A man on ice: the story of a homeless man’s days on the Missouri River in Great Falls


On Monday evening, the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office took Benjamin Staples into protective custody. Staples had refused to leave the ice on the Missouri River for a few days. This video was taken by Gordon Grainger of Grainger Graphics.


For one weekend in March during a Montana winter that seems like it will never end, the attention of the city was drawn to a lone character camped on the river ice south of the Central Avenue Bridge.

Ben Staples: the man on ice.

As the drama played itself out everyone had an opinion. Social media was filled with them – from the compassionate to the cynical.

“I’ve see videos of ordinary people pulling deer, etc. out of water after falling through the ice,” one Facebook commentator wrote. “First things first, save his life, then plan on how to help him. His life is worth as much as mine and anyone else.”

“Dart him like an animal, just enough to sedate him,” and “Leave him…stop wasting money and stop giving him attention.”

“He’s clearly suicidal,” another wrote. “He could go to the shelter if he wanted a warm place to sleep. Obviously, he wants to die in his sleep on the ice because he thinks it’ll be painless to just fall asleep and not wake up.”

A Great Falls Fire Rescue service personnel follows

A Great Falls Fire Rescue service personnel follows Ben Staples on the Missouri River ice Saturday morning

Ben didn’t want to die. He wasn’t seeking attention. I can say this because I had the privilege of getting to know Ben Staples — and there is no stereotype that will easily fit within a 280 character Tweet or a Facebook comment that can summarize his life.

“You go through a lot of soul searching and depression,” Staples told me as we sat together out on the ice. “You’re just drudging alone — and more drudging. But that’s what you want in your heart. You want to be able to have a family again and that’s what I’m working with — for a long time. Prisons, jails, mental institutions — they drug me around a lot. I just want to be able to offer something to a family that would be attractive to someone. When it comes down to it — I want to be desirable. That’s what I want.”

Ben’s confession drove a stake into my heart — but many people live with heartbreak and disappointment; almost none of them get chased around on a Missouri River ice floe.

Ben’s problem wasn’t the stability of the ice. It was and is his own emotional and mental stability.

By circumstance and coincidence, I got to know Ben Staples a few days before everything fell apart.

He walked into the newsroom 10 days ago, carrying a note I’d scrawled on a random scrap of paper and tied to a cord on his tent.

“I think your artwork is beautiful,” I wrote him. “I’d like to hear your story.”

Ben Staples greets a guest to his home before being

Ben Staples greets a guest to his home before being evicted

I had just filled an assignment to learn more about a proposed subdivision — a riverbank property on the east shore of the Missouri River just south of the Central Ave. Bridge.

You couldn’t miss Ben’s camp. A tepee-shaped tent with American flags stood by an impressive view.

The most surprising thing was the snow art Staples had created. Using little more than his feet and a flat piece of wood, he’d created a gallery. There were swirls and monuments; a pyramid with an American flag at its top — even a battery-operated lantern to light it up at night.

Surrounding it all were words pressed into the drifts — Faith, Love and Home. Here was a man with belief.

On Feb. 26, Ben met me at my office. We had lunch together, spent time at his camp, talked about his life and his travels. He spoke of his faith, a strong relationship with God, his belief in America, his respect for the American flag.

“It took me about three months on foot from Texarkana,” Staples said of his journey north. “I was planning to hook up with a friend in Canada. That didn’t work out so I began heading west.”

There was also a long layover in Salt Lake City, where Staples worked as a volunteer for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he ultimately ran afoul of the law.

“A homeless man charged with stalking President Thomas S. Monson believed that the leader of the LDS Church was ‘the only one who could solve my problems’,” a Deseret News article reported of Staples. “Staples never made threats or carried weapons, aside from a folding pocketknife, each witness confirmed. But Rampton (an LDS security guard) said his behavior seemed to be escalating.”

“There’s more to the story than that,” Staples told me. “It goes deep.”

Staples rejects rescue efforts Saturday morning

Staples rejects rescue efforts Saturday morning

Staples’ legal troubles in Salt Lake City came to a conclusion in late August. He was released from police custody and headed north.

Ben Staples’ story includes service in the U.S. Air Force, a wife and family in Arkansas, the collapse of all he hoped to build and a cross-country journey that landed him in Montana.

