Embracing the "What"?

James Myers- Wilderness Ranger Intern                                                                                  Appalachian State University                                                                                                    Training/Boulder Creek Trail 211                                                                                              15 May - 4 June/June 12-20                                                                                                        Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest

TRAINING May 15-June 4                                                                                                          I arrived at orientation with several emotions running through my body. I was super excited to begin my summer and start a new adventure, I was also worried because I had no Wilderness experience and wasn’t sure how behind the curve I would be. We jumped right into training on day one and my worries quickly vanished. Getting hands-on experience with the crosscut and practicing the various types of trail work, such as re-tread, left me feeling more confident and prepared for my first hitch. The Wilderness First Responder course gave me additional confidence knowing my teammates and myself would be able to properly respond in the event of an emergency.

BACK COUNTRY TRAIL WORK June 12-20                                                                          Our first day started off with an eight-mile hike clearing Boulder Creek Trail 211 to Horse Camp.  I was still a bit nervous going into this hitch because it would be my first official time doing trail work, but as we settled into the journey and began getting our hands dirty my feelings calmed. The following three days were long working days, we set up a gravity water system for the stock animals.  The stock carried our group dinners for the hitch. I will be forever grateful for Erika, the Forest Service Ranger, that provided us with pack support and helped us clear Trail 211.  We were able to clear up to Fish Lake Saddle.  At that point the snowpack became too deep for us to continue trail work.

Day four we woke up to pouring rain with no sign of clearing.  Being a US war Veteran, I’d packed my motivational t-shirt (just for such an occasion) with “Embrace the Suck” written across the front.  Wearing the shirt is a morale boost for me, I put it on that morning – I needed it.  I also hoped that the shirt would be motivation for the group. 

We set out to clear Long Lake trail in the pouring rain – yep, “suck”. We tackled a huge mess of downed large and medium-sized trees for our first task of the day, by that point we were all nice and wet with thoroughly soaked boots. Despite the curveball Mother Nature threw at us, and all the downed trees that needed to be removed, we prevailed and remained in high spirits and cleared most of the trail that day and finished Long Lake Trail the next day. The team pretty much stayed wet for the remainder of the hitch, but as conditions worsened our teamwork grew. We fed off each other’s energy and accomplished the objectives of the hitch. The smiling faces and thank-you’s from hikers using the trails made every second of the “suck” worth it. I’m excited to continue working with my teammates and can’t think of a better crew to “Embrace the Suck” and enjoy this magnificent landscape with.

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Back to Dutch Ridge

Joey Hudek - Nez Perce-Clearwater Moose Creek Trails Liaison

Dutch Ridge Trail #2150

It was going to be an amazing hitch! There had been talk of it all season and the time had finally come. I, along with the FS trail crew and an MCC crew, were going to reestablish part of Rhoda Creek trail #620 that had been lost. This was the last section of the Idaho Centennial Trail that needed to be opened. We were in charge of driving the golden spike in one of the most remote areas in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I was excited to get deep into the wilderness.

That excitement was short lived as I found out plans had changed because of wildfire. The MCC crew was evacuated and we were all in need of somewhere to go. And there was somewhere else to go, but it was not the amazing wilderness experience I was hoping for. It was actually a trail that I was hoping to not go back to. Dutch Ridge trail #2150. A steep, non-Wilderness trail that accesses Gold Hill trail #247 in the Wilderness. It badly needed to be opened and brushed. So off we went with power tools in hand to work up Dutch Ridge. The trail starts by fording the Lochsa River, which isn’t too bad at this time of the year. With boots and pants off, multiple trips were made to shuttle all of our gear and tools across. Then we spent the next 2 days slowly humping our gear about 5 miles up the very steep trail to an old outfitter camp. Over the rest of the hitch, we completely opened the trail and brushed at least 3 miles of it to spec. Surprisingly, this was done with smiles on all of our faces. I think we all took pride in bringing this trail back to life. I know I did. Dutch ridge hadn’t been opened since 2012, and who knows when it was last brushed.

