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.

July 21-25: Going to Church


I’ve never been to Church before, but this summer I will be spending most of my time there. And by most of my time, I mean more than a month wandering through the depths of the Church’s nooks and crannies. I would guess I’ll become one of the most reliable Churchgoers around — maybe even going into the Church more in one summer than some will in a lifetime — although that’s not to say that I will even scratch the surface of what the Church has to offer. One could easily spend many lifetimes in the Church and come out with more questions and new places to explore.

When entering the Church, one most go by foot to preserve its history so future generations can enjoy its vast bounty. The Church’s floor is often full of dirt, grass, and vegetation, and the paths through are often riddled with downed trees. The ceiling changes by the day; some days it’s a crystal blue, and some days it’s dark as night with streaks of lightning exploding from the sky. With all of the beauty the Church holds, it can also be a volatile place, making the common Churchgoer very uneasy.

The Church has many reoccurring characters that I’ve already run into on numerous occasions this summer. Some of these permanent fixtures have been in the Church for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. One of the most prevalent figures is the Salmon River, with its Middle, North, South, and Yankee Fork that dominate the Church’s landscape. A common visitor to theChurch is fire. The light that comes from above streaks the landscape and bursts into flames. This natural process ends life, and creates new life. It is a vital part of keeping the Church new and alive. Tampering with the Church’s will is a dangerous game, and has been attempted in recent years, but with little avail.

While I will only be spending this summer in The Church, I can imagine I will spend many more in various Churches across the world. Not to say that this Church is any better than another. Each Church has something special to offer, and can bring to light new experiences and thoughts. All I know is that I will be a going to Church religiously for the rest of my life, and not only on Sundays.

     — Jacob Mandell, Wilderness Ranger Intern | July 25, 2013


July 30-August 7: Finding a Sense of Place

When I came to this internship, I was searching for a sense of place. After being away at school on the coast of British Columbia for four years, I was desperately missing the interior of the Northwest with its dry air and rugged mountains. I took the internship as an opportunity to come back to the place I had been carrying around inside of me and come to know it better. I envisioned working on trails and exploring new places, spending hours reflecting and watching the land and weather around me change as hitches passed. It never occurred to me that experiencing a sense of place might have to do with more than just knowledge and intimacy with the land. Reflecting on my experience, I’ve come to realize that self-knowledge and a sense of belonging in the world can be strongly tied to the people you share your experiences with. Wilderness is a place of relative solitude, yet I’ve found that sharing an experience in the wilderness with other people has made me more aware than ever of how inextricably bonded we all are; to each other as well as to the land, water, and food we need to survive.

During the last hitch as I waded through beautiful streams and glowing fireweed thickets on the trail we were clearing, I began to conceptualize something that I’ve never understood before. I’ve idealized solitude and independence for most of my life, and have striven for those values especially in the last few years. Yet traveling and working in wilderness for most of the summer, these values are fading in front of me, like mist off a meadow as the sun rises.

I’ve been left with an overwhelming feeling that perhaps one of the key elements to a wilderness experience (and to life) is what you share with others along the way; trust, hardship, success, fear. Wilderness demands that these emotions are brought to the surface, especially when you are working on a team, whether it be to clear trails or climb mountains. Good group experiences in the wilderness require communication and honesty with one another, and through openness bring us closer to each other as well as to our environment and our inner selves.

I still believe that solitude and self-sufficiency are an important piece of wilderness travel and I have no doubt that the beautiful, wild places I’ve experienced this summer will stay with me for the rest of my life and help to form my sense of place. However, the lesson that I will remember the most about this summer is the intense aloneness I felt when I was isolated contrasted with the deep satisfaction and understandings I experienced when I was working with great people in incredible, wild places.

     — Janine Welton, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 8, 2013

Cooking dinner in evening sunshine after a long day of clearing trails.


