Red Lodge Lineman: Hauge retires after 38 years of service

By Eleanor Guerrero

Photo by Eleanor Guerrero

Lee Hauge explains some of the rigors and adventures of being a Montana lineman over 38 years.

Courtesy photos

(Left) Hauge’s great passion is teaching kids electricity safety.

Crossing private land sometimes requires special diplomacy.

We are all familiar with Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’ song, but how many really understand the risks and dangers faced every day for an electric lineman in Carbon County?

Such things as electrocution, lightning strikes, falls from great heights and dealing with lines downed by wind and snow are a “normal” risk for such a profession.

As the lyrics to the perfectly realized ‘Wichita Lineman’ attests “if it snows, that stretch down south will never stand the strain.”

Recently retired Beartooth Electric Cooperative Inc. (BEC) Lineman Lee Hauge said he understands such lyrics.

In Montana’s extreme weather of sub-zero temps, blizzards and winds not to mention the angry bear or raptor, this work environment is pretty unique.

Nevertheless, Hauge, of Red Lodge, still says he loved the job. “It’s been 38 years, five months and it’s still fascinating.”

Hauge officially retired on March 2, from BEC. He started with BEC on Sept. 4, 1979.

Kevin Owens said, “Lee set a very high bar at Beartooth for all to aspire as someone committed to its members, family and community.”

“I don’t miss outages,” Hauge smiled. Hauge actually retired Feb. 21, and by the next day he and his wife, Teresa, were heading towards the Caribbean on a cruise. “We toasted my retirement at 4:30, March 2,” said Hauge, with a fellow BEC employee and his wife and three others from Red Lodge who sailed with them.

“I hated wind,” he reflected. “It’s probably my worst weather event. Can’t communicate, can’t talk to someone an arms length away or the guy up a pole.”

He recalled, “A pole went down in the Clark’s Fork canyon. That place and Nye have the worst winds. A big wind event; multiple outages. I went around a building and the wind blew me back. The gusts would get so high we would just kneel down on our knees and hold on to our hard hats. A local resident recorded the wind at 98 mph with gusts up to 108.” After the repairs, “He wrote a nice letter thanking us.”

He noted, “We always hear the complaints, but we appreciate the compliments. Those are our tips!”

Hauge’s got plenty of animal stories working on the line. One of his funniest is about a fellow crew member’s “feet don’t fail me now” moment.

“We went out to check on the poles after an outage,” said Hauge. He dropped the guy off in the middle of the brush at night, because the truck couldn’t get through and the man would walk the line to where Hauge would then go to pick him up. “We were in communication,” he said.

“After a while, I get a message over the radio all out of breath, he’s obviously been running, ‘Huff, huff, Moose!’” The man continues on. Two minutes later, said Hauge, “I get another out of breath message, ‘Huff, huff, Bear!’”

There are always the cats on the transformers. “That is actually a very dangerous job. To be up on a bucket, Fluffy panics and grabs you while its tail hits a 7,000 volt line!”

Linemen prefer to use a fiberglass pole to push critters off. “Did you ever not see a cat land on its feet?”

But in one call from Bridger, a cat lover expressed great concern over her cat stuck up there for days. They responded and realized they couldn’t use the stick as usual with her watching. He noticed the woman had sheets on a line. He and the old woman ran around with a sheet spread out trying to position it under where the cat might fall as his coworker used the pole from the bucket to try to goad the cat into jumping. Finally, it jumped. “It missed the sheet by six inches! Bonk! It bounces, gets up and runs away!” said Hauge laughing. “She was happy. We saved Fluffy.”

“Early on the job, the (Carbon County) Sheriff’s Office asked for BEC’s help for then Game Warden, Kevin Nichols, by bringing their bucket truck to get a sow and two cubs down from a tree at Field School Park.”

The cubs kept jumping from branch to branch as Nichols tried to dart them with a tranquilizer gun. The sow was later found to have died from an earlier wound. Another bucket truck was called to corner them. “One was snared and one got away.”

