Frank Church Lead Wilderness Steward
The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is big. Like 2,366,757 acres big. Like the largest contiguous wilderness outside of Alaska big. Like big enough that spending a lifetime getting to know it wouldn’t even scratch the surface. In this wilderness I have had 50 or so days to discover what I can about this vast and varied landscape, and what few questions I have answered have led to only further questions. I have been as low as 3,000 feet elevation on the Main Salmon and at peaks above 10,000. I have seen a wolverine running towards a snowy peak one hitch and a rattlesnake giving its famous warning sound to me the next. I have flown, driven and (mostly) hiked into this wilderness. I have come across hunters, outfitters, through-hikers, rafters, forest service employees, volunteers and pilots. I have seen pictographs, old homestead remnants, preserved log cabins and lookout towers. Aside from the rattlesnakes and the wolverine, I have seen deer, bighorn sheep, elk, osprey, and a wolf. I have worked alongside people from Boise, Missoula, North Carolina, and Iowa among other places. What I have done is so much. And yet, next to the vastness of this place it is next to nothing.
How do I sum up a season in the Frank that is not even completed yet? Do I talk about that first hitch, working with two Wilderness Ranger Interns in the pouring rain and realizing their perseverance and tenacity was only matched by their ability to make this work so much fun? Do I talk about the knot in my stomach when I led a multi-day volunteer group for the first time along the Upper Middle Fork, a 26 year old new to this country, leading people with as much as three times more life experience than myself? What about the first time I solo backpacked for work, flying into Thomas Creek Airstrip before immersing myself into the canyons of Marble Creek, all alone and coming face to face with a full grown wolf? Perhaps the second volunteer trip where we worked up Marble Creek for a week straight only to finish and see a couple of through-hikers at the confluence preparing to hike the trail we had just put so much sweat into would be a good way to describe the season. Or Phase Two of that project being cancelled due to the approaching Kiwah Fire. There is also the burn area I worked in alongside Wilderness Ranger Khaleel Taylor, an entire drainage burnt to a crisp where we slept under house-sized boulders to protect us from the possibility of trees falling in the night, moving well over a thousand trees from the trail and getting covered in soot for eight days straight. And the following hitch where I worked alongside Wilderness Ranger John Zap, cleaning camp sites in the Bighorn Crags, backpacking over several passes, past beautiful turquoise lakes, dropping several thousand feet to an abandoned lookout tower and then several thousand more to Panther Creek. It’s crazy, in seven hitches all that I have seen and done. But this is just a quick synopsis of the season. It doesn’t capture all of the emotions that occur. The elation at a tree rolling away after a perfect cut plan, the sense of wonder at a blanket of endless stars at night, the loneliness of a solo scouting trip in a narrow and ominous canyon, and the visceral fear at hearing a snake rattle it’s tail were all felt and yet so much more I have left unsaid.
The reality is the work that I have accomplished this season can be undone with alarming speed and efficiency. With one avalanche, one flood, one rockslide or one fire, trails that can take hundreds of hours to maintain can be erased from the landscape. Even in the most cooperative of scenarios, hundreds of miles of trails need crosscut saws, pulaskis, loppers, silky’s, axes, picks, shovels, sledges and rock bars annually to continue as arteries into this immense terrain. It is a minuscule and vain task helping to open and upkeep these trails. If I am lucky, I will be tasked with doing so for years to come. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is seemingly endless, and I have only just begun to discover its secrets. It’s size and challenges demand my respect, and its character and stories have earned my undying love.