No Water for Otters on Otter Creek Trail

The hitch started out with our wonderful crew driving 13 miles on bumpy Indian Hill Lookout Road. While driving, we stopped to cut trees that were blocking the way and listened to our wonderful crew leader, Ian Anderson, professing his undying love for thimbleberries. After trying a few, I must admit that thimbleberries are very tasty, and I’m excited to hunt for more wild berries on my next hitch. When we finally arrived at the trailhead of Otter Creek we met the Indian Hill lookout, Larry, and his two charming dogs. Larry explained that water was hard to find on the trail and told us if we were camping at the trailhead, we would have to drive two miles back down the road to get water. Because none of the crew had ever been to Otter Creek, we unfortunately did not know water would be such a challenge to get and had no way of storing extra water at camp. Thankfully, Larry offered to provide jugs and said he would fill them for us as long as we were camping at the trailhead. The crew appreciated Larry’s generosity and enjoyed not having to worry about having water at camp after their long days at work. Water was not the only challenge the crew faced at Otter Creek. The trail runs through several burn areas, which made progress down the trail slow at times. On the third day of the hitch, part of the crew cut about 80 trees within the first mile of the trailhead. Even though the burn areas were a challenge to work though, the hiking on Otter Creek Trail was beautiful. Highline Ridge had a spectacular sunset and most of the burn areas are full of a variety of vegetation.

Thanks to our hard work, Otter Creek Trail is now open. I would encourage people to visit the area and enjoy the views and wildlife that are around. Our crew leader saw two moose and the rest of the crew either saw or heard a hummingbird every day.

     — Sammy Bertelsen, Wilderness Ranger Intern | July 30, 2013


The view from the Highline Ridge

Moose Creek & Maple Lake

Growing up, I never would have imagined myself to be a birder. I didn't even picture naturalist until I attended a summer camp called Agree Outpost Camp when I was thirteen. It was a camp for young teens that taught skills such as backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, and how to build fires and poop in the woods. That camp brought out and developed my appreciation for nature. Every year after that summer, my mom claimed I became a little bit more "granola." My ever-expanding love of nature and different landscapes led me to pursue Wildlife Conservation and Management as my major at the University of Arizona. There, I have taken classes such as ecology, geology, natural resource history and policy, and herpetology. I took my first ornithology class last year. In that class we memorized more than 120 birds — and a great many of their calls, to boot. For the most part, I hated that class. I loved our field trips because we hiked wherever we went, but birding with binoculars, a Sibley's field guide, and notebook in hand seemed like a chore to me. After all, in class we learned that most birds (with the exception of corvids and psittacines) are pretty dumb. So what made birds so special to birders?

Slowly, with the help of my boyfriend (an avid birder) dragging me out to riparian areas in the desert (nerdy hunting binoculars strapped to his chest), I began to familiarize myself with many birds in Arizona. I spotted magnificent hummingbirds, western tanagers, verdin, sandhill cranes, and gila woodpeckers. My favorite birds to see, graceful and terrifying, were the raptors. Without the homework or the grades pressuring me to do well, birding started to become more meaningful.

I drove from Tucson, Arizona all the way to Missoula before my wilderness ranger internship started, and by the time I arrived in Montana in mid-May, I had spotted a great horned owl, several osprey, black-billed magpies, and many other exciting birds I had not seen before. With the help and enthusiasm of other birders I have met during this internship, I have spotted and correctly identified a plethora of amazing western birds. Fellow intern Bonnie Ricord and I shared experiences of seeing American dippers on the river. We mocked the funny bobbing motion of the birds and fell into a hilarious giggle fit at the sight of ourselves. Without any context at all, staffer Claire Muller saw our awkward motions and exclaimed, “You saw a dipper!?” Birders out here know their stuff.

Moose Creek was an especially exciting birding spot. I saw my first pileated woodpecker there, a dinosaur of a bird, and nearly died of excitement. Fellow intern Mara Menahan acted as my own personal walking, talking field guide, and together we listed a collection of beautiful birds that frequent Moose Creek. One day in the forest I was startled to hear a whistle or a kazoo, and I thought Wilderness Ranger Anna Bengtson was trying to prank me. When I asked her later, she informed me that the noise I had heard was actually a varied thrush. That day we listened to many of their calls, pitches high and low. Any birder would feel lucky to have had the experience I have had out here in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. The opportunity to further my own education (and rack up bird points!) has been a real gift.

