In summer 2002, I paddled a canoe out of the mouth of McIntyre Creek and into the north bay of Robinson Lake. The sky had grown choked with stormclouds over the previous hour, and a headwind was kicking up two-foot breakers as far as I could see. It took nearly an hour to reach the nearest campsite, on a skinny point separating the north bay from the main lake. By the time the Alumacraft's bow hit shore, my shoulders felt like they'd been dislocated several times over.
This was my second time in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. We were six days into a seven-day trip on an itinerary that was supposed to have us 10 miles farther along by the time we made camp. We did our best to pitch tents while the wind toppled a pine just a few yards away. Then we hunkered down around a fire built with wet matches as my dad walked us through what this stormbound day meant for tomorrow: a 20-mile haul clear back to Moose Lake, starting at first light.
In the annals of extreme survival situations, it wasn't much of a story. We had enough extra food for an unplanned-for third meal the next day, and if things had really gotten out of hand there was a satellite phone tucked safely in the pack of our veteran guide, Jim.
The experience did, however, underscore a perennial Boy Scout lesson that I hadn't fully appreciated until then: "Be Prepared."
Those two words drive a lot of the little things we all do as independent Montanans. We keep jumper cables in the backs of our Subarus, toss an extra Clif Bar in our packs when we hit Blue Mountain, check to make sure our Uber app is updated before we go drinking downtown. Dead batteries and hunger pangs have taught us to expect the unexpected.
There's a line, though, that most of us don't care to cross. It's one thing to stock up on essentials ahead of a blizzard, but what about stashing a military-style backpack by the back door with enough dried food, medical supplies and handgun ammo to last weeks? That's tinfoil hat territory, the kind of over-the-top survivalist prep reserved for those who have watched Red Dawn one too many times. I'm as big a fan of The Walking Dead as the next nerd, but the zombie apocalypse is pure fiction, no alien invasion is imminent, and I'm only about 60 percent sure we're headed for a full government collapse. I need a bug-out bag full of waterproof matches and MREs like I need a hole in my right foot, right? At least that's what the Southern Poverty Law Center would have me believe.
"Beyond a few legitimate reasons, doomsday prepping, for the most part, represents a dark worldview that combines, to varying degrees, end-times apocalyptic views, an obsession with firearms (and other weaponry), conspiracy theories and too often an anti-government sentiment," the nonprofit wrote in an Aug. 17 Hatewatch article titled "Doomsday Desperation."
"When combined, these radical views become toxic and lead unsuspecting followers down a funnel of despair, which perpetuates fear, paranoia and extremism."
Call me toxic, but paranoia and extremism aren't what they used to be. They keep slapping us in the face. Facebook and mainstream media both have been lousy these past few weeks with images and stories of "apocalyptic" wildfires and hurricanes and the emergency evacuations they portend. Maybe a bit of preparation wouldn't be entirely unwise. So last month I decided to set aside my nutjob-prepper biases, do a little research and find out just what the bug-out brigade could teach a run-of-the-mill Missoulian like me. Turns out I didn't have to go far. And what I found, I did not expect.
"Let no more harm become." The words are scrawled in black above the front door of a small shop off the Eastside Highway on the northern fringe of Corvallis. They're partially obscured by a katana hanging from a black strap. The walls and shelves below house a trove of survivalist gear: water purifiers, triple-weave backpacks, medical trauma kits, tactical helmets, vests with slots for armor plating. A sign behind the counter advertises custom holsters, but the only guns here are plastic facsimiles for use in self-defense courses. This is Bug Out Montana, a store named for a phrase that's become synonymous with prepperdom. Bug out means to depart, especially in a hurry.
- photo by Parker Seibold
Harry Lee doesn't look like he's about to bug out. He puts off more of a young-dad vibe. Glasses, a polo shirt, two-day stubble. Even his at-the-ready stance—shoulders squared, feet shoulder-width apart—looks casual. Lee grew up on his family's Washington dairy farm and, in a way, the shop that he and his wife, Annie, opened in 2014 started there. When Harry was about 13, a fire devastated the family home. He remembers losing nearly everything except a baseball card and a sleeping bag. As a result, he's able to ignore non-essentials fairly easily. He fell into the survivalist game gradually, picking up useful skills while working as a firefighter and, later, with the department of corrections. His thinking really took a turn in 1997, ahead of his two-year Australian mission with the Church of Latter Day Saints, when he found himself contemplating this question: If things went bad, would he be the person looking for help, or the person looking for someone to help?
"It was a real 50/50," he says of the answer he came up with. "And it gives you that real dead-heart feeling."
The Lees may own a survivalist shop. They may have a customized fire truck—their BOV, or bug-out vehicle—parked out front. They may occasionally run their three kids through bug-out drills. But they wouldn't call themselves preppers. The word carries too much stigma. They just consider themselves smart.
"We try to be prepared," Annie says, her voice as frank and unassuming. "I tell people, maybe there's not going to be an EMP [electromagnetic pulse], or there's not going to be a nuclear attack, or this or that. But what if your electricity goes out and you have a well and you don't have a pump? What happens when you're responsible for—like us, we have three little ones at home?"
Answering those what-ifs is the mission Harry and Annie have staked out for themselves: to help others reach whatever level of preparedness suits them. Maybe that's as easy as stashing a few freeze-dried meals, or maybe—as in my case—it leads you into Bug Out Montana's back room, where the Lees host a variety of survival and self-defense workshops. If SHTF—a popular acronym, I've learned from numerous online survivalist forums, for "shit hits the fan"—I don't want to be caught without my quilted two-ply.