There is no easy way to confirm all the details he claims, but it’s his story. And I have no reason to believe he isn’t being honest — is really just about a man searching for a place.

Staples said he ended up in Great Falls by accident. Turned back from the Canadian border, Ben saw Great Falls only as a temporary resting place.

Ben Staples flashes the peace symbol at his camp a

Ben Staples flashes the peace symbol at his camp a few days before being evicted

“I injured my leg from walking so much,” he said. “I couldn’t walk, so I was just going to rest here.”

It was late fall, and Staples took refuge at a camp under the 15th Street Bridge. Having grown up in Arkansas, he had little appreciation for the challenges posed by a Montana winter.

“I started with just a blanket that I found,” he told me. “I built up enough blankets and stuff to where, eventually, I was able to build wall barriers to protect me from the cold.”

He began volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul, met a woman who he began a relationship with and found a community of people who genuinely cared about him.

Ben was optimistic. Maybe he’d turned a corner.

“Basically, in all my journeys; being held accountable and being asked to make a stand for what I believe in — and not going on to the next adventure that looks better at the time because it’s easier,” Ben said of his motivation for staying in Great Falls.

The entrance to Ben Staples camp before being evicted

The entrance to Ben Staples camp before being evicted

“It’s just come to a point now where that flag is my heart,” he added. “When I go up to that flag and touch it, I’m telling them that I love it. It’s me.”

Ben seemed happy. A sense of pride moved within him. There was optimism, and hope for a better future.

“I’ve been working hard and have been promised a lot of things by God. If I just stick with it, maybe this is actually — maybe this is it. I can’t tell you.”

In hindsight, moving his camp to the edge of the Central Avenue Bridge probably wasn’t the best decision. Staples was no longer anonymous. Anyone crossing the bridge could see his flags. That’s what he wanted.

“I know I’m trespassing,” he told me that Monday afternoon. “I’m just waiting for God to tell me where he wants me to go.”

On Saturday morning I headed in early to work. My route took me across the Central Ave. Bridge, where a firetruck was blocking one of the westbound lanes.

I looked downstream, where rescue personnel lined the banks, and in the distance was a man wearing black standing on the ice in the middle of the river.

I whipped my head around. Ben’s camp was gone. It had to be him. I knew it in my bones.

The camp after Staples laid waste to it Friday night

The camp after Staples laid waste to it Friday night

When I got to the riverbank, none of the rescue personnel had any clear idea of who this guy out in the middle of the river was.

“I think I know this person,” I told a Great Falls Fire Rescue responder. He directed me to the incident commander, Battalion Chief Jamie Jackson.

“His name is Ben Staples,” I told Jackson while sitting in the command vehicle. “He’s 42, comes from Arkansas, and he volunteers over at the St. Vincent de Paul.”

Jackson was grateful for the information, wrote it down, began tracking down phone numbers for the people Ben might respond to at the St. Vincent de Paul.

However, all the good intentions in the world won’t help a person who doesn’t want your help. Ben was in that space.

It began Friday afternoon when a Great Falls police officer told Ben he was going to have to move his camp. The property owner had complained and had every right to do so.

“He was like ‘Can’t you read the signs?’ and ‘You know you need to get out,’ Ben said of that Friday afternoon encounter with law enforcement.

“I got the old tent down and started cleaning up everything,” Ben remembered, “and then I thought, what am I going to do, just go around begging someone to have a place to set up a tent? Then have it so somehow that wouldn’t work out? Then a bunch of stuff was happening at work — it was just some crazy stuff going on everywhere.”

“Sometimes you get really weak because the weight of everything gets on you,” he added. “When I get really weak to the point of where I’m either laying down or crying or something, then all of a sudden I just stand up and say ‘No. I’m not doing this, I’m fighting back.'”

Ben Staples, the "Missouri River Iceman", talks with

Ben Staples, the “Missouri River Iceman”, talks with Great Falls Tribune reporter David Murray on the Missouri River ice sheet upriver from the Central Avenue West Bridge, Monday afternoon. Staples drew a lot of attention this weekend after walking on the ice to Black Eagle Dam and camping on the ice.

To Ben, at that moment in time, fighting back meant burning whatever he felt he didn’t need.

“I put everything in that duffle bag from my tent,” he said. “I had everything that I needed; that I wanted to survive with. Just basic sleep and survival. That’s all I was interested in; being able to sleep without freezing and just your basic hygiene – foot care, first aid kit.