Years later, “We were called back to the same park. A 10-year old girl had climbed one of the pine trees across from the Boys and Girls Club and panicked. They rescued her (without the fiberglass pole).

He noted, “We run a lot of area. You don’t come in and become a lineman at Beartooth Electric. You have to learn the area.”

Helpful skills include being an outdoorsman, watching the experienced linemen closely, being eager to learn, and being a diplomat. They give shut off orders so customer relations is important. Some easements still require crossing other private land. Customers can either chase you with a shotgun or invite you in for coffee. He's had both.

Wet fall and spring storms bring the greatest risks after wind. “One lineman was walking under trees where big branches were just breaking off above him.”

Sometimes you must weigh how much a storm blasted pole can take before you climb it. Although the system is designed tough, “that goes out the window because Mother Nature rules.” There are cracked poles, loose and broken wires, poles breaking. “Even if you don’t walk under it (a rule),” live wires can still snap loose and be all over the place.” One pole broke off and landed where a co-worker had just been standing, its live wires hanging loose.

Hauge has worked a storm outage for 42 hours straight. “You just think about the goal-if I get that line fixed, then that one, then they have power there.” But he says, “We don’t do that anymore.” Safety is a big concern. “It’s part of our mentality now. It’s not safe if you’re sleep deprived.”

He taught Electric Safety Programs as trainer for decades for Red Lodge Fire Department, where he served 25 years as a volunteer. He trained CC FD, ER and law enforcement and Stillwater County.

But his great passion is teaching kids electricity safety. “I strive for 100 percent participation.”

Hauge learns their names and makes sure each child takes a turn speaking.

“The little ones are just interested in the props.” But the 5th and 6th graders understand. After learning why you don’t touch things he tells them, “You were safe because you had knowledge.”

Family means everything to him. He praises his wife and his two grown sons, Brad and Jeremy for bearing with all the times he got the call, day or night, and got up and left. His future, he said, will include more traveling. He laughingly told former BEC manager Dick Peck he’s coming up to Alaska, “to be your bait boy.”

Hauge is proud of BEC’s journey over the decades.

“Our system is pretty sound. We have fewer outages now.”

He credits Lower Valley management and new policies that now require “outage reviews” regularly to check on ways to prevent future outages.

On April 4, BEC had a broken wire from a bird. They asked, “Can we do more bird protection, can we test things a little better, should we rewire differently?” Some things you can’t prevent. They have instituted more pole testing.

Hauge says BEC has embarked upon an ambitious plan to remap and check out the whole system: ten substations over ten years, one a year. Absarokee has been completed. All linemen now carry iPads that are automatically updated. They have GPS to locate poles and their latest checkup dates. Security clearances are in place. Data gathering includes testing poles.

Hauge laughs, “In 1979, I started out testing poles and I ended up testing poles. But this is very high tech.”

Hauge praises the managers who taught him and sees current manager Kevin Owens in the same mold. They were informed, spoke calmly and cared. When his retirement papers were held up in processing for several months, Owens heard him mention it casually, and went to bat for Hauge.

“He called all the way up the line! I was impressed,” said Hauge.

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Upcoming Events

  • Thursday, August 23, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Meets every Thursday, 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, 122 S. Hauser. It is open to all. 425- 1755.
  • Thursday, August 23, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Clarks Fork Group meets at St. Joseph’s Catholic Hall, north end of Montana Avenue, Thursday at 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, August 25, 2018 - 10:00am
    An Overeaters Anonymous group will meet every Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Grace Fellowship Church, Absarokee.
  • Monday, August 27, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Joliet Group meets at the Community Center Monday at 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, August 30, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Meets every Thursday, 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, 122 S. Hauser. It is open to all. 425- 1755.
  • Thursday, August 30, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Clarks Fork Group meets at St. Joseph’s Catholic Hall, north end of Montana Avenue, Thursday at 7 p.m.

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