Play-down for Kyson and Minot

The Souris River starts up in Canada, in Saskatchewan. It meanders down south into the United States, into North Dakota, then arcs back up into Canada, into Manitoba. In Minot, North Dakota, the locals call the river the Mouse. Most years it's a lazy, placid affair.

This past June, a historic flood rocked the river basin. In Minot, a town of 41,000 people, 11,000 had to flee their homes. More than 4,000 homes ended up being in the water; more than 2,300 in six to 10 feet of water; 850 in over 10 feet of water, the mayor would later tell the Los Angeles Times.

"I try not to think about it," 17-year-old Kyson Smith said. "But it pops in my head quite a bit."

Kyson's house was one of the 850. It was the house his mom and dad, Kelby and Cyndy, had moved into the day after they were married in 1976. It was where the extended family celebrated Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas mornings and everything else.

"The water in our house came up to our ceiling," Kelby Smith said. "Our house was pretty much under water. Everything but the roof."

He added, "We've had all our memories in there."

North Dakota is a big place geographically. But it's a small place people-wise. The circle of people who are curling aficionados -- that's smaller still.

So, as they gather this week in Grafton, North Dakota, for the "play-down," or round-robin selection event, for the curling team the United States will send to the Winter Youth Olympic Games -- in Austria in February -- pretty much everyone knows what happened to Kelby, Cyndy and Kyson in Minot.

Curling is still the kind of sport where they make reference to a potential up-and-comer like Kyson by saying, well, you know, Kelby's dad curled in the U.S. men's nationals with an uncle, way back in the 195os, and don't forget that Kelby himself is competing at the U.S. senior nationals in just a few weeks.

The thing about North Dakota, where winters are long and hard and you learn early that stuff happens and you have to figure out how to make things work without whining about it, is that nobody is quite sure what to say or do about the fact that Kelby, Cyndy and Kyson are flood victims.

Not even Kelby, Cyndy and Kyson.

The house of their dreams is gone; the mortgage had been paid off long ago; the oil-related boom in North Dakota means it's now all but impossible to find affordable housing; they're living now in a FEMA-supplied trailer; the quarters, to be kind, are close.

"We're just in limbo," Kelby said. "We don't know what we're going to do," and as Thanksgiving approaches what words of encouragement sound the right notes for a hard-working American family that did all the right things but because of factors out of their control find themselves staring at a future from inside a FEMA trailer?

It's no wonder Kyson said curling "takes my mind off things." He said, "I have friends to talk to. We don't talk about the flood that much. We get focused on the game; have a good time on the ice. I don't think about it much when I curl."

The captain of Kyson's team, Alex Kitchens, also 17, lives in Devils Lake, North Dakota. "We haven't talked too much about his house being under," Alex said, though he said that he had of course been to Minot and "you could see how high the water was," adding, "If it happened to me, I would just be devastated."

Alex also said, "We definitely want to win more. It would be nice for him to have fun and get his mind off it for a while."

If you believe in signs, there's this:

On the column of the porch at their house, the Smiths had installed a curling stone. When the flood came along, the water managed to dislodge the rock. But only as far as the front steps of the porch.

Which, when the waters receded, is where they found it.

Maybe some things are just too strong to be swept away.


Kelby Smith asked to pass along the family's contact details to those in the curling community -- or elsewhere -- who might want to get in touch. A cellular telephone, he said, is the only number they have now. It's 701-720-8335. E-mail: