From Prairie to Peaks

Kris Mueller

Iowa State University

Wind Lakes / Grave Peak

July 10 – July 17

Nez Perce / Clearwater National Forest

Iowa summers can be much different than those here in the Selway. Hundred-degree days with so much humidity in the air one can sweat within minutes, hiking through deciduous trees on public state or county land, and fields of corn that outnumber forests by a factor of more than ten. It is unsurprising that a group of Iowa high school students (one group, sometimes two, of Iowa high school students make the journey to the CNF each summer/inspired by Connie Saylor Johnson so many years ago) and myself would want to spend time away from the Midwest in one of the largest areas of Wilderness in the lower 48.

For some of us, our first time in the Wilderness can be overwhelming at first; seeing, for miles, nothing but undeveloped and primitive forest. Where hillsides are spotted with burned areas and young lodgepole stands wait to see their time come. Where water in creeks and lakes is so clean, we can’t imagine a place like it aside from the public pool. Where even the sound of a passing plane sounds like something from a distant land.

At over 8,000 feet Grave Peak is not a walk through the prairie to ascend the peak although a sense of pride overcomes us as we finally reach the top. As Sherpas we helped carry restoration supplies to the historic lookout, no longer in use, but available for anyone to appreciate. Our sweat becoming cold as the winds got stronger climbing up the sides of the mountain and blowing over the top trying to bring us with it.

Looking down at upper Wind Lakes makes us only hope that the sun will be shining during a cold afternoon swim at camp. The next order of business at camp was to start a fire to set at bay the clouds of mosquitoes that call this area home. Though bugs may be annoying at times the mind is only temporarily distracted by discomfort. Whether while working on clearing a trail, monitoring campsites, or attempting to move large rocks out of a narrow ridge trail, we can only feel appreciation for the opportunity to serve in such a wild place.

We experienced a rather strong summer storm overnight about mid-week not too different from Iowa storms as they roll across the plains. Flashes of lightning every five seconds shortly followed by loud cracks through the mountains accompanied the whipping rain and wind against the tent fly. As for someone who has never seen an active forest fire it was exciting to hear the talk of potential fire starts on the radio the next morning.

Everyone may find a different meaning in Wilderness and some may take longer than others to find it, but one thing is for certain; we need Wilderness, but Wilderness not does not need us.

Grave Peak Lookout after a morning hike to the summit

Grave Peak Lookout after a morning hike to the summit

A view of Wind Lakes from Grave Peak

A view of Wind Lakes from Grave Peak

The Frank-Where Wilderness Stays Wild

Briana Bienusa- Wilderness Ranger Intern

Montana State University

Marble Creek Drainage/Salmon-Challis National Forest


This summer has been full of breathtaking views, sore muscles, and smiles. This internship has given me perspective on not only what I wish to gain out of the wilderness, but what others seek out of it as well. I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of amazing people whose eyes sparkle when they think about the places and experiences they love most. Our trip into the Marble Creek Drainage was no exception.

We arrived at Thomas Creek airstrip via a plane referred to as the Beaver, unsure of what was ahead. Taking a plane into the forest was an amazing and surreal experience. One moment you are in civilization and the next you are carrying a crosscut through the sage brush headed towards the wilderness along the Middle Fork of the Salmon river. Rafters float by laughing as they fish and swim near their boats filled with luxuries that are unthinkable as we walk along carrying our belongings in a backpack. 

Our goal was to clear as much of the Marble Creek drainage as possible in the following week and what a goal that was. Throughout the time spent in Marble Creek, we were faced with endless creek crossings and a trail that had a tendency to disappear amongst the overgrown brush and willow tree groves. The loppers became a very close trail companion as we bush-wacked and uncovered a trail that had been hiding deep below the brush for quite some time. As we ventured further, the trail climbed up, revealing breathtaking views of the canyon walls below.  The further we went, the more this drainage proved to be the epitome of wild and reminded me that as much as we work to maintain and develop trails, the wilderness will always be one step ahead in taking them back. Having the opportunity to recreate these trails is some of the most rewarding work I have ever done and was made even better by the hardworking and positive crew I had by my side. Once I stepped off the plane in Challis, I was ready to climb back on and venture back into the wilderness.

The view out over the Frank Church as we flew back into Challis on 07/17

The view out over the Frank Church as we flew back into Challis on 07/17

Marble Creek  drainage is shown moving through the canyon where it later empties into the middle fork.

Marble Creek drainage is shown moving through the canyon where it later empties into the middle fork.

Our amazing volunteer Tom standing amongst some of the ‘willow tree jungle’ we were clearing.

Our amazing volunteer Tom standing amongst some of the ‘willow tree jungle’ we were clearing.

Time in the Wilderness

Michael Riviere – Wilderness Ranger Intern

University of Montana

Bitterroot National Forest

Throughout this summer of working on trails in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness I have been paying a fair amount of attention to the time it has taken for me and the Wilderness to become acquainted. I say acquainted because these woods, rocks, and mountain ranges are constantly changing through immense amounts of natural forces.  Rain, droughts, fires, snow and ice cause trails to become rutted from water runoff, blocked by fallen trees, or worse, blocked by boulders tumbling from above.

I often remind myself to stop and look around, take in the sights (after all, I may see something I wouldn’t expect).  Time in the Wilderness is dictated by how much you are carrying. You can get work done quickly and have a short day or work slowly and have a longer day.  The enjoyment received from the job comes from clearing trails there is no doubt, but I find the purpose of working in Wilderness is because of the Wilderness. The grandeur of the landscape, knowing through time it will inevitably change, drastic or not. I do not feel as though our work is futile knowing the next year there will be just as many trees to cut, rocks to move, or even fire rings to naturalize. Futility is only a concept if you feel there is no purpose in the work you are doing. Although the trails being maintained require persistence, working alongside other like-minded people such as Connor, Verena, and Adam, reminds me constantly I’m not alone in my efforts of keeping and maintaining Wilderness character.  Even after the satisfaction wears off of bucking a large tree, the long-lasting gratification I get is knowing others are persistent in preserving natural resources for generations to come.

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Right Back at Home

Abby Propsom – Moose Creek Trail Crew Member

Hitch #2  June 25th – July 3rd

Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest

This hitch, like every hitch I have had the joy of experiencing in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, both last year as an intern and this year on staff, was packed with hard work, unexpected twists and pure joy. My crew hiked in right along the Selway River all the way to Three Links Creek on Trail #4.

It was a relatively quick hike due to our good fortune of getting pack support.  Upon our arrival things got interesting.  When we unpacked the manty boxes left by our packer something was missing.  That something was my bag of food which accidentally ended up at Moose Creek with the Montana Conservation Corps immersion crew’s resupply. Not to worry, I was reunited with my Snickers bars and instant coffee the following day (thanks Joey).

Following our half marathon day to Three Links, we hiked up the 405 to Stewart Hot Springs, and it’s true what they say, it’s more of an elk wallow and a mud pit than a picturesque hot springs but still nice to soak your feet in after a long day’s work. We had a couple days filled with cut and run on the 405, trying to open as much trail as we could. We eventually made it to Three Links Meadow after getting on the 693 trail. Although we didn’t quite finish the section of the 693 that we were hoping to finish, we should get to be back in the same area next hitch, clearing up to Frisco Peak.

The views were jaw dropping, the laughter never ending, and the packs a little lighter each day. The bees and rattlesnakes were out in full force, the thimbleberries just ripening and the occasional afternoon surprise of a huckleberry bush right on the side of the trail always welcome. Another beautiful hitch in the Selway complete! Although I’m very glad for a little time off to relax, recover and shower.  I’m still counting down the days until I can go right back to the place where I feel most at home.

Bianca, Britt, Joey, Lauren and Abby leaving the Wilderness at the end of hitch.

Bianca, Britt, Joey, Lauren and Abby leaving the Wilderness at the end of hitch.

Joey Hudek looking over the Selway.

Joey Hudek looking over the Selway.

Lessons Learned

Emma Froelich – Wilderness Ranger Intern

University of Wisconsin – Madison

June 11 – 18

Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest

As we emerged from the Wilderness, I imagined this is how Robin Williams’ character in Jumanji must have felt when his jungle-adapted self re-entered society, water from a tap? What a concept! As we drove back to civilization, my hair a greasy mess and my clothes sweaty and dirt stained, I mulled over the lessons I had learned. Hitch one was nothing short of a learning curve. Learning that oatmeal for breakfast gets old after day two. Learning that your toes will go numb and there’s nothing you can do about it. Learning that if you fall face forward with a full pack into a trenched trail you will get stuck and you will get laughed at. Wilderness seems to be one of the best teachers, very much like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society. Its unorthodox methods hold a different lesson for each student and, as cliché as it is, teaches one to seize the day. One week in the Selway-Bitterroot taught me that any body of water counts as a shower as long as you scrub the dirt off and that hiking up to a saddle through snow isn’t easy, but the views are definitely worth every step. It’s easy to get frustrated out there and there were times I found myself wishing for things to be easier. “If only Robin Williams’ character in Aladdin were here right now, I could wish all these trees off the trail,” I’d think to myself. But I think the most special thing about Wilderness is it’s not easy, if it were it’d be a National Park. Wilderness is a challenge not meant for everyone, but the lessons it holds are far more valuable than anything I could learn in a classroom. I know I’ve got a lot of lessons left to learn, but I’m excited to have Wilderness as my teacher.

Connor Adams, Emma Froelich, Henry Vaughn, Lauren Simms, Kristopher Mueller

Connor Adams, Emma Froelich, Henry Vaughn, Lauren Simms, Kristopher Mueller

Round Trip Ticket to "The Big Empty"

Sam Freestone - Moose Creek Trail Crew Member

Former SBFC IDAWA Student and SBFC Wilderness Ranger Intern

I thought about writing this blog post in a journal format. Something similar to the work of people like Pete Fromm or Richard (Dick) Proenneke who detailed the adventure (or lack thereof) of each day with a date and sometimes weather and temperature. However, as a Trail Crew Member on the trail to complete lofty goals on even loftier mountains, I’m finding nearly impossible to keep the finer details of my day in order long enough to share with you before falling asleep pen in hand. That really isn’t my style anyway. I like to get to know people by sitting down with them over a drink or two and sharing the tales which brought us to where we are now. I know this medium doesn’t exactly allow for anything quite like that, so how about I have a drink and write to you from the concrete porch of the bunkhouse I call home at Powell Ranger Station; then when you get a chance to read this you can go ahead and have your beverage of choice and do your best to imagine we're just sitting next each other.

For longtime readers of these blog posts, you may remember me from two years ago when I served as an intern, but for those that don’t here is a bit of my story. I was born and raised in a little town called Adel, Iowa where through my county conservation department I began as a parking lot wienie and slowly became acquainted with the concepts of the natural world and wildness. This was large because of a man by the name of Chris Adkins and through time I became aware of trips Chris led, taking high schoolers from my neck of the woods to the great capital “W” Wilderness of Idaho. To me the chosen few who went on that trip were elite and when I came of age I toiled for hours and hours trying to form the right words to use on my application so there would be no chance of me being passed over in favor of another. My work and worry paid off and I found myself with a round trip ticket to the big empty. The rugged country where I could curse and holler into the wind without worry of repercussion. I and ten others would go on a great adventure together as strangers and come back rugged people of the outdoors. We would all grow full beards in a week and walk with the calm saunter of a man who has spent too much time on a horse. To ease the process of our acquaintance with each other we all filled out and exchanged social elixir forms so that when our time came, we slide into that 15-passenger van without friction. During our two-day drive to across the plains, we received yet another social elixir form. This one was filled out by Connie Saylor Johnson. Her cursive accent was thick and to my teenage self who hadn’t interacted with cursive since the 3rd grade, it took time to decode. But with each sentence decrypted she became nothing less than a mystic walking the wildest part of this earth. We arrived at Lolo pass and took our touristy photo of our group at the Idaho border sign before storming the visitors center and discovering the hot chocolate which I now describe as the nectar of the gods. After piling back into the van for the last 12 miles of our journey to Powell Chris spoke of a song which he believed to be about Connie. The song, 'Yukon Sally' by Peter Mayer began to play and chatter in the van dropped to nothing as we all seemed to sense the importance of the music from Chris’ description. Still now that song gets to me. Arriving at Powell we spread our sleeping bags out on the floor of the cookhouse as Connie pulled into the compound…

Fast forward to now almost 6 years later and the part of myself that I left in the Selway is stronger than ever and continues to pull me back to place where it all started. Once this Wilderness became a part of my life there was little to no choice for me to do anything else but to try and give back to the land that held a heavy hand in my development as a person. Powell is about as close as you can live to the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and that suits with me just fine. Anyways I’ve been rambling for a while so maybe I should go back to whittling quietly. Now that I’ve shared a bit of my Motley Crew’s long and winding road, I think it’s your turn to tell me what connects you to that big patch of dark green on the map and we can get to know each other one letter or comment at a time. Don’t be shy I look forward to hearing from you, good reading material can be scarce to come by here.


Kind Regards,


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Henry Vaughan – Wilderness Ranger Intern

 The College of Idaho


 May 13 – May 27

 Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest

Our first two weeks as Wilderness Ranger Interns has had us housed and training at Powell Ranger Station in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. Each day, we dip our toes, feet, ankles, knees, bit by bit into wilderness until we are totally submerged: acclimated as much as possible for our fast approaching hitches. We went from staying in beds and bunkhouses during the first week—where we could avoid the worst weather at night by turning up the heaters in our rooms and closing the blinds—to sleeping in our own tents and bags during the second. Before long, we’ll be spending our nights in the wilderness with the only comforts available to us being those which we can carry in on our backs.

 We’re developing important skills for working in the wilderness this summer: becoming familiar with our primitive tools, testing out our gear, learning how to navigate in a land without Google Maps; but I’m also recognizing an important new way to perceive nature. Around Powell (particularly outside of the bunkhouses), nature gets up in our face. Deer wander daily between the buildings. One intern encountered a wolf on an early morning trail run. Oyster and morel mushrooms regularly provide a free dinner to those with watchful eyes. These natural displays: such abundances of vitality, fecundity, and productivity from the trees to the insects to the uninhibited Lochsa River flowing right by our tents show a land community with greater agency—where it is difficult to keep humanity and civilization at the forefront of the mind. Closer to wilderness, nature has more room to breathe and speak and (aided greatly by a lack of cell phone service) we are forced to become a listener. And, though we have little say in it, I have yet to meet anyone at the ranger station who isn’t made happier by that prospect.

 The closest wilderness area to us (the Selway-Bitterroot) is a hundred feet away—right across the river. In between the banks of the Lochsa, as a sort of gateway between a developed Powell and an undeveloped wilderness, is a small island where the Lewis and Clark party is said to have camped as they made their way over the Bitterroot Mountains. On the far bank is the beginning of a land which can make a visitor feel as if they are stepping back even further in time to before the first American presences. The wilderness areas, where signs of civilization are intentionally minimized, are spaces where nature is most free to speak and where humanity, when present, is most likely to hear a clear and individually unique message. I, for one, am excited to see what this particular wilderness has to share with me.

Trainees and instructors discussing Visitor Use/Campsite Monitoring during the Northern Rockies Wilderness Skills Institute 📷Verena Gruber

Trainees and instructors discussing Visitor Use/Campsite Monitoring during the Northern Rockies Wilderness Skills Institute 📷Verena Gruber

A morning view of the Lochsa River by Powell Ranger Station 📷 Kris Mueller

A morning view of the Lochsa River by Powell Ranger Station 📷 Kris Mueller

"The Frank" - A Rich History of Place

Tom Lang

Frank Church Wilderness Monitoring Coordinator

The Frank Church – River of No Return is a remarkably complex landscape. The nearly 2.4-million-acre wilderness is the largest in the lower 48, spanning across five National Forests. The folding canyons of the Salmon River Watershed make the area difficult to access, and extreme shifts in seasonal climate can produce unforgiving conditions. It is an intense environment, accentuated by slopes of decomposing granite which fall from the Idaho Batholith.

Nevertheless, this stretch of the Northern Rockies has attracted human habitation for thousands of years, which has established a rich history of place within the wildness of Central Idaho. 

This past spring, when I began working on a research project to help unify monitoring efforts throughout the wilderness, I struggled to understand the character and scale of the Frank. Eventually, I realized that it is a cultural landscape, and the label of designated wilderness only tells the most recent chapter in its story. I also discovered that the task of systematically observing 2.4-million-acres of roadless country is exceptionally difficult. For managers, the obligation of preserving wilderness character is one that coincides with the duty of acknowledging the historical components of the landscape. As a result, the Frank has a number of legally recognized traditional uses which make it a unique piece of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Based on these complexities, it was clear that the goal of monitoring recreational impacts across the landscape required a collaborative approach.