This hitch was not at all what I was hoping for, but I still really enjoyed it. Getting to work alongside MCC is always great. It takes me back to my trail work roots. Even though, we weren’t working in the Wilderness we were still supporting the Selway-Bitterroot. The Dutch Ridge trail #2150 is just another access point to this amazing place. And I know someone is excited about our work. After we hiked down the steep ridge and forded the Lochsa for the last time we found a thank you note from an outfitter on our rig.

Hitch report:

# of crew members (SBFC, MCC, and FS): 10

Miles of trail opened: 7.6

Years since opened last: 5

Miles of trail brushed: 3+

# of times fording the Lochsa: 3

# of bee/hornet stings: 2

# of happy outfitters: 1

 

On High Alert!

Connor Adams - Selway Trail Crew Member

Selway River Trail #4.3

Bitterroot National Forest

Despite a canyon full of smoke, several active fires in the area, and dozens of rattlesnake encounters, the SBFC Trail Crew has another hitch worth of solid trail work on the books. The hitch was ended two days early due to changing fire weather, but the trail crew and Will Merritt – the Powell Liaison – were able to swing a few tools for the betterment of the Wilderness.

The work this hitch primarily focused on deferred maintenance on the Selway River Trail north of the Paradise Trailhead. In all, 3.5 miles of trail were maintained between Running Creek and Goat Creek, with over a half a mile of retread done in problem spots. A heavily used trail for hikers, stock users, and hunters alike, the tread was a few years overdue for some love. Trail #4 winds along the steep canyon walls for much of its length, and in spots failed retaining walls and gravel slough have caused dangerously skinny benches and blowouts on the downhill side of the trail. We repaired many of these blowouts, widened the bench along the steep sidehills, and dug the sloughed gravel off the trail. In addition, we cleaned out drains and water bars and performed some spot brushing.

The trail was practically crawling with wildlife during our time on it. The fire activity seemed to confuse the creatures of the dusk. The smoked-out sun encouraged the crickets and night birds to sound off in the middle of the day, and the rattlesnakes were sluggish, though still very prevalent. We saw a minimum of one per day on or beside the trail, and on our last day of work had no fewer than eight encounters. In addition, we spotted a few Western skinks and an adorable pygmy owl. Trail #4 north of Paradise, despite the heavy traffic and private inholdings, is a haven for critters.

The fires are still burning heavily on the Forest, though the smoke had generally cleared out by the last days. The first signs of fall (minus the rain, of course) began with the changing colors and falling needles, as well as much colder temperatures at night. The trail, however, is in much better shape. Once the fires die down, it will be ready for use!

Fires changed our course but not our objective

Trevor Fero – Nez Pierce-Clearwater Trail Crew Member

Hitch #6 – Selway #4

Bitterroot – Frank Church Wilderness

As we say goodbye to the interns, it’s time for the rest of the staff to focus on the remaining 4 hitches of the season. Because there are so many forest fires on the Nez-Pierce-Clear Water National Forest, the trail crew and I (along with Courtney, Will and Betty the dog) have been moved south to the West Fork Ranger District of the Bitterroot National Forest to work in the Frank Church Wilderness. While in the Frank, we were tasked with deferred maintenance on the Selway River Trail #4. The first three nights we worked out of Magruder Cabin and then base camped four and a half miles down from the trail head. All season we have been cutting and running but with new territory comes new responsibilities. Our job on the Bitterroot National Forest was to spot re-tread, brush, remove rock from the trail, and do a bit more rock work. We did spot retreading for three quarters of a mile, brushed three and one quarter miles, and did forty-five feet of rock work bringing us to a total of ten miles worked down the Selway River Trail all the way to Sweat Creek.

It was a pleasure being on hitch with Will and Courtney (and Betty the dog) because they brought new and exciting energy to the trail crew.   It is always great working with new people because there are always new things to learn.   I learned new meal options, specific ways to improve posture while digging tread all day, and how to create a rock retaining wall to improve trail stability. Good company also helps turn negative situations into positive situations… On our last day driving out of the back country our rig, (affectionately named “Deer Hunter”) broke down at the Stevensville Ranger Station causing us to arrive 3 hours later than expected to Missoula. Because we had each other as company, the wait for help from AAA seemed to fly by.  Courtney and Betty were also nice enough to give us all rides back to Missoula from Stevensville.  All in all the beautiful location and wonderful company made for an amazing hitch.  

