ABSAROKEE — If you’ve ever seen a slumped-shouldered sullen kid in the summer sun who didn’t have a place to swim, you know how Absarokee kids felt 50 years ago when parents kept them out of deep irrigations ditches and rapid running rivers, the only places a youngster could find cooling water.
Those were dangerous places with the sluggish but heavy pull of water in the ditches and the swirling water that could tug a swimmer from a river’s edge to the rapids.
The self-reliant town, stubbornly unincorporated, decided it needed a safe place for their kids to swim and undertook a concerted community effort to build a pool. This was back in the days when townspeople and rural people agreed there was a need for youngsters to have a clean, safe place to swim.
Now, after decades of challenges for fixing and funding the pool, and with the swim season ending and school season beginning, there is a concerted effort to be ready for next year. The effort was prompted by concerns this year that swim lesson equipment and safety gear were in seriously sad shape, according to Darci Pelton Sachdeva, who with several others is leading a fundraising drive.
When Sachdeva and her kids came to visit her dad this summer, she recognized that there was no money to keep essential pool equipment up to date. She and pool manager Tonya Steffenson inventoried safety and swim lesson equipment and drew up a wish list.
The goal is modest and carefully itemized, down to the penny, including a USCG ring buoy, $55; a Guard Hip Pack Kit, $13.75; 53 rescue tubes, $34.50; a 75-foot ring buoy throw rope, $10.50; and more, all totaling $494.90. If someone donated $500, no doubt Sachdeva would return $5.10 in change.
“We methodically tallied what we need and what it cost and we’re not asking for more than what we need,” she said.
Bigger-ticket items are “being worked on,” meaning separate efforts are underway to acquire a AED defibrillator — with a price tag of $1,625 — and a backboard and head immobilizer for $416.75.
The pool has always relied on volunteers, donations, swim fees and fundraisers to keep open. Firework sales, dunking booths, pie throwing and auctions were constant supplements to the donations, grants and swim fees to meet the pool expenses.
In 2001, however, the pool’s leaking pipes and other faulty equipment called for a major effort to keep the pool open. That was averted, thanks to creation of a special taxing district — the Beartooth Parks and Recreation District. The BPRD provided a more stable, solid and sustaining source of funding, with swim fees adding in the extra needed to hire lifeguards and swim instructors.
While the community chose to have the main pool funded through the BPRD, it did not cover all expenses. It was a big step for the pool association, a nonprofit created when the county donated land for the pool if it was not made responsible for the cost to build and maintain it.
Bill Pelton, Darci’s dad, recalls how, when he was a high school student, he and his “buddies brought farm equipment to help dig out the pool and fill the forms with cement.”
Over the years the list of volunteers who helped paint, patch, repair and maintain the pool is longer than an article can contain. The Absarokee Swimming Pool has been a source of pride for this community. This summer, more than 80 kids took swim lessons, some coming from as far as Red Lodge and Columbus. The number of people using the pool on any given day ranges from 35 to more than 70.
Pool fees are modest, from $70 for a family membership to $35 per child for swim lessons that include sessions offered throughout June and July.
Sachdeva has a long history with the pool and a special connection many have had. She grew up with summer swimming. A member of Absarokee’s legendary state champion swim team, she also served as a team coach and lifeguard. That tradition continues with many kids growing up and finding summer jobs as lifeguards and swim instructors.
Megan Culbertson’s appreciation for the pool is echoed by many.
“I grew up swimming every possible summer day at the Absarokee pool, and jumped at the chance to work as a lifeguard there in high school,” she said. “It helped me develop skills such as responsibility, attention to detail, communication, and my confidence in being able to handle any situation that could get thrown at me. I looked forward to returning each of the six summers I worked there, enjoying the patrons, fellow guards, and of course, the pool itself.”
Typical of this independent community, word of the paucity of pool equipment spread, and volunteers came forward. Marilyn Simmons recognized an opportunity for the Beartooth Back Country Horsemen to play a role.
“When I was growing up in Miles City I learned to swim in a mud puddle,” she joked. “I know how important that pool and its programs are to this town.”
Simmons knew part of BBH’s mission was to educate youth, and “that is where helping with the swimming equipment for lessons comes into our mission,” she said.
In addition to the BBH, local contractors and individuals rallied to help, according to Sachdeva. Barton Lawson winterized the pipes; Shupe Planichek of Shupe Plumbing took on large and small projects at the pool; Kevin Johnson, Tim Zumbrun and Jack Robbins pitched in to do maintenance. Members of the Absarokee Fire Department steadfastly showed up as well, especially for the annual cleanup.
“The Absarokee Swimming Pool is a hallmark of growing up in the Absarokee community. The pool is one of our greatest community assets,” said Kayce Arthun. “Not only has the outstanding swimming lesson program taught countless kiddos to swim year after year, it also is an excellent source of employment for our youth summer after summer.”
And it demonstrates how a small town — this one on the edge of the Beartooths with the Stillwater River arcing around it — gets things done. Today, having a safe place for kids to escape the hot summer days with a cool splash in the pool is still at the top of the agenda.
Without it, summer would find a town with unhappy youth. And it might find tragedy in nearby rivers. There has never been a drowning in the pool’s history.
Details: If you want to help equip the Absarokee Swimming Pool, call Darci Pelton Sachdeva at 214-502-3460. You can also visit the pool’s Facebook page for a closer look.