     — Sam Sharka, Wilderness Ranger Intern | July 23, 2013

Wilderness Ranger Adam Washebek spotted a Spruce Grouse right off the trail on our way to Maple Lake.


July 2-July 10: Big Baldy Ridge of No Return


On July 2nd, Janine and I set out from the Challis area and headed to Cascade to meet up with program director Eric Melson and trail crewmember Jeff Allred. After checking in with the Forest Service and jamming all the gear into Goldee, our trusty rig, we headed towards the trailhead of Big Baldy Ridge Trail #227. The goal of the hitch was to cut-and-run the trail from Pistol Rock to Buck Lake.

The afternoon and following morning consisted of hiking to our first camp at the base of Pistol Rock. After settling in, we were able to break out the crosscut saws, and began to clear the trail. As we slowly progressed along the trail over the next couple days, we jumped from burn areas to green, observing charred north-facing slopes while south-facing slopes were a lush green spotted with a variety of wildflowers.

On July 6th we pushed camp to Buck Lake. After completing the 9-mile ridge hike and a search for switchbacks hidden by a snow cornice leading down, we were rewarded with a clear mountain lake. That afternoon, Janine and I experienced the inventorying of a heavy-use camp: cleaning and minimizing the campfire and distinguishing the level of use. After a late afternoon swim for all of us, Eric taught me how to gut a fish and he fried up rainbow and brook trout that he had caught in the lake.

The 7th was a long day, clearing nearly half the trail, but we were able to connect our work and the trail from Pistol Rock to Buck Lake is now passable! The following day we completed more campsite inventories at the lake, and sadly, the expectation of lighter packs on the hike out was inaccurate. The LNT (Leave No Trees) crew hiked out over 30lbs of trash from Buck Lake! After returning nine miles to Pistol Rock to camp for our final night, the group was exhausted and settled on the ridge for a bit to discuss wilderness stewardship in the grand scheme of things (while also avoiding the bugs at the campsite below).

On the 9th we hiked out from Pistol Rock, finishing a challenging, rewarding, and entertaining hitch. Eric, Jeff, Janine, and I cleared more than 600 trees from the Big Baldy Ridge Trail and hiked more than 250 miles together in 8 days!

     — Katie Currier, Wilderness Ranger Intern | July 11, 2013


June 18-26: The Greatest Challenge

Standing at the edge of the wild Salmon River drainage beyond Trout Peak on Chamberlain Trail #001.


It's easy to look back on any experience and forget the things that didn't go as planned. Those memories tend to fade quickly until we are only left with successful highlights and greater achievements to take with us into the future. Reflecting on our time spent at 6,300 ft beyond Trout Peak in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, it's apparent to me that the moments of uncertainty, instead, are the ones that will remain with me long after I return home in late August. Sure, we put a saw through a fair amount of trees, had the pleasure of meeting a gracious and knowledgeable host at Campbell's Ferry, and had a few peaceful nights camped out along sub-alpine ridges, but these things are not solely what I would use to define our hitch.

I recall somewhere on the eighth mile, our last water source around 3,500 feet below us, having to take off my pack and crawl on my knees through a downed tangle of Fir. Muddied, exhausted, and consistently frustrated with each seemingly endless turn in the trail, I remember thinking to myself that I had found the exact path I was seeking. Or as we worked our way down the mountain on one of the last days, watching a micro-cell plow its way into the steep walls of the Salmon River drainage, high winds and rumbles of thunder surrounding our quickened attempt to move downhill. Watching the skies darken and crack above us in a flurry of rain, I felt both thrilled and terrified at the relentless will of that kind of force.