An intern's season comes to a close.....

Ethan Spoerry– Wilderness Ranger Intern

Luther College

Chaffin Creek

August 7-11

Bitterroot

It is difficult to describe the bittersweet feeling of the last hitch of a season. There is excitement for what lies ahead in our schooling or careers, trepidations over having to leave such an amazing place, and hope that we will someday be able see the people and places we have come to care for and love throughout the internship, an internship which has been so much more than a summer job or a resume builder. Though we did receive a significant amount of training and instruction which was both necessary and helpful for our work, I believe the true value of our time spent with SBFC was not in the training. Rather, it has been the life altering experiences and connections that occurred as part of the work we did. Though every intern came from different backgrounds from across the country, we all leave bonded together over one commonality; Wilderness. It is difficult for me to say goodbye to such a wonderful and wild place in order to return home to a state that has not retained such magnificent and preserved places. However I know in my heart that I will not spend the totality of my life bereft of wilderness because of the impact it has had on me. I leave two quotes from Edward Abbey that meld with those who have been into the wilderness and found a piece of themselves in the process: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit” and “Wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders”. As you progress through your life I hope that you will join those who proudly defend wilderness, both in practice and spirit.

Iowa Highschoolers discover Wilderness

Sam Freestone – Wilderness Ranger Intern

Iowa State University

Siah Lake

July 26-30

Nez Perce-Clearwater

I stood immersed in the beauty of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. My eyes scanned over the back of the Bitterroot Range, not capable of taking in all of its complexity. Dominating the front of my view was the treeless rocky top of Ranger Peak. Sitting out on the rocks in front of me was the reason I had come to the top. The new expansion of the IDAWA group, IDAWA2 as I call them (creative I know). IDAWA2 is the second county of Iowa high school students to start coming to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness for their first trail work experience.

I was one of the IDAWA kids just four short years ago. For me, meeting the Wilderness for the first time was like a strong bucket of water splashed on my face. The water shocked me awake and cleared the haze from my eyes, a haze that was planted there by years of growing up in Iowa's agriculturally dominated landscape. Iowa, which was once was a prairie which reached farther than most could conceive, now is one of the most altered and abused topographies in America. If it were not for the efforts of my county naturalist and the IDAWA trip, I may very well still believe that was the way it is and always will be.

Now, leading the Volunteers with USFS Ranger Erika VanHavel, I had the opportunity to witness the change that 6 days in the backcountry can make. Erica and I guided some through their first chop of an axe and found on each of their faces the same uncontrollable grin spreading when chips of wood began to fly. Under the soft song of the crosscut saw, I have found, it is none too difficult to become complacent in your spiritual connection to the Wilderness. Long days of trail work and consuming huge meals (just to be calorie neutral) can leave little time for questions of great depth. Though we try, it can be difficult to articulate ourselves unless we have someone with which we can discuss. It is for that reason exactly that the IDAWA program is so vital. Who better to question every thought, reason, and idea than a dozen high school age kids? Their discourse intensifies throughout the week as they begin to discover their own need for the land surrounding.

All perched on the rocks in thought, I wondered what it was they had on their minds. The wind picked up and blew through my clothing, a welcome feeling on an otherwise scorching and sweaty day in July. With the wind came a veil of smoke that now enveloped the distant peaks, but no amount can block out the sudden sense of place gained when you reach a summit. We stayed on top of that unnamed peak for an hour before having to hike back towards the Siah Lake and camp. Though we couldn’t keep them in that place for very long, I know their time will be held in their thoughts and memories for many years to come. If you ever hike up to Siah Lake and the highest point on the ridge that surrounds it, know you are on ground hallowed by the newest family to the Selway-Bitterroot, a small bunch of high schoolers from Iowa.

