A season of "Getting Franked"

Josh Page

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. 

Keeping Tradition Alive

Conner Adams - Trail Crew Leader - Nez Perce Clearwater

Four years ago, I didn’t know what a crosscut saw was. I had a vague concept of it as a tool that you would see on a Swiss cuckoo clock, rocking back and forth between two outlandish wooden lumberjack figurines every time the hour struck. I thought of an axe first and foremost as the burly weapon wielded by Gimli the Dwarf in The Lord of the Rings films. Pulaski was a rusty old town in Northern New York State, rock bar was where you beached your raft, and pick was what you did to your nose when no one was looking.

In fact, despite growing up around the Adirondack State Park in New York, I was completely unfamiliar with the concept of designated Wilderness until I was 25. My first encounter with Wilderness was in the Southeast. I entered the Raven Rocks Wilderness in northern Georgia, took a minute to read the sign, idly wondered why I couldn’t go hang-gliding in this area of the woods if I had wanted to, and then hiked on without a second thought. It wasn’t until I reached the Northern Rockies that I was finally confronted with the reality of Wilderness. Now, four years later, it is in my blood, and those tools that existed before only in museums have become as much a part of me as my arms or legs.

Despite having worked with chainsaws since my teenage years, I have developed a special fondness for the crosscut. Bucking and felling trees with a two-person crosscut saw is a manifestly different experience than ripping through wood with a Stihl. A chainsaw is a marvel of technology, a beastly machine thrashing through blowdown at full volume, heavy metal arpeggios rising and falling, the engine’s deep bass roaring, and trees cowering before the power of its gigantic amplified riffs.

Sawing with a crosscut is, to me, a different kind of music, a symphony for the ears. Wood creaks, the saw sings, my partner and I breathe in time to the song, my heart beats to a rising crescendo and the cymbals crash as the trees sways and topples to the ground. Sometimes I can hear the clap clap clap ahead in the distance as another crew member chops through a log, the rhythmic snaps echoing off the mountain walls. The sounds of Wilderness trail work are often the only accompaniment to my day. I have been sawing with my crew for long enough that we often don’t even have to speak to each other. My partner will tilt the saw up without being asked, just as I’m about to hit the dirt. He or she will bring the saw to a gentle stop just as it occurs to me that it’s time to pound in a wedge. Sometimes as we approach a new log, I will be handed the saw in the exact spot, at the exact angle I would have cut it. This unspoken bond between the crew and its tools is one of the most profoundly satisfying things about trail work.

When I’m out with a chainsaw, I often feel like I’m cheating, like I’m using technology as a crutch. I can tear through miles and miles of trail with minimal effort. I walk out of the mountains feeling as if I didn’t earn those views, that dip in the ice-cold swimming hole, that pot of spaghetti at the end of the day. With a crosscut and an axe, it’s an even trade. I’m not taming or mastering the wilderness with a combustion engine attached to some spinning teeth. Rather, I’m partnering with it, making a bargain: natural beauty and satisfying work in exchange for blood and sweat and effort.

I gladly accept all the benefits and conveniences granted to us by modern technology, but as the march of progress moves relentlessly forward, I am glad to hold on to a tradition that seems to me to embody everything great about the United States and the American conservation movement. I’m flattered and honored to be an instrument in the preservation and passing down of these traditions. Every time I cross the Wilderness Boundary with a saw in my hand and an axe on my back, I’m beginning a week of, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “working hard at work worth doing.”

Who owns this land? WE DO!

Will Merritt- Powell Trails Liaison 

Lost Horse/Twin Lakes with Catrock 

Aug 21-29

Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest 

The times they are a-changing here in the Selway-Bitterroot. For me at least, this is a very transitional time of the season. The weather here seems to have taken pity on our smoke-filled lungs and has turned a bearing towards fall. Cool nights and crisp clean air have replaced the hazy heat of summer, and the dragon fly stove is heating tea water both morning and night now. It is my favorite time of the year. This is the time of the year when one chapter closes, and another begins. The Wilderness Ranger Interns that I had that pleasure of working with this summer have hung up the boots for the season and returned to school. It is somewhat of an abrupt change. One that comes with a lot of pride but also some sadness, knowing that my trail family has moved on, and I must continue without them. And while I am excited and looking forward to joining a US Forest Service crew for the remainder of the year, I feel the need to reflect and digest the intern season. 