There were moments such as these throughout our entire time spent on the switchbacks and saddles around Trout Peak, unexpected moments filled with frustration, exhaustion, and disbelief, yet I would have it no other way. So many wilderness recreationalists arrive seeking the challenge of traversing an area where they are only “a visitor who does not remain,” but in one short week, I found the greatest challenge is not what we encounter in the wilderness, but what we encounter within ourselves. The ability to balance fear and awe or weakness and strength in the context of an uncertain environment is the most basic and greatest challenge we all face in the experience of humbling ourselves to — and continuing the protection of — these great wild lands.

So come September, when someone asks me what I'll remember most from the summer, I'm sure there will be stories of great company, full days of quality work, and the starry nights that followed, but I know I will have an even richer experience to share. Perhaps I'll be fortunate enough to share those uncertain moments with others, where I stood at the very edge of myself and saw just as much wildness within me as there was in the surrounding landscape. Perhaps one day we'll all be fortunate to share those experiences with each other and learn to embrace the challenge of ourselves as much as we see the challenge in the land. Perhaps, then, wilderness will mean more to us all, whether alone 20 miles back into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, or surrounded on a crowded street in New York City.

     — Jack Markowski, Wilderness Ranger Intern | June 27, 2013

June 18-25: The People Make the Place

As I reflect on this hitch, I am realizing that it is one of the most physically and mentally exhausting things that I’ve ever done. Carrying a backpack and a crosscut saw or a shovel through the wilderness while it’s raining can be a significant damper to a person’s mood, but I was proud of our crew’s morale. We stayed positive for most of the hitch, and we encouraged each other during our low points. While we were hiking, we discussed favorite singers, life stories, travels, and an in-depth analysis of each of our spirit animals. There were moments in the afternoons where one of us would start laughing hysterically, and we couldn’t help but join in. One moment that I remember vividly is turning around to see Sammy on the trail behind me, holding the saw and her pack, doubled over and completely paralyzed with laughter. I also learned that once I start laughing very hard, I can no longer support my legs and end up collapsing onto the ground, which just makes me laugh harder. This hitch helped me define the phrase “knee-slapping laughter.” Between the chopping and sawing (arm workout), backpacking (leg workout), and the long fits of laughter (ab workout), I think we had full body toning! The challenging aspects of this internship are so insignificant when compared to the amount of support and friendship offered through my connections with the other staff members and interns. During our week in the backcountry, I learned more about Sammy and Kenzie than people that I’ve known for several years. Kenzie taught us about cross-cut sawing, chopping trees with your inner dragon, edible plants, backpacking tips, and most importantly, about perseverance. We also made an executive decision that her job title as “program director” is not really accurate and should probably be changed to “wilderness candy fairy” (she snuck Snickers into our backpacks during a rainy day) or preferably “mustard fiend” (she may or may not have consumed 45 servings of mustard during the week). Sammy was eternally positive and upbeat, and I counted on her for support during our long days. It was fun to see Sammy interacting with the stock that packed our gear in, and she was eager to learn more about horsepacking.


The crew at Fish Lake Saddle—notice the snow on the summer solstice!


On our last day, we took a wrong turn while trying to clear the trail up to Lone Knob, and ended up going in a giant circle. Once we finally found the trail that would take us to the trailhead, it was starting to become dark and we had been clearing trees and hiking for eight hours. On the hike down, I fought to keep my feet moving in a forward direction and I started lagging behind. I felt so tired and discouraged, but Kenzie and Sammy were right there, saying “How are you doing, Bon?” When we reached the trailhead, we all stopped and hugged each other, proud that we had finished. We were crushing it, as Kenzie would say. I am so grateful that I have this opportunity to be challenged and grow as a person, but I am most grateful for the people surrounding me, who are giving me support, guidance, and helping me realize that I can accomplish a lot more than I ever thought.