Base Camp - Cabin Creek - 24 days

Gabriel Duff – Wilderness Ranger Intern

Appalachian State University

Cabin Creek Ranger Station, Big Creek Trail

June 13th-July 6th

Payette National Forest

Just A Month In The Wilderness… It’s Casual

            “So how exactly are we getting to this ranger station?”

            “You’re going to fly.”

On June 13th, my intern partner (Steve Mantani) and I stepped out onto the McCall Aviation runway. In front of us was a small plane. Within the hour we were in the air, flying over the most beautiful country I had ever seen. From the front passenger seat I could see the snow covered mountains and the snake-like Big Creek directly below me. After a half-hour flight, we banked around a valley and began our approach toward the Cabin Creek runway. The runway itself was much shorter and narrower than I had imagined, but our pilot skillfully landed our aircraft with plenty of room to spare. Steve and I exited the tiny aircraft; two Student Conservation Association (SCA) interns and a US Forest Service Ranger greeted us cheerfully. Within an hour of landing we were already heading out to work on the Big Creek trail towards the Middle Fork. Over the span of two hours I had gone from a small town in Idaho to the most secluded ranger station in the Payette National Forest. Steve and I based out of Cabin Creek for the following twenty-four days…

Each member of our crew carried three tools plus all the gear and food needed for ten days of hard work. The country along Big Creek trail is gorgeous. We worked all day, talked all evening, and slept soundly to the sound of rushing water all night. We sweat, we laughed, and we all quickly became forever friends. If someone were to ask me “what was it like being out there for a whole month?” I would simply tell them exactly this: there is no better way to build a relationship with friends, hone self-reliance, and gain a true appreciation for the wilderness. Wilderness is natural; wilderness is therapeutic for your soul. It isn’t easy being out of the rushing world for that long, but the reward is immeasurable. The experience is difficult to describe. From seeing bears, rattle snakes, snow in July, gorges with pictographs on rocks, and the ever strong flowing Big Creek… All of it has made me truly appreciate the meaning of the word “wild.”

On our final day at Cabin Creek, we gathered around the dinner table for our last meal together as a crew. Our US Forest Service Ranger, Kenny, cooked us the most delicious meal that I could have ever imagined in the backcountry. We played cards until the sun went down and we couldn’t see our cards anymore. True friends. Celebrating after clearing and maintaining the Big Creek trail (20 miles).

Hard work, good company, and the true wilderness experience have made this an unforgettable adventure…

“The mountains are calling and I must go” – John Muir

Everything Beautiful Ever

Kate Barrett – Wilderness Ranger Intern

University of Montana

Cabin Creek

July 26 – August 2

Salmon-Challis National Forest

This summer has been a cyclical one, three months built on good rhythms. For me, our hitches follow a predictable arc: day 1, when the packs are heavy, the week long, our bodies unbreakable; day 4, when the bear bag finally goes up without a fight; day 5, when every lake and stream starts to look like an appealing place to bathe; day 6, when the saw catches and the patience runs thin; day 7, when we come out and I’m quick to realize all I want is to go back in.

It’s giving me fits to think these rhythms are coming to an end—our next hitch will be short and then we’re finished. But let us not dwell.

Riley and I have spent the last three hitches working for the Middle Fork Ranger District out of Challis, Idaho. Many of the Middle Fork rangers have been on the forest for decades and they’ve been a joy to work with and learn from. They know the trails so intimately, it’s an inspiration. At this point in my life, in this line of work especially, it’s not often you find anyone who stays put for long. Everyone is out there bagging peaks, flying to Nepal or New Zealand, dirtbagging their way across hundreds of miles, collecting new places the way normal people collect furniture. And no one will say it aloud but one-upmanship is most certainly a motivator. Like, dude, you mean you haven’t summited Mount Whitney in a summer-time snowstorm at 4 in the morning? That’s too bad for you because, you know, I have and it was badass.

God knows I’ve participated in my share of chest-puffing. And sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat knowing someone somewhere is cliff-diving into an aquamarine pool in Southeast Asia and that person is not me. Quick, someone buy me a plane ticket; I need to lay eyes on EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL EVER.