 

Luckily, I had the pleasure of co-leading a volunteer hitch this past week, which turned out to be the perfect medication to aid the reflection digestion of the intern season. A program based in Bronx, New York called Catrock (a part Sierra Club and Inspiring Connections Outdoors- New York) brought 6 urban youth (ages ranging 16-18) out to the wild, wild west of Montana/Idaho to experience Wilderness for the first time. Led by two fantastic individuals, and with the help of my co-workers, Natalie and Courtney, we were able to open a whole new world to these young adults. Coming from the concrete jungle, where sunset skylines are an impressive testament to the ingenuity and innovation of the human race, out to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, where the only light that may impede your star gazing is that of the full moon, served to be life changing experience for them. Upon arrival, there was minimal knowledge about public lands in general, only a shy curiosity for this new landscape. By the end of the trip, each one could not only explain what capital W Wilderness means, but why it is worth defending. They even could recite the 5 qualities of Wilderness character that Wilderness managers are tasked with conserving.  Although important and extremely helpful, these volunteer trips are never about the work accomplished. The most important thing is having a positive, meaningful experience in the undeveloped. An experience of solitude, one detached from the technology of society, which allows for a genuine connection with natural.  

 

Edward Abbey is quoted as saying " The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders." Creating stewards of the land, who can draw from their own "boots on the ground" experience is exactly how we create new defenders. So on the last day of the trip, when I posed the question "Who owns this land?" I received a battle cry style response of "WE DO", from every single one of them. I knew we had 6 more young defenders. And as I watched this transition happen in a matter of 9 days with these youth from the Bronx, I was left reflecting on the same transition through the first 3 months of the season with the SBFC Wilderness Ranger Interns. The interns, although they came in with an already strong base of knowledge and passion for conservation, went through the same transition. And left the Idaho/Montana backcountry with countless memories and experiences that will help fuel their fight in defense of Wilderness. 

TRAIL 442 WHERE ARE YOU?

Nez Perce-Clearwater Trail Crew Member-Trevor Fero

From wonderful lakes, new camping locations and emotional trails, Hitch 4 was full of new experiences, hard work and lots of beauty. Day one we hiked in and camped along Cedar Creek on Trail 939. The next day we hiked to the junction where Trail 939 and 618 meet. Clearing our way down 618, we passed Maple Lake and the junction with 442. As the afternoon got longer we decided to cache our tools and hike down to our new base camp at Isaac lake. Even though Isaac lake was swampy and buggy it was still a beautiful place to camp. While staying there we also got to enjoy the company of a family of 3 moose. Staying at Isaac for 3 nights allowed us to completely clear Trail 618 to the junction with 619.

Once Trail 618 was cleared our next priority was to clear Trail 442. We left Isaac lake and the moose to camp along Trail 442 on a beautiful ledge looking over the East Moose Creek drainage. This trail was known to us as the “emotional roller-coaster trail” because of how dramatic the landscape and blowdown was. The trail began descending down a beautiful ridge line in the high alpine with minimal clearing to be done. At this point our spirits were high and we were sure we were going to clear this trail. But we were very wrong…. The farther down the trail the worse the blowdown became. Recent fire had destroyed the trail, which left us with longer hours towards the end of the hitch.

During those last couple of days on hitch we completely lost Trail 442 twice. On our last work day when we lost the trail for the second time early in the afternoon, it became clear to us that we would not be completely opening Trail 442. Feeling defeated and exhausted on our last evening, we tried to enjoy our last night on Trail 442. We then made our way into our sleeping bags earlier than usual, in preparation for our 17 mile hike out the next day.