“I lit it and walked away,” he added. “I had everything I needed. I threw it over the fence and I started walking – looking back of course. I spent the night on the ice.”

That was before anyone took notice. That first night, Friday, March 2, was spent on the ice across from the Grizzly Bear sculpture off of West Bank Park.

That next morning Ben woke and decided to take a walk.

“I woke up there next to that island, and said to myself, ‘I’m going to go for a walk on the ice and see where it goes,'” he said. “At first I was concerned (speaking of the stability of the ice), and then I reached a point where it was like – just let it go. Just trust.”

Staples said he had no idea his adventure would cause such a stir.

“I was walking down the center of the river, it was early morning, and all of a sudden all of these cops start showing up on each side of the bank,” he said. “They were all polite – ‘Sir, you need to start coming to my voice’ – like I was delirious or something out there.”

“They had guys on bridges and stuff trying to talk to me. I wasn’t having any of it. I just wasn’t having it that first day at all.”

Rescuers wait for something to happen as Staples rejects

Rescuers wait for something to happen as Staples rejects rescue attempts on Saturday

“I just got booted out — work frustrations, girl frustrations — everything was just like frustrating me. I was like, leave me alone, get away from me now. This ice, this is my home. I trust ice, I don’t trust people.”

Soon crowds of people were stopping to gaze at the crazy man on the river. Staples said it was something he neither planned or expected.

“I didn’t realize that walking out on the ice would be just instantaneous attention,” he said. “I thought I’d just be invisible just like any other time. I guess I didn’t really realize what I was doing, I was just doing it.”

The attention ratcheted up when he got to the Black Eagle Dam.

“Everybody’s first question is ‘Are you suicidal?’ Staples admitted. “Ah man, come on now. Am I really out here to jump in the river? Oh — I can’t take it anymore — am I really that weak-minded? I’m a survivor.”

What Staples really wanted was to be left alone — even if that meant he was taking what seemed to be irrational risks with his own life. He also put other people’s lives at risk, those who were attempting to help him, whether he was seeking their help or not.

Eventually, the degree of urgency began to abate.

“They sent a county officer down there to talk to me, and I talked to him a little bit,” he said. “He’s come up here since to talk to me. Everyone that’s come to me has been good. They’re not trying to harass me.”

View from the ice; Ben Staples at his camp on a Missouri

View from the ice; Ben Staples at his camp on a Missouri River ice floe.

On Monday morning I met Ben Staples again near the shore of the Missouri River. He invited me to his camp — actually I invited myself. I was so invested at this point that I wanted to meet with Ben on his own terms.

Stepping out onto the ice the doubts began to pour in. Listen for a crack. Is your cell phone charged? Is this really worth it?

But this was Ben. I know him. He’s a good guy.

I said this to myself as a way to convince me that walking out onto the unstable river ice was a rational idea.

“What the hell is he doing out here?” I thought to myself.  “What am I doing out here?”

Five hundred feet further down a well-worn trail across the snow and I was at Ben’s camp. He knew I was coming. We’d spoken just a few minutes earlier. Ben greeted me warmly; offered me some water.

“Here’s a seat for you,” he said, cheerfully pulling up a duffle bag stuffed with blankets.

The air was still, as a warm sun shone down brightly — a cause for both joy and fear when you’re standing on a slowly melting ice flow.

As always, Ben’s camp was clean and well-organized.

“Last night I could see faint auroras,” he told me as we sat there together. “Often when you can see the lights you see beams coming towards you, but these beams were going straight up into the sky. It was just beautiful.”

Ben Staples at his ice camp on Monday morning

Ben Staples at his ice camp on Monday morning

Somehow, staying out in the middle of the Missouri River didn’t seem too crazy at that point.

There is a fine line between living life by your own rules and putting other people at risk. Ben’s choices were poor ones. There is no disputing that.

“I’m not ignorant to all that,” Ben responded when I pointed out that warmer weather had already arrived and all that. He couldn’t stay out here forever, “but at the same time — I’m just out here, living for the moment.”

I do not claim to know him well. His story is complex, and he would readily admit to many mistakes in his life. I can’t explain why Ben Staples risked his life. Maybe he can’t either.

You may also like

Hot News