The rangers in Challis do not sit still, but they do stay put. They know which creeks have jumped their beds and where to part the undergrowth for a trickle of spring water. They check on listing trees at bends in the trail, season after season, until the snow or wind or gravity and simple time bring them down. It’s such a relief to see—it turns out this is the pace I’ve always wanted to move. Slowly. Deeply. With great care.

And boy oh boy, do we move slow. The Salmon-Challis National Forest, and the whole of the Frank Church Wilderness, is spotted with burn areas, which means our summer has been heavy on the cross-cut duty. Sawing around 300 to 400 trees every hitch doesn’t leave much time for other projects. We’ve been averaging somewhere between a mile and a mile-and-a-half of clearing for every ten-hour workday. This last hitch, which we spent on the Cabin Creek and Crimson Lake Trails, was no exception. We clocked out at 327 trees and logged plenty of miles walking to and from camp every day. We stayed in the valley for the first three nights (followed by frosty mornings), but packed up and made the hefty climb to Crimson Lake on Sunday. All our lung-busting paid off, though, because the lake was clear and cold and rimmed with rocky peaks. It’s easily one of the most striking places we’ve had the privilege to work in this summer.

Clearing the trail up was a taxing job, but after work we got to play—skinny-dipping in the lake, some fly-fishing, sunset gazing, hot-drink sipping. I was sorry to leave. I’m in Missoula now, smelling good, ready for the cycle to start over, waiting to get back in the rhythm.

Marble Creek Remains: SBFC Returns

Kelly O'Neill - Frank Church Lead Wilderness Steward

Marble Creek Trail is a portion of the Idaho Centennial Trail that has been notoriously rugged and tricky to navigate in years past.  As it meanders along Marble Creek, the trail encounters numerous creek crossings and passes through miles of burned area.  In preparation for this year’s volunteer trip, I scoured resources for information on the trail condition, location, etc. I was answered with many unknowns and find-out-when-you-get-theres.  Thrilling! What I did know was that the trail head was quite remote—true. There would be no radio communication—very true. The condition of the road was poor—true, and worse for the horse trailer. The jury was completely out on the trail status and type of work to be done. Turns out 2016 SBFC did an excellent job and made our time on Marble Creek significantly smoother. 

            Last year SBFC ran two volunteer projects on Marble Creek.  During this time they cleared at least 6 miles of trail (maybe more?) and cleaned up a log jam that had been rendering the trail impassable for some users, and super hairy for others.  The work completed in 2016 allowed our group to, comparatively, waltz in 6 miles and work south from a far more convenient base camp.  We spent two days clearing fallen trees, and two days fixing rock wall and creek crossing blow-outs.  During our short time on the Marble Creek trail, we cleared to a point just shy of Buck Creek, and repaired some retaining walls that were separating from the slope and slipping away with the waters. 

            On the trip there were 6 volunteers, 2 SBFC interns, Sally for a few days, and Jesse Forest Service Ranger for a few other days.  Mr. John Binninger packed us in and out—it was a true treat to have him.  I owe many thanks to this list of people! Simply getting out to Marble Creek was tough work, but I continued to be impressed and humbled by the helpfulness and positivity of each person on the trip.  I had been rather anxious in the days leading up to the project – hoping for everything to go smoothly, eager to get plenty of good work done.  As it turned out all my fretting was for not, because the group of people I got to work with made my job breezy. Every volunteer was so willing to work hard!  Both interns, Steve and Gabe, were nonstop on point! Sally made food shopping ten times easier and was a very supportive presence! Jesse FS cleared our way to basecamp—road and trail! Jon and his string provided endless delight, lighter loads and great coffee! 

            So, if it is not clear by my overuse of the exclamation point, I am incredibly grateful to these folks.  I could not be more pleased with the work we accomplished.  Perhaps Marble Creek is becoming a bit of a legacy for SBFC. It is a beautiful slice of wilderness, and a prominent example of why we do what we do.

