SEELEY LAKE — Seeley-Swan's afternoon football practice on Monday, Aug. 28, began according to plan.
The Blackhawks were just a few days removed from their first home game of the season — a 52-6 loss at the hands of Charlo — and were readying for their next test.
But a black plume of smoke rose above the towering conifer trees, sending Shawn Holmes, Seeley-Swan's athletic director, into a scramble.
"I could see these planes flying below those trees in the valley behind us," Holmes remembered. "We're going, 'OK. Time to go. We're calling practice.'"
Some remnants of Mother Nature's triple-threat fury — summer's wildfires, winter's deep snow, spring's floods — are still noticeable at Seeley-Swan's football field.
Scattered piles of snow sit beneath trees. A pool of water dampens the northeast corner of the grass track. And the pole vault mat is still fragrant with smoke from the Rice Ridge fire that burned more than 160,000 acres in the region from July to September.
"No. We've never had a year like this," Holmes said. "We've scrambled. And you can see it in the kids. They didn't get summer. They haven't got a spring until now. School's tough, attitude-wise. They're dragging. But one of the things we've always talked about and coach (Mike) Haines pushes us through is, we persevere through weather.
"But this has been the worst school year ever."
A STORM OF SMOKE
The Rice Ridge fire sent many residents of Seeley Lake packing. Holmes estimated 30 percent of Seeley-Swan High School students had to evacuate their homes.
And all of them had to evacuate their school.
For two weeks, Seeley-Swan High School students attended classes at The Resort at Paws Up and held sports practices in various venues in the region.
Blackhawk football, cross-country and even volleyball had to relocate.
"Our gym was so full of smoke I couldn't even let them practice here," Holmes said. "… I remember walking into the gym after we got done with practice one day. I couldn't see across the gym."
The change in routine wasn't just difficult for Holmes and the Seeley-Swan staff. It wore on the students.
For classes, they had to bus to Paws Up.
And not everything was the same.
"It was interesting. It was great that they opened it up for us and that we could actually start so we wouldn't have to go even further into the summer than we already are. But they're set up as a resort," said Hunter Shelmerdine, a junior at Seeley-Swan. "It was hard to fit all the 100 kids there and then some classes like P.E. and weight classes, we couldn't do anything, so everyone was having at least a study hall or two per day because we couldn't actually do our classes."
Cameron Haines, a senior, added: "It was a lot of sitting around and talking. Not much you can do. Math and English class, you can do stuff, but like Hunter said, P.E., weights, you just sit there."
Then, after classes, student-athletes had to bus yet again to their determined practice facility.
More often than not, the cross-country, football and volleyball teams practiced at Mount Jumbo Elementary in East Missoula.
"The smoke was bad down there too," said Bethany Hoag, a freshman volleyball, basketball, and track and field athlete.
"It was hard. There were some days in football where we couldn't even go outside," said Shelmerdine, a three-sport football, basketball, and track and field athlete. "We had to practice in the gym and we couldn't even run inside because the particle count was so bad."
That altered schedule greatly affected things, including on-the-field performance.
"We were gassed by the first quarter just because we couldn't breathe," Shelmerdine said.
The same went for cross country.
Seeley-Swan's first meet came during the heart of fire season and Cameron Haines remembers it clearly.
"I remember drinking water and just coughing," Haines said of after he crossed the finish line. "You could taste the smoke. It wasn't very fun."
Haines, Hoag and Shelmerdine's families all had to evacuate their homes, making the situation even more stressful.
And Shelmerdine had another level of added anxiety in relation to the fire: His father works for the Forest Service as a fire management officer.
"That was the most stressful part for me," Shelmerdine said.
THE SNOWS OF WINTER
The fire was officially 100 percent contained on Oct. 15.
Trace amounts of flurries began to fly five days later.
One of the biggest storms during the season dropped nearly 2 feet of snow on the area in late December, according to the National Weather Service.
"Over Christmas break there were a couple times I'd wake up for basketball practice, go out, snow-blow so we can even get out of the driveway," Shelmerdine said. "There'd be a foot or so, get home, have to snow-blow about another 6 inches.