Ben & Zach Journey to the Center of "The Hole"

Ben Sargis

Boise State University

Waterfall Trail and South Fork of Waterfall Creek Trail

Salmon Challis NF

6/25-8/1

Nearing the end of the South Fork of Waterfall Creek, Zach and I are hiking well past our ten-hour work day. We are deep in “the hole”. Looking at our maps, the scenic Big Horn Crags are a day’s hike away, but we have been brushing and clearing lodgepole downfall stacked like toothpicks roughly three thousand feet lower in the afternoon sun. We call it a day on a lumpy hillside aspen grove a mile short of our goal, figuring we crawled, jumped, and shoved our way past enough fallen logs to make a whole work day tomorrow. So, we whip out our tiny mugs and cook our tiny dinners on our tiny stoves for the fifth night in a row. Over rice and beans, mac and cheese, and pepperoni of questionable freshness we watch a caterpillar munch on juicy young aspen leaves while the sun sets over the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the distance. We know we’ll be sweating and cursing the lodgepole chain mail in the morning, but tomorrow is Sunday in “the Church”—all we can do is be obedient servants of this vast Wilderness.

On the first day of our hitch as we leave Geoff, the Wilderness Ranger for the North Fork District, to drop into the Waterfall Trail he sends us off with a popular phrase in the Frank Church Wilderness: “Get Franked”. Get Franked means to get worked in the hot sun doing heavy brushing for miles. Get Franked means your tent zipper breaking and huddling under your dirty work shirt fending off mosquitoes. Get Franked means getting holes stabbed in your pants as you wrestle your way through Jenga piles of deadfall. But get Franked also means sunsets over the Middle Fork. It means camping on high divides, lakes, and mountains stretching into the distance in either direction. It means eating rice and beans watching a caterpillar eat leaves like it’s the Dr. Phil show. I might be deep in “the hole” preparing to get Franked for the sixth day in a row as I lay down in the aspens, but getting Franked has never sounded so righteous.

Feeling the Heart of Wilderness

Jess Raty – Wilderness Ranger Intern

University of Montana- Missoula

Wind Lakes/Graves Peak with IDAWA

July 25-28

Clearwater National Forest

“Wow, life is so good,” I say as I soak in some hot springs under the sweltering summer sun. I probably should not admit to the rest of my crew, all of whom went on a different, more difficult hitch, that I got to spend my first day with a group of high schoolers from Iowa, a project lovingly referred to as IDAWA,  at Jerry Johnson Hot Springs. We spent the morning hiking around DeVoto Cedar Grove, admiring the large cedars and comparing the flora of this area to the farmlands found in Iowa. We discussed the importance of ecological diversity, and even took the time to talk about how logging old growth forests can greatly affect the landscape. Then we took the afternoon to hike up to the local hot springs to experience what wonders the natural world provides. Nevermind the fact that not a single tree was cut on that first day, the time we spent learning about the Wilderness around us made for an excellent beginning of a fantastic hitch.

Now, I do not want this post to sound like I am about to shoot rainbows out of my eyes with fake positivity, but the amount of development and change in passion that I witnessed from these high schoolers over the course of this hitch was very real.  There are no words that I can use to describe this experience without sounding insincere. It is going to sound so cheesy, but part of what made this hitch with the IDAWA group so great was how welcoming the tight-knit group was to me, an outsider who did not join them for the 22 hour drive out to Idaho. As soon as I squeezed into the back of the van with them, they immediately made me a member of their group by including me in their jokes, discussions and activities. The guides of the group, Chris and Bob, were phenomenal leaders and even better people, encouraging each of us to forgo the clock and eat when we were hungry, rest when we were tired and stop living our lives around an abstract concept like time. It was liberating, I could see each student growing from the freedom that Wilderness granted them.

I would like to think that I taught them all about “capital W” Wilderness during their time in the backcountry, but honestly, I think the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness itself gave them so much more of a life-changing experience than I ever could have. These students were the ones who taught me so much more about conservation than I could have ever imagined. Sure, I provided them with the basic facts about the 1964 Wilderness Act and taught them how to safely use a crosscut, but they were the ones who gave me a whole new perspective on conservation. I spent my entire life growing up in the mountains and designated Wilderness areas, but I never quite took the time to stop and consider what the “Bread Basket” states of the Midwest might be missing from their landscapes. Watching these Iowans gawk over the crystal-clear waters of Wind Lake made me chuckle at first, until they told me that the only river in their area was the second most polluted river in the United States and “sticking a finger in the water would mean that you would immediately lose it in the depths of its murkiness”. They also expressed their concern over the diminishing native prairie land left in their state and how the less than 1% of their native prairie is along the railroad tracks, not in parks or protected areas. This shocked me and not only opened my eyes to how lucky I am to have grown up in such a pristine place, but also to how much harder we must fight to save and conserve the last of the wild places in our country.

