- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Tom Bowers has seen the Missouri River from its shiny topside, but also from its roiled and muddy underneath.

While others have fished its banks, boated on its surface or irrigated from its flows, Bowers has explored the river from the bottom up. A certified scuba diver and instructor, he has inspected its dams, brought back ancient buffalo skulls from its bottom and photographed some of its natural beauty during a lifetime spent at work and play beneath the surface.

Bowers began scuba diving as a bored Marine stationed at Guantanamo Bay. Since the soldiers weren’t allowed to go into Cuba, they had to find other means of recreation.

“(We) had a couple nice beaches, so we would just go to the beach,” Bowers said. “We really got into (snorkeling) there because there wasn’t that much else to do but drink beer. There weren’t any girls to chase or anything like that. So we would go to the beach with a case of beer and snorkel all day on our time off. And eventually we borrowed some scuba equipment from some other guy that had it, so that was my first experience with scuba, and that was probably late ‘63.”

He stuck with the hobby, even after returning home to Sioux Falls. When work gave him a choice of where to take up a position, he came to Pierre specifically for the river.

The Missouri River is more than a bit different from the tropics and presented its own unique challenges.

In Cuba he could also get away with diving wearing swim trunks and a T-shirt, but in South Dakota divers need a full wet suit - or dry suit in the winter - and hood.

The river’s temperature during the winter is usually between 34 and 35 degrees. In the summer the top water can warm up to about 70 degrees, but anywhere between 15 to 60 feet down that temperature will drop dramatically. In the reservoirs below 90 to 100 feet the water tends to stay at 45 degrees most of the year, he said.

Bowers said the Missouri’s current, which is often too swift to fight against, makes for effortless diving. But if a diver doesn’t have something to grab onto it’s nearly impossible to stop and look at something. Usually that means a large rock, but he’s known some divers who carried hooks they set into the river bed to stay in place.

And, predictably for a river nicknamed “The Big Muddy,” visibility is often an issue. While those who dive in the area are used to the limited clarity of the water, an average visibility of 15 feet in the summer, Bowers said those trained on the ocean often have trouble adjusting to how little they can see in the river.

“I remember a trip we took down to Baja on the Pacific side and we split a boat with a group from California,” Bowers said. “There was probably 10 of us and 10 of them, and we got into some pretty rough conditions and visibility dropped down to about 15-foot and those guys wouldn’t get into the water; it was too spooky. And we were just having a blast, spent the whole day diving.”

Water clarity is one of the reasons Bowers enjoyed winter dives. With low flows coming from the dam, the water clarity can be between 25 and 50 feet. On one especially clear day, he was even able to spot the dam’s powerhouse from more than 100 feet away.

Because he was beneath the surface so much, Bowers also took up underwater photography, snapping images of crawdads, walleye, burbot, catfish or anything else he happened to find.

His camera captured the sunfish and bullhead that used to be found below the dam. There was also a large school of gar that “would be stacked like cordwood” below the east shore boat ramp of the Oahe Marina, he said.

During the winter, various species congregated together and lay on the river bottom. The fish were so languid that a diver could easily swim up and grab a catfish or a carp, he said.

He’s also seen some of the life and the history of the river itself still preserved beneath the surface. While diving 120 feet into Lake Oahe to recover nets for the GFP, Bowers saw cottonwood trees still standing from before the reservoir was filled. Down below the dam he saw the old cars which were widely used to protect shorelines before riprap.

Immediately below the dam he could see how the river’s flow had cleared out everything from its bed, leaving nothing but shale and car-sized boulders. About 100 feet downstream there was rock and gravel, which hadn’t been swept away yet, and even further down was where the silt and mud that made up the Big Muddy was still found, he said.

The advantage of that scouring flow is that the water is constantly exposing new things, said Bowers, who made a habit of retrieving forgotten items from the river bottom.

A trophy case in Bower’s home holds items he’s found in the Missouri: bottles, ranging from historic to modern, square nails, a spur and an old hoe made from a buffalo horn.

His old log books read like the end of a treasure hunt or the haul from a salvage operation. One entry records finding an 1877 dime, another 1887 dime and an 1867 nickel. Another entry records a washing machine, two tires and a flower pot found in the Bad River. While diving down at Big Bend he recovered 150 pounds of weights used for catching paddlefish.

Sometimes his finds dated back to prehistory. Years ago when a fisherman pulled up a skull from the river, Bowers and others were asked to find the rest of the body. They did, but discovered it had come from an ancient Native American skeleton.