One of the highlights of the hitch was arriving at Fish Lake cabin after hiking to Fish Lake Saddle, where we encountered snow. Fish Lake cabin is a picturesque little spot in the middle of lovely, quiet, absolute nowhere, which seems to becoming increasingly rare in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We watched fog roll across the airstrip and saw elk in the distance. Our spirits were joyful as we sat around in the light of a Coleman lantern, and we celebrated the summer solstice peacefully, telling stories that were (of course) accompanied with a lot of laughter. As I settled into my sleeping bag, my body grateful for stillness, I realized that although I was exhausted, I was extremely happy in the simplest of ways: getting to know two wonderfully genuine people and having the privilege to explore this landscape. I believe that the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is incredibly beautiful and majestic, but I am convinced that the people that I work with and spend time with are truly what make it a special place.

     — Bonnie Ricord, Wilderness Ranger Intern | June 26, 2013


A welcome sight — the cabin at Fish Lake.

Just What I Needed

Where did it all go? I spent much of my summer debating whether the backcountry season was flying by or simply crawling at a snail’s pace. At times, it seemed that day four would never pass, and I was quite certain that day eight was never going to arrive.

But four hitches, gallons of sweat, pounds of muscle, and a few drops of blood later, I am once again a full-time resident of Missoula and spending my final days of summer floating lazily down the Blackfoot. The verdict is in: My time playing as a wilderness ranger came and went faster than I ever thought possible.

I am older than other interns by several years, and I accepted the opportunity at SBFC with some reservations because I worried I would be taking a step backward. What initially sold me on the program was the opportunity to work with a nonprofit and to explore a new stretch of mountains. I did not realize how deeply personal my experience with SBFC would be, nor do I think those who shared their time with me will ever realize their impact on me.

Over the course of my summer, the value of my greater life experience was confirmed for me through the perspectives of my coworkers. I came to view the opportunities awaiting me in life as limitless, just as I did when I was a mighty 21-year old. Once again, I realize that I will never regret any choice I have made in my life – I am constantly morphing into that person I so badly wanted to be 27 years ago, and every one of my decisions thus far in life has contributed to that satisfaction. By approaching my opportunity at SBFC with an open mind, I am walking away with more valuable life experience than I ever thought possible.

In that new stretch of mountains, I found just what I needed.

     — Allie Tincher, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 14, 2012


With fellow intern Harper Kaufman on Fish Lake Saddle during our first hitch.


July 31-August 7: A New Legacy

The Moose Creek Ranger District, a place where history thrives in both the natural and human realms. Long before the designation of this slice of wilderness in 1964, hardworking folks were laying down a new path (literally) into these wild lands. Bridges, airstrips, ranger stations, cabins, and trails were finally making this place accessible. Among the most famous of these innovators were Emil and Penny Keck. Emil and Penny are household names in this neck of the woods, and I finally figured out why. They spent the latter half of the twentieth century building many of the structures and trails that we so often take for granted. The Three Links Bridge, a forty-foot bridge over Three Links Creek, was one of their bridge accomplishments that was completed almost as simultaneously as the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Nearly fifty years later and it is time for this bridge to come down; time for a new legacy of wilderness stewards to claim these structures as part of their hard work. And that is what we set out to do the week of 7/31-8/7. I joined the SBFC Three Links Crew, Corey Swanson, and construction expert Barry Thompson to remove the Three Links Bridge for a new bridge that will also eventually become part of this local history.

As we destroyed this bridge I could not help but admire the hard work that Emil and Penny put into this project, hoping that this work would make them satisfied with the work that SBFC has been doing. Although we did not get to build the bridge yet, dismantling the bridge was quite a feat, especially when there are no power tools to drill 8’’ holes into a concrete foundation. Let’s just say, I am a pro at hand drilling now.

I was thrilled to be a part of this project and am so thankful to have taken part in such a variety of projects this summer.

