Five miles from the trailhead and a mere twenty feet into our first full day of trail work we reach our first log laying haphazardly across the trail. Eric: “So, who has the saw handles?”
Susie: “Not me. Diane?”
Me: “Er… nope…”
Perhaps Eric and Susie thought I volunteered to jaunt the five miles back to the truck to collect the forgotten saw handles out of the goodness of my heart (or perhaps out of guilt, as I was the last one to have seen them). But truthfully, it was more of a selfish offer. You see, while Eric and Susie huffed up the trail with the other tools, I enjoyed a peaceful 3-hour hike along the beautiful Salmon River – no tools (except for the recovered saw handles on the way back), no people, no worries. Just me and my thoughts.
What should I make for dinner tonight? What if a mountain lion attacks me? What if the saw handles aren’t in the truck? What if I drove away and went to get a hamburger instead? And some more serious contemplations. What place does Wilderness have in the modern world? How do we preserve wild places in the face of growing populations and resource demands? How will I contribute to the preservation of these lands and their histories? How will I find my own path moving forward in life? And how lucky am I to be spending my summer in a place like this!
With the saw handles safely back in the presence of their other half (our beloved cross-cut, Peach) our three-person team kicked into action – literally, at times sitting on the ground to jointly push a log out of the trail with our feet. In keeping with our false start, the rest of the hitch was full of highs and lows – from staying down in the canyon at the swanky (by backcountry standards) private inholding at Campbell’s Ferry (think historic homestead with soft beds, a warm outdoor shower, cherry trees, and chilled drinks in the stream) to pushing camp to above 6,500 feet (12 miles, 40 switchbacks, and 7 grueling hours above the comfort of the homestead) where a bear proceeded to ransack our site, leaving his paw, bite and claw marks on our tents and stoves (but luckily not our food – thank goodness for bear canisters!).
The bear incident reminded me of an old newspaper column I had read during our first night in the cabin at Campbell’s Ferry, one of many written by long-time homestead resident Frances Zaunmiller chronicling her life in the Salmon River canyon. During her 40 years writing for the local newspaper, Frances wrote of curious bears and salmon fishing, of the installation of telephone lines and the weekly mail deliveries, of debates over the Wilderness Act and smokejumpers “invading” the ferry home and sleeping in the parlor (Frances writes, “For Pete’s sake, do be careful with your cigarettes and matches. There is no time for the Forest Service to be bothered with man-caused fires this summer.”) Reading Frances’ articles was like stepping back in time and like reading yesterday’s newspaper at the same time – her writing possesses the unmistakable tone of a bygone era, yet many of the wilderness issues she discussed are still debated today.
And many of the sentiments she described feeling while in the Wilderness of Campbell’s Ferry and the Frank Church River of No Return can still be felt there today. “My river is a primitive thing,” wrote Frances in one of her articles from the 1940s. Today, the Congressionally-designated “wild and scenic” Salmon River is still a primitive thing. And, for the time I spent hiking along its bank and staring into its blue-green depths from high above on the many switchbacks we climbed, the river was mine too. At the end of our hitch, back in the truck (saw handles and all) and heading towards civilization (and hamburgers) with Ke$ha and Pitbull’s pop song “Timber” on the radio, I was quickly returned to the 21st century – and to my iPhone, Facebook account, and 65 unread emails. But when I close my eyes I can still picture the river – my river – in all of her wild and scenic beauty and I am instantly reminded of the meaning and importance of Wilderness.