It's people like Gililland who make the island's namesake smile.

Norm Schoenthal visited the outskirts of the island on his ATV for the first time Monday. Signs of human and canine footprints in the muck were a thrilling sight to see.

"I love these people," Schoenthal said, making his way through the overgrown trails.

It's those who frequent the park no matter the condition whom he's counting on to help rebuild.

The Yellowstone River claimed nearly a half-mile of trail during three weeks of flooding. He'll also have to add nearly a mile of gravel 4 inches deep to soft spots along the trail system.

There could be more. That's all he could manage to get to with his ATV on Monday. He was unable to reach much of the western side of the park because of displaced logs and debris.

"Holy cow, we lost big time, didn't we?" Schoenthal said, looking at the damage. "It's a lot worse than I expected."

The high-water mark was visible at the entrance of the park, next to the Norm's Island sign. Water several inches deep on the northern side of the park made it impassible to the average walker.

The real damage was visible along the riverbank. Schoenthal said between 50 and 100 feet of land was eroded into the river, including the original trail on the far outside of the park.

Schoenthal had prepared for that, which is why after the 1997 flood he had a second trail made farther inland.

"I drove on it a month ago, and now it's gone," Schoenthal said.

His main concern Monday was whether he lost any of the park's memorial benches. Luckily, only one was lost. Schoenthal is confident that he'll be able to find it after the water level drops.

"I don't know how many hours of work this is going to entail," Schoenthal said. "

A new addition to the park was a bathtub ring of oil along grasses nearest to the river from the July 1 ExxonMobil pipeline break.

Oil glistened on top of pooled water as close as the entrance of the park, and clumps of crude oil clung to branches and other vegetation.

Despite it all, Schoenthal was optimistic, pointing out sprouting cottonwood trees in the muck.

"If the conditions are right, you'll have hundreds of these cottonwoods," Schoenthal said. "That's the wonderful part of ecology."

He's hoping volunteers will start heading out to help on Saturdays, once the island dries out a bit more.

"The hard core will be here, but we will recruit anyone else," Schoenthal said. "We will be working on it every Saturday from now until the snow hits it."

Published July 11, 2011