     — Christian LaBar, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 17, 2012

August 18-25: Children of the Woods

Something that always inspires me is when someone, say an adult even, who has built up a life of success, accomplishments, and growth still seeks out and is open to learning new things. That was the theme of our volunteer trip that recently went into the Storm Creek drainage to clear a section of trail leading to the sub-alpine Siah Lake. Three SBFC interns and two staff members were joined by nine volunteers, mostly from Moscow, ID, who graciously forwent spending their vacation time relaxing lavishly on some sun-spotted beach and instead wanted to spent their precious free time in the dirt of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, learning how to axe, saw, and brush. Unlike a regular vacation, this work “fills me up with a sense of accomplishment having made an impact in my own backyard,” one volunteer said.  

Volunteer Deirdre learns how to swing an axe.


For a group of people, many of whom had never used primitive clearing tools before, this group sure picked it up quick. By the morning of day three I was surprised to find us working as a team like a well-oiled machine. Small groups of brushing and limbing crews ploughed the way for saw teams, as the consistent sound of a running saw rang out from our ridgeline. Within only a few hours of work, I heard our volunteers saying things like “Maybe we should just under-buck this log,” or “Do you think this tree has any top bind?” It just went to show that no matter the age, an old dog can (and most certainly will) learn new tricks.


Intern Seth Bader and Volunteer Pat stand by a cut on a sub-alpine fir tree.

This trip was unlike any other I have experienced in the backcountry in any capacity. We were joined by folks coming from all walks of life, various countries, and ages. We were lucky enough to be packed in by Jon Binninger, a longtime friend of the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, and his family — meaning we were joined by Jon’s children who are seven and four. Not only did these youngsters keep the mood at camp light with their constant jokes and giggling, but they even joined us on the trail and helped with brushing. To me this hitch taught lessons of companionship and humanity, it proved that no matter someone’s age, we can all serve a purpose in this life — especially in regards to wilderness stewardship. Nature draws people together for various reasons, but in the end it teaches the same lessons indiscriminately of age. On a Wednesday night we found ourselves returning from another successful day clearing Trail #59 toward Siah Lake as a storm began to approach, up the valley from the west. We heard the thunder ring in closer and closer around us, until we were almost engulfed by sheets of rain as streaks of lightning crashed out on the surrounding ridgelines. Time, life, and age stood still for these fifteen minutes as we were all transfixed by the storm’s awesome power. It didn’t matter if it was the first storm any of us had seen, or the hundredth, we all stood powerless and aghast.


Jon Binninger's children Clem (left) and Flora (right).


As the storm cleared we quickly received word that the lightning strikes had started several new fires in our area, and that we needed to evacuate by the next morning. It was an unfortunate end to a trip that was going so well, since no one was really ready to leave the backcountry. We came in as a group of people with plenty of visible and internal differences, and left with the similar feeling of timelessness that only a week in the wilderness can transpose upon you. As we hooted and hollered at the trailhead which sat up 2,000 ft. of switch-backing trail, it was hard to know who was four and who was forty. We were all children of the woods.

     — Seth Bader, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 14, 2012

July 18-24: Pushing Further in Storm Creek

It’s the heat of an Idaho late afternoon, and every cell of my dehydrated body is begging me to turn my boots around, hike down the steep trail, pound a liter of water, and fall face first into ice-cold Storm Creek. Instead, my saw partner and I approach a large, burnt log set into the ground. It’s hour ten of a long day of limbing, chopping, shoveling, and sawing. “This will be our last log of the day, okay, Em?” says my saw partner.

The trail gods hear our mention of the “last log,” and to spite us, nothing goes as planned. Our saw gets stuck, a wedge disappears, and there are too many roots to dig a trench to finish our cut. The soot from the burn covers my hands and legs and leaves black streaks across my face where I push away sweat. Finally, we brace our legs against the section of 20-inch diameter log we have cut, and push in a direction we can only hope is downhill. The log doesn’t budge. I’m discouraged, but my saw partner remains optimistic.

“Let’s just try it one more time, Em.”

Again, I push with all the strength I have left in my tired legs. There is a cracking noise, then a pop, and the log rolls free.

