Q&A: Life on the Trail

Riley Stark and Bonnie Ricord underbuck a tree on the Dan Ridge Trail.

The pleasure of working in wilderness is an experience enjoyed by too few but cherished immensely by those who are privileged to do so. We walk to work each day, hauling our kitchens (food and backpacking stoves) and our houses (tents and sleeping bags) in the packs on our backs, sometimes weighing upwards of 50 pounds, depending on how many avocados and carrots we stuff into our bear cans. A typical day can consist of cutting trees or digging tread, assessing the state of a campsite, or opening up a trail corridor by trimming the brush that hides the trail.

But what is the purpose of our work? What does one cook for dinner our in the backcountry? My friends and family often ask me questions like this when I talk with about my work. I’ll do my best to answer a few that I think can give you an idea of what life on the trail is like for a Wilderness Ranger Intern.

Why cut trees that are down on the trail? Trees that have fallen across a trail can be obstacles for people, stock, and wildlife that travel in that area. Sometimes the trees are easy enough to step over, though there are also cases that a log is so large one has to walk around it, going off the trail in order to keep moving. This can contribute to soil erosion and further impact on the resource as the trail snakes around the log off the original path, a path chosen by wilderness managers and workers to try to concentrate use in that area.

What’s for dinner? Tortellini is a popular menu item for those working in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, as one of the grocery stores in Missoula sells it in bulk bins. The running joke within the Foundation is that we should just take our entire bear can to the store, stick it underneath the dispenser and fill it up to the top with pasta. Tortellini is also Executive Director Rob Mason’s favorite backcountry dinner, and he once said he could eat it every night without getting tired of it. I like to add a few sun-dried tomatoes and dried pesto to spice it up. Other than tortellini, we tend to stick to dried, nonperishable foods that are high in fat and calorie content in order to get the best energy value while carrying the least amount of weight. Dehydrated black beans, mashed potatoes and cheese wrapped in a tortilla is another easy meal I like to cook after a long day of work.

Do you have campfires every night? Usually we try to stay away from having a fire unless there is a very good reason to do so—if it is so cold that one can help us stay warm, or if the air is so thick with bugs that a little smoke in the air can help us stay sane enough to cook dinner before we hide in our tents for the night.

     — Kristina Schenck, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 27, 2013

A view of the Bitterroot crest into Montana from Idaho's Maple Lake Pass.