The brand-new Yellow Bay fire substation all started with a boat.
Underneath all society, all of civilization’s scientific and artistic accomplishments, lies a foundation of the human skill for building and fixing things. Without the builder, there is no house, road, office, boat, heat, water treatment, fire truck or automobile.
Eric Anderson, now celebrating 20 years working for University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station (“Bio Station”) in Yellow Bay, is one such “builder.” His efforts underlie so much of the Yellow Bay infrastructure, you cannot discuss one project without it being tied to every other. His joy as he shows me around the campus makes it seem his position as Facilities Manager is the perfect job for the person, and he, the perfect person for the job.
Anderson was first smitten with this area when he set out after high school graduation in New Mexico, on an adventure to drive up the entire Rocky Mountain chain. Later, after receiving two bachelor’s degrees (Biology and Geography), he returned. With his background in science, and a family history of building and renovating houses, a facilities position at the scientific base was a challenge to apply his talents toward things he really believed in, in an area where his passion for the outdoors could find ample outlet.
TWO DAYS after he joined the Bio Station in 1999, Anderson also joined the Finley Point/Yellow Bay Fire Department. The two entities have always been linked — the Bio Station has provided a heated garage for a fire truck for decades. Anderson has been happy to work out win/win solutions as needs changed over time, which is how the fire station started with a boat.
A large donation allowed the refurbishment of a scientific sampling boat for Flathead Lake, but then the boat needed a garage. The same donor provided funds to refurbish the old building that housed the fire truck, but when the boats moved in, the fire truck still needed a heated building to keep it ready for action. How it got a new home is directly linked to how the Bio Station saved its clean water supply, a natural spring, that was the reason it was built on this location in the early part of last century.
When the property just above the spring went up for sale and development, Anderson jumped in to help pull together the funding, the permits, and the people needed to acquire one acre above Highway 35 to prevent the spring’s potential demise. This success came with the happy consequence that a fire substation with great highway access and visibility could be built on the property, with a free twenty-year lease from the Bio Station. The fire department did not need a water system, only a heated garage, and the new one is a beauty. The Bio Station crew keeps it plowed out in the winter, as they do for the neighboring Yellow Bay State Park.
THE CONTINUITY of having a person love a place and work for it for years allows long-term projects to develop, Anderson says. Each time a major part of the Bio Station needs modernizing, it takes time, creativity, and coordination among many entities to pull it off. One current challenge is an inefficient and often-malfunctioning 1966 heating system in the Elrod office building. Anderson’s eyes sparkle as he relishes the challenge, and recent replacement ideas have already found their funding sources.
The sewer treatment plant that serves the Bio Station and the state park was designed to treat phosphorous before it was even understood that nitrates need to be kept out of the lake as well. Anderson’s brain for biology led to experimenting with depriving bacteria of oxygen just long enough to cause them to consume nitrogen, but not long enough to cause a toxic anaerobic situation to develop. The system has functioned for years, but now forty-something year-old pipes are deteriorating and a rebuild is in the works. In the meantime, a new pump system from the state park that Anderson helped bring about prevents risk of overflow of its sewer into the lake.
“Having this job in a place like this is very different from a city facility,” Anderson notes. In this place, where thousands of people come to learn about science, the earth, and the people of the area, he helps take summer students rafting the Middle Fork of the Flathead, sails and paddles on his favorite lake, and even helps with taking biological samples. The site is becoming so popular for bringing school kids to learn about sampling the lake that they have recently added more boats.
Anderson plans to stay another ten years to see many projects through and set up many others for success into the future. After that? Someone with Anderson’s delight for life will not be retiring to the doldrums – he plans to sail around the world.