Sam Freestone – Wilderness Ranger Intern
Iowa State University
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.