One of the highlights from this hitch was the final campfire discussions we had as a group. Chris had the four “old women of the woods” (Anna, a Wilderness Ranger in the Selway- Bitterroot; Connie, an ex- Wilderness Ranger; Hannah, a USFS employee in recreation and me) talk to everyone about what made us dedicate our studies, careers and lives to Wilderness and conservation. It was emotional as well as empowering to have four women be the examples and leaders for these high schoolers. The most touching moment for me was when a girl came up to Hannah and me after the talk and said that we had inspired her and made her reconsider what she wanted to focus on in college. Hannah and I both agreed that that meant the world to us; it was the perfect way to end an already empowering night.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to join these wonderful people for a hitch in the beautiful Selway- Bitterroot Wilderness. Everyone’s enthusiasm to cut trees, clear drains and work hard was contagious, and I saw a lot of progress gained throughout their time in the Wilderness. What I learned from them was so incredibly valuable, and I cannot wait to see what each of these intelligent people do with their lives and careers in the future.

Pleasure in the Pathless Woods

Kate O’Connor, Program Support

Heidelberger Crew – South Fork of Big Creek Trail

July 25-30

Bitterroot National Forest

“There is pleasure in the pathless woods”, said Justine one morning while sipping her tea, reading one of the many inspiring quotes attached to her teabags. The quote struck me, I had to read it for myself. How serendipitous for this hitch and the work we were completing.  An aggregate of everything I felt leading up to this moment, summed up on a little tea bag.

This being one of the few volunteer hitches I’ve lead while working with SBFC, I was unsure how things go.  There’s always those pesky unknown variables, similar to the unpredictable pathless woods. However, the group of nine volunteers exceeded my expectations. Each brought a spunky attitude, which proved to be a fun and giggly dynamic. There was a range of ages and trail knowledge.  Some were seasoned backcountry veterans, while others were newbies, the combination created a concoction of eager teachers and learners.

Our work consisted of attempting to open the trail up to the South Fork Lake. I say attempting because this trail was left untouched by the Forest Service for sixteen years! Yes, you read that right, sixteen! Each day we hiked along the beautiful trail, surrounded by beautifully carved canyons to our work site where we set to clear huge old growth trees from the trail. Our work was rewarding, who doesn’t feel like a boss when successfully removing huge trees from the trail.  Then we hit the unknown – game over.  Sixteen years of no maintenance does quite a number on a trail when Mother Nature is left in charge.  Needless- to-say, we lost the trail.

It was in this wondering and exploring, in this pathless wood, that we grew closer.  We learned to effectively communicate and work together to find our way. To some degree we all became Lewis and Clark, on a clear mission, driven to navigate and clear a path. We were able to combine our brains and formulate somewhat of a plan, allowing us to successfully clear two miles of the three-mile trail, while creating a route to connect the trail to the lake. The commitment and perseverance by our group of nine hardworking volunteers, along with the guidance of Talitha and Justine, allowed us to put a dent in the rough trail and successfully complete our work. It is safe to say we can all call ourselves explorers.

It is in situations like this, surrounded by the wild backcountry, that one develops a strength and certainty of self. For myself, and hopefully for Talitha, Justine and the other volunteers, we all learned something new about ourselves and each other; something that can only be learned when immersed in Willderness.

Lord Byron said it best, over 200 years ago:

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”

A Victory for Volunteers

Abby Propsom – Wilderness Ranger Intern

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota - Winona

Big Sand Lake

July 21-28

Clearwater National Forest

After only two days off, following the roughest hitch of our season, our crew (minus Jess who was sorely missed and was on a different hitch) was ready to go back into the wilderness with the help of twelve volunteers from the Sierra Club. We had people from all walks of life, of all professions, from teachers and doctors to students to self proclaimed “desk jockeys”, of all ages, from 18 to 74 and of all skill and experience level, some had never touched a saw or swung an ax.

We spent three days clearing the trail up to Blodgett Pass and in those three days, I saw some amazing changes. Not only were there huge changes in the trail, we were clearing and brushing, but there were great changes in the volunteers. They were really beginning to grasp what wilderness meant, how to use the tools, and they were just more and more excited everyday to get back to work.