In five years, when someone mentions Storm Creek, I probably won’t remember most of my time working in the drainage. I probably won’t remember the cool morning hike to our work site. I probably won’t remember listening to a coworker play a favorite folk song on the guitar under a pink and orange July sky. I probably won’t remember the logs that easily rolled from the trail. I probably won’t remember laughing as two hobbled horses sprinted across the creek with a forest service employee close behind. I probably won’t remember eating freshly picked bolete mushrooms, fried in oil. I probably won’t remember the view of Ranger Peak and the rest of the Bitterroot crest.

But I will remember the woody “pop” and sweet release of a big, burnt log being cleared from the trail. I will remember that it’s usually the things we fight and struggle for that are the most rewarding. I will remember pressing the soles of my boots into a stubborn log and when I thought I could push no more, pushing further.

     — Emerald LaFortune, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 14, 2012

July 31-August 7: Tin Cup

Rachel Kaufman and Mike McBride.

This week, SBFC staffer Rachel Kaufman and I hiked the Tin Cup-Boulder Creek Loop with two volunteers: Andrew Hursh, a wilderness fellow from the Aldo Leopold Institute, and Mike McBride, a local backcountry skiing guru. Mike’s knowledge of the terrain in the Bitterroots was extremely helpful for navigating the ridges to get from Triple Lakes to Boulder Lake. This area offered some of the most scenic and wild terrain that I have seen in the Bitterroots. We naturalized any campsites that we found along the trail. In 50 miles of terrain, we destroyed 30 campfire rings.

One thing that really surprised me about this area was the high density of amphibians around the alpine lakes; there were frogs and newts everywhere, especially around Triple Lakes. This is an unusual situation that contrasts with most high alpine lakes where fish have been introduced. Usually, the introduced fish prey on the tadpoles and decimate amphibian populations.

— Rikk Dunn, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 7, 2012

Amphibian sighting!

July 17-24: Pistol Creek Dudefest Oh12

The cast of Dudefest Oh12.  Photo: Rikk Dunn

This hitch I was lucky enough to join the Frank Church Crew — Eric Melson, Erick Ellison, and Ben Barry — along with Seth Bader and Christian LaBar for Dudefest Oh12 on Pistol Creek. This was by far the hardest and most fun hitch of the season. We cleared more than 900 trees from the trail, one of them measuring out to 50 inches in diameter! In the evenings we got to enjoy good food packed in by the Backcountry Horsemen, fish on Pistol Creek and play cribbage. It doesn’t get much better than that.

     — Rikk Dunn, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 7, 2012

Intern Ben Barry and a massive downed tree. Photo: Rikk Dunn


Teamwork! Photo: Rikk Dunn


Success! Photo: Rikk Dunn

July 31-August 8: A Siah Lake Oasis

I love working in burns. The regeneration of life can be awe-inspiring, especially when the beautiful oasis of an alpine lake invites a quick dip at the end of every dusty day. On our most recent outing, my crew spent most of our hitch camped on the lush banks of Siah Lake, its cirque basin feeling far removed from the rest of the world some 2,000 feet above the Storm Creek drainage. What had recently been a desolate, charred forest around us exploded with bear grass and fireweed blossoms, and huckleberries and grouse whortleberries offered their tasty morsels after every cut log. Clarke’s nutcrackers and harriers cruised the sky, while chipmunks and spotted frogs made homes under the mossy fallen logs near the lake’s shore. Life was everywhere. Even the trees were returning to this place — every tree we cut from the trails offered shelter to another five seedlings. All told, our one-sawed, three-bodied crew cleared more than 430 trees from the burn and its adjacent trails, and tiny little Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine grew up from the dust beneath their shadows. Whitebark pine were abundant in the charred earth as well, growing up from caches of Clarke’s nutcracker harvests, and we were cheered by their perseverance in an incredibly harsh landscape.

We were cheered, too, by the accomplishments of our crew. Our impact on the trail was evident, and, after days of rolling in sweat and dust, what had previously been nearly impassable was now a beautiful and dynamic tour of a living and changing landscape.

