June 19–26: Finding Clear Water

It’s the second day of my first hitch as a Wilderness Ranger Intern in the Clearwater portion of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness when I realize I am uncomfortable when not within 200 feet of high-volume water. This is a problem — early trail builders tended to avoid construction along rocky river banks, preferring to shoot upwards towards grassy ridges and benches. As our group steadily climbs away from large Colt Killed Creek, crosscut saws, grubbing tools and single bit axes in hand, my palms begin to sweat and I feel nervous. I strain my ears for the familiar rumble of liquid tumbling over rocks, but all I can hear is the throaty whisper of wind through pines. I distract myself by concentrating on the burning in my quads and sliding the wooden handles onto each end of the crosscut saw, ready to remove a tree from where it intersects the trail. That afternoon, as we clear pine needles and branches from waterbars, a crewmember announces, “Water is the enemy of trail maintenance!” I nod in agreement as I swing my Pulaski into the mineral soil of the trail, creating an apron to trick running water into the trailside vegetation. Yet I can’t help but wonder if I am the right fit for a summer job that fights against water, instead of savoring it.

On the fourth day of our hitch, a fellow crewmember asks, “So why do you like rivers?” It surprises me that she has noticed me scurrying off towards Colt Killed Creek during lunch breaks, wedging myself in impossible places between cedar trees and boulders near Storm Creek and dipping my toes into Crab Creek. I feel like I have an answer until she asks, then my reply is unsure. I grew up in the arid Palouse Hills, on the western side of the Clearwater, the only waterway in city limits a muddy, leach filled creek. Yet family boating trips to the Selway River, Lochsa River, and various forks of the Salmon River were common, and when someone asks, “Have you spent any time in the Selway-Bitterroot or Frank Church Wilderness?” I can only reply with, “Just the major river corridors.” It wasn’t until college that I began backpacking, trying to learn to appreciate carrying my food instead of rowing it, and filtering drinking water from small tributaries instead of large, pushy rivers.

Mid-hitch, we are camped near Crab Creek, a small gouge in the hillside filled with whitewater tumbling towards Colt Killed Creek. I am grateful that even backpackers (perhaps the masochists of the backcountry world) can’t escape their human need to drink and camp near water. I can hear the creek murmur of snow as it feeds the familiar waterways below. The ice-cold liquid running past my fingers cascades in the direction no liquid can escape — down. I decide that getting to know these small, clear creeks and streams, the namesakes of the forest I will work on all summer, won’t be as nerve-wracking as I anticipate. I think of how I spend time with random relatives, only because they teach me more about the direct family I love. I wonder if it might be the same with water – you can’t claim to love a stretch of water unless you know its relatives, from snowfield to ocean.

I imagine a small fork of Crab Creek running into the trail, only to be quickly drained off the pathway by a waterbar. Instead of pulling dirt and sediment into Colt Killed Creek and forcing hikers and stock off the tread of the trail, the water will disperse into the streamside vegetation that shades the creek and prevents further erosion. Cutting trees out of a trail has the same effect, keeping the trail narrow and protecting the vegetation that absorbs snowmelt and leads the new water to nearby waterways. I begin to realize that maybe my job this summer is not to fight water, but to gently suggest its path around our human creations and recreations. In the final days of our hitch, when I struggle up hot, river-less hillsides, I think of myself not as doing trailwork, but as doing waterwork, for a forest and wilderness named for just that.

— Emerald LaFortune, Wilderness Ranger Intern | June 27, 2012