The day we actually reached the pass was a big day for everyone. We were not only straddling a National Forest boundary but a state boundary and a time zone boundary as well. The views were spectacular and watching everyone’s jaws drop was equally as exciting.

Being in a group of sixteen rather than being in a work crew of five in the wilderness was a much different experience for me. There was less solitude than I’m used to but much more conversation and learning; not only on their end but on mine as well. I’m very proud of the work, mileage and positive attitudes that came out of Big Sand Lake this past week and I can’t wait to get back into the Selway for one final hitch!

Filled to the Brim

Justine Bright

University of Montana

Big Creek Volunteer Project

July 17-22

Every morning of the volunteer trip at Big Creek we crossed the spillway of the dam on Big Creek Lake. It was only about 20 feet wide, with water gently pouring over the brim.  The crossing was ankle-deep, just high enough to encourage most of the group to remove their socks and boots.  Just below the rim a waterfall cascaded down steep rocks and continued east through the forest and past our trailhead on the Bitterroot River. Each morning I sat in the same spot to untie my shoes.  Not any old stopping point, but a place with a view of glacier-carved granite peaks with mounds of snow still managing to hide in hollows and northern aspects.  It was here that I took my first deep breath of the morning as I braced myself for the burning cold of the water.  Every day I was surprised by a pleasant cool; the sun had warmed the surface of the lake, the water was not frigid, just abruptly cool.   

Not all of the projects I’ve been on this summer included volunteers, but this one did.  We came from all over the country, from different generations and different levels of trail work experience.  It was a first backpacking trip for one volunteer, while others were old pros and had been doing these trips for years. 

Each day, at the spillway we all assembled, in different stages of boot removal or lace-tying. I watched as everyone woke up to the sensation of the water and the magnificent view into the Big Creek drainage. The volunteers’ faces were always peaceful during these moments by the water; pausing in the morning and again in the afternoon after a day of pulling saws and clearing trail to Packbox Pass.  We cut sections of three-foot logs off the trail, laughed over molding pita pizzas, spotted moose in the woods, and bushwhacked up to a hidden lake and peak, all within earshot of running water.  It was unique, it was special, it was Wilderness.

I am struck by how quickly the season has passed. It is already mid-summer now, and every day is getting shorter than the last. The work days have been reflecting this change, passing more quickly all the time.  Some of my most inspired moments of the season took place during this hitch.  The spunky volunteers, lovely scenery, hard work, and infusion of awe made this experience a memorable one.  The abundance of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness filled us to the brim each day.

Big Creek blog post photo.jpg

St. Mary's Peak Volunteer Project

Talitha McGuire - Wilderness Ranger Intern

Cornell College (IA)

St. Mary’s Volunteer Trip

July 6-8

Bitterroot National Forest

“It’s all your fault,” I whispered, staring up at the gentle rise of St. Mary’s Peak. I was standing at the Stevensville Ranger Station Bunkhouse--my home for the summer--enjoying the peace and quiet of a July evening. As I watched the golden hour slide across the Bitterroot before me, I decided that the peak in front of me really was the one to blame: after all, it had snared me as soon as I saw it way back in December.

I ought to explain.

Back in December, I had been searching for internships. I used all the search engines and all the websites--I was confident that my keywords were primed and destined to pull up something extraordinary, the best kind of an adventure that would make a great bullet point on a resume. But, after weeks and weeks of finding dozens of great opportunities that just didn’t seem quite right for me, I was tired. Yes, I wanted to find an internship with conservation experience… but also, I honestly just wanted to be able to hole up somewhere with a good book, a nice cup of tea, and some sweet views.

When my mom suggested I consider being a fire lookout I basically thought my future was set. It sounded so perfect. I couldn't imagine anything better: who wouldn’t want to be stuck on a tower in the middle of the woods and possibly not see people for weeks?

I hit a new website, USA Jobs, to find my little mountain in the middle of nowhere. But, somewhere during that search, I came across the following photo:

PHOTO 1.JPG

It made me pause for a second, and I don’t quite know why. Maybe it’s because it looked like home--the lichen-speckled rocks, the warm sun, the high-altitude brush and the wide blue sky all reminded me of my own home in Flagstaff, Arizona. The familiarity pulled at me--after spending my semesters of college in Iowa, I craved sunshine, dry air, and horizons that never seemed to melt away.

