Meet Duane Johnson. Of course, anyone camping at Fort Peck Lake in the last 10 years probably knows him. He has been the volunteer campground host at the Downstream and West End Campgrounds in Fort Peck, Mont., since 2003. Every year, for the last 10 years, April through October, he has been a mainstay.
“He is here from opening day until the gates close for the season, and is available to guests to answer questions, fill the brochure racks, report issues and provide entertainment,” said Natural Resource Specialist, Gail Plovanic. “When I first started here, he knew my job as well as anyone else and was able to ‘remind’ me when I’d forget something, which just makes me better at what I do.”
Johnson retired from his 44-year career with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad in 1998 where he served as a fire fighter, a brakeman and later a conductor. Following his retirement, he and his wife, who was fighting a losing battle with cancer, took time to travel. He fought his own battle with cancer during this time but beat the odds.
Johnson says he was listening to the radio one day and heard an advertisement that Fort Peck was looking for volunteers, so he applied.
And that was that.
He says he was out fishing on Fort Peck Lake when he got the call from Ranger Mark Calamar to tell him he was “hired” to volunteer at the campground.
Having grown up in Glasgow, Mont., and graduating from Glasgow High School in 1954, Johnson knows the area well.
Johnson has two daughters and two sons. His sons, Dean “Dino” and Steve, claim when they were growing up, they were at Fort Peck Lake almost every weekend through the summer. Their family would fish, swim, play games and make memories.
Dino recalled a family outing in the late 1960’s when they drove to one of the dredge cuts to swim and fish. After a few hours, it began to pour rain. Where the car was parked was sandy and the rainfall caused the car to sink into the sand and become stuck. A dog from another camp site had crawled under the car to cool off and became pinned under the sinking car. Johnson walked more than a mile in pouring rain to a pay phone to hire a tow truck to rescue the car and the dog.
According to Dino, his dad saved the dog and that was the first time he realized his dad was a hero.
Steve told the story of an outing at Fort Peck Lake where he and his dad realized shortly after launching the boat that they had forgotten to put in the plug. They loaded the boat back on the trailer, Steve began pulling the boat from the water and Duane stepped behind the boat to replace the plug. The boat, which had not been hooked to the trailer, began sliding onto the boat ramp. They struggled to reload the boat, assess the damages and then took it for repairs.
The next day, high winds forced all the boaters in the fall salmon tournament to fish in the Marina Bay. Steve, feeling challenged by Duane to set his down riggers better than his brother-in-law Louie, accidentally hooked one to the marina’s boat dock cables. The back of their boat was nearly pulled under water from the tension and the down rigger cable snapped. Steve said they didn’t catch a fish all weekend but after $1,500 in fuel and boat repairs, fishing with his dad was priceless.
Johnson’s four children have blessed him with 19 grandchildren and 30 great grandchildren and they all know where to find him every summer. And they all join him from time to time. In fact, for his 70th birthday, they threw a surprise birthday party at his brother’s place in Duck Creek, which is a recreation area on Fort Peck Lake.
“It ain’t the money,” says Johnson with a laugh when asked about what keeps him coming back to Fort Peck each year. “It’s probably the people I work with and the campers. That would include you, wouldn’t it?” he asked Plovanic.
The real secret that’s no secret is Johnson is there for the fishing. He says his spare time is spent fishing and smoking fish, which of course implies that he manages to catch a few.
When visitors ask where his favorite fishing spots are, he sends them to the shafts, Duck Creek and behind the Interpretive Center.
“Two years ago, when the lake was up, we were ‘ladder fishing’ at the bottom of the spillway when all the gates were open. They were biting fast and furious down there!” said Johnson.
What brings campers back may also be attributed to Johnson. His entertainment value varies from reciting poetry, a local favorite is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, to his storytelling, to his frequent fish frys.
One of Johnson’s stories involves a rather humorous campground tale involving four motorcyclers who had camped across the street from his camper. As the story goes, “One gal woke up, walked over to take a shower and came back to change her clothes behind a tree.” He said she looked around in every direction to make sure nobody was looking and then stripped down completely naked, right in front of the big window of his camper. Fortunately, she didn’t see him.
Each spring, Johnson takes up residence in his camp host spot nicknamed “two tarps” by local residents referring to the tarps he puts up on both sides of his picnic shelter. If he isn’t found at “two tarps”, all anyone has to do is look for his bright orange “pumpkin” of a car, which is probably orange in honor of his favorite football team, the Denver Broncos.
Jim Henzie, a frequent camper at the West End Campground and an avid fisherman described Johnson. “He is the best Campground host I’ve ever come across. I have never met anyone who doesn’t like Duane. He is easy going, gets along with everyone and I’ve never seen him mad.”
So, for visitors headed to Fort Peck, Johnson can be found at “two tarps” every night from April to October, and he’s ready to welcome you.