Then there are plenty of remains from those other early inhabitants of the Plains, bison. Bowers said buffalo skulls can be found abundantly along the entire length of the river. And not just from the modern variety, but also from the extinct Bison antiguus, which had a horn span approaching 40 inches. He has long since given those all away, but his log books are full of references to finding two or three skulls at a time.

His trophy case also houses a small collection of prehistoric shark teeth found in the James River south of Mitchell.

Bowers said most of his artifact hunting was before he realized there were laws against removing half the things he did. But those finds were part of what made going down into the river so fun.

“I’m a happy guy if I come up with something in my hand,” he said.

During the 1970s Bowers participated in a dozen different searches for victims of drowning in the Missouri. Because Bowers and other local scuba enthusiasts were the only ones with the necessary equipment, they were called upon when there was a boating accident, plane crash or other incidents on the river.

As often as not, those searches came up empty. One of the times he was called out was to look for two friends who disappeared off of Okobojo Point. Their bodies were never found.

In May 1974, Bowers was part of a team combing the area below Oahe Dam for an Iowa man whose boat had capsized after getting too close to the outlet tunnels. Three days later Bowers was in the water again as part of a 30-man team looking for the body.

As one of the more experienced divers, Bowers went deeper than most, inspecting the concrete apron of the dam and the outlet tunnels, 45 feet under the surface.

The victim’s body wouldn’t be found until June 10, after floating 17 miles downstream.

One time he was searching for a missing scuba diver near Chamberlain in near-zero visibility when he felt something hit his mask. A quick touch revealed it to be the arm of the diver, who was laying tank-down on the river bottom.

“That wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to locate him,” he said.

Talking about those experiences, Bowers explains he approached the grisly task with the mindset that he was there to recover the body for the family and that’s what was important. The people waiting topside couldn’t find their loved one, so it was something he had to do for them, he said.

Eventually a rescue diving unit was organized, which Bower said was just fine with him, even if his heart went out to people who could have used his help.

“I got a call in the middle of the night from a rancher whose son had fallen into a stock dam. It was hard to tell him to call the sheriff,” he said.

Soon after settling down near the Missouri River, Bowers quickly connected with other scuba enthusiasts in the area. One of their traditions was a New Year’s Day dive. That eventually turned into a New Year’s Eve dive, with the group going under the water and ice at the stroke of midnight.

He also has pictures of himself and other divers jumping off the powerhouse at Oahe Dam - until U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staffers found out and asked them to stop.

Not content to just host spear-fishing and diving tournaments, Bowers decided to turn his hobby into a day job.

“I got certified and within a year I got my instructor rating, and opened up the scuba shop from the front porch of my house. But I didn’t have a compressor because I couldn’t afford one. I just started out on a shoe string. So what I did is I would rent air tanks. I think it was Dakota Welding at the time; they would deliver big cylinders full of air to me. Then I would cascade them, I would hook them together and I could fill tanks that way. But that got too expensive, I couldn’t make any money doing that so I eventually did buy an air compressor,” Bowers said.

This was the beginning of Skin and Scuba-Oahe, more familiar to Pierre residents today as Steamboat’s Inc.

But Bowers was doing more than renting out equipment. He often had contracts from municipalities or the Corps when they had diving jobs. One of his jobs was a 10-day inspection tour of the pilings of more than 15 railroad bridges in five different states. Another time he had to wedge himself into an 18-inch pipe with a tank and a camera to diagnose a problem while dredging a well in Fort Pierre.

While under contract with the Corps to work on the Cold Brook Reservoir near Hot Springs, he spent eight consecutive hours underwater. Bowers can also boast that he’s been inside of every dam along the Missouri River doing photo or video inspections.

If forced to guess, Bower estimates that between his time in Cuba, dive tournaments, work along the Missouri, training in the pool and multi-day trips to the California coast he may have upward of 4,000 dives - roughly 8,000 underwater hours - under his belt.

Now beginning to feel his age a bit, Bowers has sold his shop to Steamboat’s and no longer dives. But he keeps his gear and equipment in good working order - just in case.

“Diving is just an escape,” he said. “When you’re down, as long as I’ve been at it, when you’re underwater, you’re just totally absorbed in that. You don’t have any thoughts of bills that are due tomorrow or the IRS coming or somebody’s birthday or whatever, you are just totally absorbed in what you’re doing.”


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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