Besides, this lookout looked ideal for book-reading and tea-sipping. And the mules in the photo looked like honest working folk that I could get along with.

A few clicks later I found myself faced with an application, something about wilderness and trail work, and something else about Montana and Idaho.

I applied for kicks and giggles and a few months later, BAM, I was just below that lookout in Stevensville. Yeah, it was all the fault of St. Mary’s Peak alright, and I really do mean that in the best way possible. I had been eager to do a trip with volunteers for a while, and a trip to the very lookout that had landed me here felt special. I would finally be going to the place that started it all for me. That was climatic for me considering that in just two months I felt as though I had come a very long way. I had experienced so many new things in such a short amount of time, and, more importantly, I had begun to correct a long list of 'facts’ that I had before the start of this internship. Some of these pre-SBFC training/Hitch 1 ‘facts’ include:

  • Montana is a collection of small towns and Yellowstone National Park                   
  • Wilderness is a flashy catchphrase for ‘woods’ and is used by the government haphazardly    
  • Snow disappears in March if not April across the planet except for Alaska, the Alps, and Siberia (oh and the poles but that’s a given).                                               
  • All rangers wear khaki                                                                                                       
  • ’Trail Work’ is an abstract idea that involves hiking, but also… other… things        
  • 50 pounds is probably easy to carry or at least do-able                                              
  • A crosscut is a felling technique that involves making a cut shaped like a cross. Probably.

There were more preconceptions that I had but we won’t get into those--the basics will do. Now, I’d like to offer a revised list of facts that I discovered after a month of training and my first hitch:

  • Montana has small towns and Yellowstone BUT also other things                             
  • It’s July and there’s still snow                                                                                           
  • Most Rangers wear khaki                                                                                                 
  • Wilderness is a complex idea that is characterized by key several qualities (my favorite being opportunities for solitude)   
  • Trail work mostly involves cutting up trees but also includes moving dirt and rock and small shrubby things                                                                                     
  • 50 pounds can often feel like 80 pounds if your pack’s hip strap isn't tight enough                   
  • A crosscut is a type of saw that instantly makes you feel like some boss pioneer or Davy Crockett/Daniel Boone

There are still plenty of facts I have to revise, and I'm sure the rest of this summer will bring on countless opportunities that will further enlighten me. While all these facts highlight the major facets of my experience as a WRI, there is one aspect of this internship that I hadn't given a lot of thought to the volunteers. Now, volunteering isn't something that I've done a whole lot of--its one of those things that's always at the bottom of every 'to do’ list, the flyer that's been tucked away in that one kitchen drawer, the activity that every well-involved acquaintance is 'highly recommending’ you do. To me, volunteers were a nameless mass of matching t-shirts fueled by a burning love for 'The Community.’

That being said, I can now say that volunteers, at least the volunteers for SBFC that I met on this project, are hardly a nameless mass. They're so much more, and now, as cheesy as it sounds, I'll never think of volunteers in the same way. To explain what I mean, I’ll have to describe to you not the work these people did, or the conditions of the trail, or anything else, but instead the people themselves, the volunteers and staff of SBFC.

Our volunteer trip leader, Kate the Great, was ready to lead her first volunteer trip for SBFC.  I can now confirm that Kate is one awesome leader. She's encouraging, calm, and able to critically think about how to tackle the trail, all while having a great sense of humor and phenomenal enthusiasm for the work.

Sally, SBFC’s Executive Director, annually comes on the St. Mary's project and has developed SBFC into a really incredible organization within the past years. She's kind, incredibly intelligent and hard-working, and the best possible person SBFC could have running it's major operations.

We were also so lucky to have Sue with us! Sue is SBFC’s PR person--she’s our behind the scenes magician who posted this blog post, lets the world know about SBFC, and documents the work we do. She also is a complete boss when it comes to trail work--on this project, her first hitch, she saved the stock portion of the St. Mary's trail from 75 saplings that were taking over the trail!

Beyond staff, we also had our volunteers:

Sam, a 2017 WRI for SBFC, came out to not only volunteer and clear trail but also to offer some pro tips on the crosscut! His clear pointers helped our whole group learn how to use the crosscut safely and effectively and his humor kept everyone in high spirits!