"Either later that day or the next day you're having to do it two or three times again."
By winter's end, the area had racked up at least 8 feet of snow, according to reports from U.S. Climate Data and the National Weather Service. The most recent Seeley Lake recorded snowfall was on April 13, when 3½ inches fell in 24 hours.
Because of the blanket of snow draping northwest Montana, Haines said planning safe travel for basketball games was difficult.
"Travel this winter for basketball was worse than it's ever been with the snow," said Haines, who's been the athletic director at Seeley-Swan High School for 20 years.
One of the stranger story lines of the basketball season in northwest Montana also had something to do with a game Seeley-Swan played on Jan. 6.
With 4:53 left on the clock, Lincoln trailed Seeley-Swan in the Lynx's home gym and Seeley's Keaton Johnson went to the line to shoot free throws.
Just as the ball left Johnson's hand for the first attempt, the lights flickered just enough to see that Johnson made the shot.
Before he had the chance to take his second attempt, the power went out again.
This time for good.
"We went over to the benches and they're like, 'Yeah, it'll be four hours.' It's like, 'Nope. We're packing up. We're going home,'" Shelmerdine said.
Haines added: "That was so weird."
The two schools made up the last 4:53 in their next meeting on Feb. 3.
"This is the year of extremes," Shelmerdine said with a smile. "It's one of those, 'Are you sure they're still a town there? Is there anything else that can go wrong?'"
A DREAM OF SPRING
Even though spring sports in Montana started in mid-March, that spring weather was nowhere to be found in Seeley Lake.
The track and field team practiced in their gym until April 30 because their grass track was covered in snow.
"We're always one of the latest schools to be outside. Middle of April, maybe first of April," Haines said. "But this year? This is a little long."
Seeley-Swan typically has use of the asphalt loop in front of the school while the Blackhawks wait for the snow to melt, but this year, that wasn't much of an option.
It was covered in various forms of water — ice and snow that eventually melted and pooled.
So Seeley-Swan's track coach Mike Haines had to get creative.
"That was probably the most snow I've seen up here since about 1997," he said. "There was a lot of snow up here."
Longer warm-ups inside the gym. Ladders. Pulling teammates across the gym floor. Insanity workout videos.
"Being cooped up in a gym, it gets really old after a while and there's only so much you can do," Cameron Haines said.
The coaches brought the high jump mats into the gym from where they were stored — a shed near the football field.
Navigating the big mats across the snow, coach Haines said, was challenging.
"There were probably 8-foot, 9-foot banks that we had to drag the high jump mats and the standards and everything up and over that," coach Haines said. laughing. "And then down and into the gym. That was the most difficult thing."
Throws coach Kal Kovatch plowed a path for the throwers to get to the discus venue, and then also plowed out the sector.
"He'd drive the kids up there because you couldn't walk across here," coach Haines said, pointing to the now-grassy field. "It was so deep."
On Thursday, May 3, the Blackhawks had just their fourth outdoor practice of the season. Comparatively, Seeley-Swan's competed in nine outdoor meets so far this season.
"It's just nice to be outside and run. Finally," Holmes said while coaching the sprinters and distance runners in a short-distance workout.
Whatever training they've done, it's worked.
"The kids have been having some pretty good success," coach Haines said.
The 400-meter relay team of Logan Robinson, Shelmerdine, Haines and Dakota Wood has the fastest Class C time in the state right now.
And the 1600-meter relay team of Robinson, Shelmerdine, Wood and Logan Maughan broke the school record on April 10.
On the girls' side, freshman Klaire Kovatch has one of the top throws in the state, regardless of classification, broke the school record on May 5.
In total, Seeley-Swan has 18 performances that are ranked in the top 10 outings for Class C athletes.
"I think we've done a really good job of keeping our heads down and just working our butts off," Cameron Haines said. "It's shown on the track. I don't think we've let it bother us too much.There were some times where I was like, 'This sucks. Senior year and we still have two feet of snow on the ground where people are running on tracks.'
"We just had to fight through it."