Some Memorable Miles on the Blodgett Trip

Matthew Hutchins – Wilderness Ranger Intern  

Christopher Newport University

Blodgett

July 13-17

Bitterroot National Forest

This Blodgett trip was full of twists and turns in the road and on the trail. I showed up the morning of the first day ready and excited to get back to work after a few days off. The trip started on Thursday the 13th and was scheduled to last until Wednesday the 19th. The six volunteers arrived with all their gear, I introduced myself to each of them and got a feel for the each individual’s level of backcountry experience.  We had some people who had years of trail work experience, and others who had never backpacked before. The varied experience levels made the whole trip so much more exciting.  Each volunteer required different training and instruction which was both the challenge and the opportunity.  I left my stuff for the packers to carry into our camp and hiked in front of the group and packers with Adam Washebek, USFS to make sure that no trees were going to block the stock from making it to camp.

Camp was seven miles out and the hike was a “walk in the park” because the mules were packing the food, and for that I will be forever grateful.  We got to camp on the first day about an hour before the packers and an hour and a half before the rest of the group. We set up camp once everyone was there and did a little bit of clearing trail that day.  Day two was going to be the day we tried clearing to the lake, much to our surprise by the afternoon we were at the lake having cleared only 12 trees total. Adam had taken a group up the pass along the trail and Ethan (the other Intern) and I took the rest of the group to Blodgett Lake. The lake was welcomed sight, plus it was an easy hike in.  Because there was not much work to be done around the lake it meant we had to change our plans for the rest of the trip.  We were scheduled for one more day with volunteers and three more days for just Ethan and myself.

Once we had gotten back to camp we ate a good meal and planned Saturday’s project. Saturday morning Ethan woke up with only one hour of sleep due to migraines and wasn’t going to be able to work that day. One of the volunteers also woke up with severe blisters on his feet, to the point where is feet were almost raw; he was out for the day. Consequently, we were down two men but we decided to clear a bit of the lake trail a mile from our camp off the Blodgett trail. We knew we wouldn’t be hiking much because we knew the trail was a mess from last year’s intense storms. Once we arrived, our predictions were correct.  About .1 miles into the trail there was a pick-up-stick pile of 30 trees all intertwined with one another.  We couldn’t even find the trail so we cut the least number of trees to reconnect the trail.  We made about 50 cuts that day and were nearing the end of our work day when our trajectory abruptly changed.

One of the volunteers tripped and injured both of her ankles to the point she was unable to walk and was in a lot of pain. I knew exactly what to do because of my Wilderness First Responder training at the beginning of the season, and quickly went back to camp to grab a few “medical” supplies.  While back at camp we asked Ethan, who had been catching up on sleep all day, if he could help with the volunteer.  We went back to her location and taped her ankles.  She was unable to put any pressure on her left ankle and could barely put pressure on her right. Adam and I had planned to get her back to camp on our shoulders.  From camp she could ride out on horseback the following day.  We started to help her down the trail and quickly realized that our plan to transport her would take an estimated three very painful hours. Ethan who is 6’6’’, 315 pounds and a college football player offered to carry her on his back. WHAT A HERO! We all were very grateful for Ethan’s brawn and people-pack ability.  He turned a three hour, very painful, trip into only 40 minutes. 

The saga continued……………….

The next morning, a few hours before the horse was to take our patient down the trail, she surmised that putting her feet in stirrups would be too painful for her injured, more tender and now swollen ankles.  The only other option was a helicopter. Adam quickly got on the radio and called in a helicopter from a nearby location to pick her up in the meadow right next to our camp. The patient was relieved. Thirty minutes later a helicopter landed in the meadow picking her up and taking her safely into town.  Our local Forest Service contact then transported her to the ER for treatment and release.   It was a once in a lifetime experience for me to see a backcountry helicopter rescue in action.  The crew was swift and efficient.

Later that day, the pack string arrived and the volunteers hiked out. Ethan and I had to finish up some paper work down the trail looking at campsites. The next day we cut more tree at High Lake only making a small dent in the trail.  We hiked out Monday night, a few days before we had planned, but that’s the way trail work works. You never know what you are going to get, but this trip I will remember.