Daneel, a local Montanan, also came out to volunteer with us. As one of the fastest hikers I've ever seen, Daneel cleared over 50 drains, front kicked a tree in half (it was amazing) and baked the most delicious 'power cookies’ that I'm certain are the key to her invincible strength. Oh, she also lifts because what can't this 73-year-old do?

Catherine was another volunteer who came all the way from California to do this project! She was a real go-getter and boldly tackled her first hitch ever with a calm cool and some sweet sunglasses that definitely make her the most fashionable person to wield a pickaxe ever. Her hard work helped us crosscut our way up the St.Mary’s trail and brush through the stock trail!

Karen drove 6 hours from Idaho to be with us! As a frequent volunteer of trail work, her comfortability with the Pulaski and the hard work of the trail made her a total joy to work with! She always had a positive attitude and took to the crosscut like a pro!

Sheryl worked professionally on trail crews over in the Bob Marshall wilderness and will be up at the St. Mary peak as a lookout later this summer! She's one tough cookie who knows her way around trail work and was so helpful to have around through all the brushing, crosscutting, and drain clearing of our project. Her knowledge of the area’s history also made for a great mountain-top afternoon! There's nothing like looking down at the Bitterroot Valley and learning its fascinating history.

Last but not least, we have our hosts!  The lovely Jay and Renee have been hosting SBFC's St. Mary's volunteer project for four years. They let us camp on their gorgeous property right under the peak and even cooked us a delicious (my mouth is watering just thinking about it) dinner! Renee also joined us to clear drains and brush out the trails which was super awesome. They're also incredible hosts and it was unbelievably fun to kick back and relax with them after a hot day of trail work.

With these awesome people, I'm proud to report that SBFC has once again cleared another rad Bitterroot trail. With a total of 4 crosscut trees, 113 saplings, and 233 drains, our weekend of work will help stock and people safely navigate the breath-taking trail up to the St. Mary lookout. We had so many incredible moments and considering that it was one weekend, we got a lot of work done. And, luckily enough for me, I have another fact to add to my growing list: volunteers are not a nameless mass. They're people. Incredible, unique, passionate, hard-working people. They’re out there sacrificing their precious free time to do hard work for the community, for the wilderness, for the trail, and just because. It's amazing. The sincerity, dedication, and kindness of the people I met this weekend was so inspiring and empowering.

Looking back at it, it's almost funny to me, because I’ve come to realize that it's the people, the volunteers especially, that really made this project so special for me. When I was back in Stevensville at my bunkhouse, looking up at that lookout, I kept imagining how cool it was going to be to go up there, to walk its decks and pretend I was all alone up there with tea and a good book. But the reality of it is when I reached the top of St. Mary's peak, the allure of solitude and even a good book couldn’t match the fun I was having with the volunteers and staff on this project. I feel so grateful now that for my whole summer I get to interact with such amazing people, especially the volunteers. They're superheroes, each and every one of them, and now, when I think of volunteers, I won't picture a mob of matching tee shirts who are out there somewhere championing some abstract idea. I'll think of Sam and his crosscut, or Karen and her Pulaski. I'll think of Daneel kicking a tree in half and Sue and Sheryl sawing through a thick ponderosa blocking the trail. I'll think of Renee and Jay cooking a delicious meal and laughing with us after a long day of hard work. I'll think of Catherine coming all the way out here to do something she's never done before with a positive attitude and the hard work to match it. I'll think of Sally tackling invasive weeds with an unrelenting energy in the heat of the day and I'll think of Kate coordinating this trip and effortlessly directing us all while clearing sand-buried drains and trail corridor. I'll think of the wonderful people I met on this project and how they, the volunteers, are exactly what this world needs.

Looking back, when I knew I would get the chance to write this post, I knew that I wanted to explain the experience, the trail, the work, the jokes and all the stories at lunch breaks, and every little detail of it… but now I see that it's impossible. Wrong even. For me to try to snare this whole project in a sentence or a paragraph would never do it justice. And besides, it really was indescribable. So, instead of that detailed, play-by-play post I thought I would have, instead, I'm left here with this wonderful feeling in my chest and not enough words to describe it.

There’s really only one thing left for me to say:

Thank you volunteers!