Scuba diving and Cajun cooking, Montana-style.
At 10:30 am, heat waves swim off the asphalt on Hwy. 287 north of Norris. It's gonna be a hot one. A quick stop at the Harrison store for munchies and Gatorade, and we're cruising down the dirt road to Willow Creek Reservoir, aka Harrison Lake. A 50-yard-long wake of dust billows out behind us.
The scene at the lake makes us smile. In addition to the usual assortment of trucks and trailers at the boat launch, there's a sprawling mass of cars and pop-up campers at a large campsite just off the water. Waddling among the picnic tables and party tents are wetsuit-wrapped bodies laden with air tanks, weight belts, and other large, cumbersome equipment that is the distinguishing mark of scuba divers everywhere.
That's right, scuba divers. This is the annual Willow Creek Mud Bug Hunt, wherein misplaced aquanauts from around Montana gather to hit the lake, scoop up as many crawfish as they can, and then return to camp for games, socializing, and the long process of boiling the arthropodic booty. The culmination of all this is a feast that would mollify the most cantankerous of Cajuns.
Which all sounds pretty good to us. After greetings and chit-chat, Peter and I don our scuba gear and hit the water. Our crawfish equipment is primitive; having never done this before, we had to scour our garages for makeshift catch bags. I ended up with a mesh climbing-harness pouch, a deteriorating cam strap, and an old army carabiner to clip the thing to my dive vest. Peter put me to shame with a tattered cloth bag, makeshift lanyard, and a rusty clipping device of completely unknown origin. Two dirtbags go mud-buggin'.
Kicking out and around a small island, we see nary a 'dad. In fact, the entire underwater environment seems pretty sterile. The only movement besides us is the occasional flicking of four black legs, which we quickly identify as my dog Rico, who has apparently become impatient on shore and is doing laps around our bubbles overhead.
With visibility at a paltry 10-12 feet, we cruise slowly, squinting for brownish-gray crawfish atop the brownish-tan mud of the lake floor. Eventually we spot one here, another there. At first the whole endeavor seems futile; the speedy crustaceans scuttle away at our approach. Fifteen minutes go by and our catch bags are still empty. But with each miss, we refine our technique. Gradually we learn how to properly hunt the backward-swimming little buggers: approach slowly and evenly, then with a lightning-quick motion, reach out and snatch the sucker up.
We cruise along. Suddenly Peter's eyes go wide. He turns to me, motions downward, and my gaze falls upon a dozen fat crawdads right below us. I look around into the hazy distance and see more dark spots flecking the lakebed in all directions. We've hit the mother lode.
We go into a frenzy, snatching and stuffing as fast as we can. Some big ones require extra work; instead of fleeing, they rear up and raise their massive claws in defiance. Thank goodness for 1/4-inch-thick scuba gloves – I sure wouldn't challenge those awesome appendages with bare fingers.
Eventually our bags are full. Trudging out of the water, we present our spoils to Steve Lantz, crawfish-cooker extraordinaire, who happily empties our bags into the oversized pot. "You got some nice ones," he says, obviously pleased. He adds with a wink, "I guess you can stay and eat."
Now it's time for lakeside relaxation: cool drinks in hand, we play ladder golf and toss a football around. There are familiar faces all around us, people we've met on random dives around Montana over the years: Hyalite, Canyon Ferry, Firehole, Flathead. Some folks drove over from Billings; some popped down from Helena. As usual, there are one or two Bozemanites whom we've known for years, but never knew they scuba-dived. Dogs frolic about camp while passers-by stare in befuddlement at all the scuba gear scattered around. We raise our drinks and smile.
Steve continues the preparations. At one point we watch him empty an entire bottle of Tabasco into the bubbling cauldron. It's hard to focus on games when your senses are being assaulted by delectable sights and smells. We distract our grumbling bellies with potato chips and go back to ladder golf.
Finally the feast is ready. And what a feast! Hundreds of crawfish mixed with corn, potatoes, onions, and andouille sausage, spread across the table in true Cajun party style. We all load our plates and plop down under the tents, out of the blazing sun, beers in hand and mouths full of spicy crawfish. To the south, the Spanish Peaks shoot skyward; the sprawling Tobacco Roots rise to the west. And the meal is as delicious as the views.