The first step in this approach was to connect with the five wilderness districts so that an understanding of the projects goals could be formulated. The opportunity to meet with managers and talk through their existing data allowed for the objectives of this project to present themselves. Additionally, the design process needed to consider the mandate of the Wilderness Act, which requires wilderness areas to be “affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of [humankind’s] work substantially unnoticeable,” and for such lands to offer “opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Therefore, we needed a data collection system that effectively translates the social and biophysical conditions throughout the wilderness, and will eventually provide insight regarding long-term patterns of recreational impacts.  

Following the formation of a collective vision, it was necessary to join wilderness rangers in the field in order to understanding the existing challenges concerning data collection across the Frank. The local knowledge shared by wilderness rangers helped expand the scope of the project, and the perspective I gained allowed me to develop data collection tool that meet both the logistical and physical challenges of the landscape. Ultimately, what was produced is a data collection system that works to objectively monitor the impacts of recreational use on the social and biophysical conditions throughout the wilderness – which helps inform management decisions, and enhances our ability to be conscious stewards of the landscape.

The Best of the Best- The Southwest Selway Bitterroot

Joey Hudek

Moose Creek Trails Liaison

As my 7th trail season has come to a close, I find myself reflecting on what was the best season thus far. I was in an interesting position this year as the leader of a Forest Service trail crew, while not working for the agency myself. Luckily, my two crew members and I didn’t have a problem with that. They were both Montana Conservation Corps alums, like me, and one of them had been on a previous MCC crew of mine. The three of us traveled all over the Central Zone of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. We did trail projects on front county OHV trails, cleared remote wilderness trails, performed serious maintenance on a suspension bridge crossing the Selway River, and discovered some trail blowouts that kept trails closed all season long. We even had the opportunity to get to fly into the Moose Creek Ranger Station! 

Usually, with such a diverse season of trail work, it is difficult to pluck out a favorite project, place, or moment. Obviously, my favorite would be one of the big construction projects. Bridge maintenance on a suspension bridge or flying into the Wilderness. Nothing could be better than that, right? Well, it turns out something could be.

The Southwest part of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. It must have been a cool technical project then, right? Actually, it was just some good ol’ cut and run. Why was it my favorite then? Honestly, I don’t know exactly why, but I do know that this area captured me like no place has before. The trails we cleared were high on ridges and weaved in and out of fresh burns. There were 360° views of craggy mountains and it felt like I could see forever. I could pick out the Bitterroots to the east, the crags to the north, and I’m not sure what was going on to the South in the Frank Church, but I liked it. The beauty was almost too overwhelming at times. I know that doesn’t seem possible, but I assure you it is. I wish I was able to put into words how I felt while hiking those trails, but alas I am no poet. I can only make the recommendation to visit the Southwest Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and experience its overwhelming beauty first hand. Your soul will thank you, I promise. 

Called the "Singing Nuns" - there seems to be no mountain high enough for this group!

Each summer SBFC recruits volunteers to work a two-week shift at St. Mary’s Peak Lookout above Stevensville, MT. Volunteers perform the usual lookout functions; maintenance work, wildfire spotting/reporting, etc. Because this lookout is a popular destination, many of these volunteers also greet visitors, and are prepared to talk about the history of the lookout, the area, the geography, etc.

This summer came with a delightfully unique surprise. While volunteer lookout host Sheryl O. was at her post, she spotted seven nuns (which she affectionately refers to as “The Blues Sisters”) fully decked in royal blue habits poised to summit the mountain. Mind you, this is not a walk in the park, this is a trail to a lookout. In fact, sites St. Mary’s as “a 5.9 mile heavily trafficked out and back trail…….with an elevation gain of 2,483 ft. The trail is rated as difficult”. Let’s not forget that these women are not wearing the latest in Patagonia hiking apparel either.

Sheryl and the nuns introduced themselves, chatted, and then came the grand finale - a chorus of nuns atop this 9,000 foot peak, creating glorious music. Remind you of anything? This was only seven of the group of 27 women who actually call themselves “The Singing Nuns”. They are from St. Michael’s convent in Spokane, WA and have their own website

According to Sister Mary Angela, the group performs for different events throughout the year; Fourth of July, Christmas concerts, retirement homes, etc., but for Sister Mary, “their favorite time to sing is for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because we know that it is all for God's glory”.

We all are hopeful The Singing Nuns make the trek again next year.

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