     — Allie Tincher, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 8, 2012

July 18-24: Backcountry Rhythm

By this point in the summer, I have begun to feel more comfortable with my wilderness routine than my off days in Missoula. When I come home for my breaks, the internet, my phone, friends, appointments, scheduling, and catching up on the news turn my five off days into an overwhelming frenzy. Yet this hitch I recognized how smoothly and rhythmically my days in the wilderness seem to pass. Between packing my bag and setting up camp, I have established my own camping rituals. Everything I carry in my pack serves a specific purpose and has its own place in my tent and bag. I know the order in which I put things into my backpack and consequently the order in which they are unpacked. For a girl who can barley keep track of her car keys, it is unbelievingly satisfying to know not only that I have everything I need on my back, but exactly where things are. During each hitch, whether a day was spent sawing or backpacking, arriving at camp is always accompanied by a sigh of relief after a hard day’s work. Once camp is set up with everything in its particular place, I cook dinner, socialize with the crew, and try to stay awake long enough do some reading or journaling before I crawl into my sleeping bag for a much needed night’s rest. Yet despite the organized fashion of camp, each day and every hitch brings on new challenges and new excitements. Every tree we cut presents its own problems and puzzles, every crew I work with has it own dynamics and quirks, and every trail we clear reveals its own gems and challenges. These changes have kept my summer interesting and exciting even as I become at home in my tent and comfortable in my working routine.

This hitch, Claire Muller, Charlie Smiley, Emerald LaFortune, and I met up with Steve Hodgdon and Adam Washebek to clear trees in an old burn area along Storm Creek. The week flew by and before I knew it, I was back in Missoula filling out paper work — thrown right back into my unorganized and chaotic front-country life. Reflecting on the summer thus far, I feel so blessed to be a part of the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation’s internship program. I am constantly amazed that I am having all these experiences, meeting all these wonderful people, learning all that I am, and helping maintain the wilderness I love, all while being paid for it! I want to tell everyone I see what an amazing job opportunity I’ve found myself in and, simultaneously, I irrationally want to keep it secret in fear that anyone who hears about it will instantly try and steal my job.

At the age of 21 my life’s course is still largely uncertain, and as this summer flies by I wonder where I will be in a year. But there is nothing that can reverse the changes that working in the Clearwater has impressed on me this summer. That comforting rhythm of backpacking, my newfound wilderness knowledge, the people I have come to know, and my passion for the Selway Bitterroot are sure to steer my life in ways I would not have predicted even a year ago. However, despite the many doubts I have, I am absolutely confident that yesterday was far from the last time I will wake up to the smells, sights, and sounds of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

     — Harper Kaufman, Wilderness Ranger Intern | August 8, 2012

July 12-14: Bass Creek Bonding

It’s 9:00 p.m. and my mom and I are finally sitting down to a mug of wine, spicy blue chips and mango salsa. Mom and I don’t mess around on our first night of a backpacking trip. Even with these decadent hors d'oeuvres my pack is so much lighter then I’m used to because my mom and I share a tent, stove, water filter, and even a toothpaste tube. That’s the joy of having a mother that loves to do what you love to do — backpack and explore! My mom and dad taught me everything that I know about traveling in the wilderness. Mom honed my backpacking and hiking skills while Dad sharpened my riding and horse-packing abilities. I am very lucky to have my parents living in Missoula and volunteering their time to work with me and the SBFC in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. We’re sipping wine and munching on chips and thinking about the beauty around us instead of the next two days of inventorying and cleaning up campsites along the Bass Creek drainage and around Lappi and Bass Lakes. This is one of the closest and most popular drainages to the Missoula Valley, and it gets hit hard by recreators. We wake up early and mom takes down the tent while I get breakfast started. We’re good at splitting camp chores, a division of labor that we’ve honed over the 10 years that we’ve been backpacking together. We’re packed up and hiking towards the Bass Creek-Lappi Lake junction within an hour. The sun is just starting to light the hillsides and dry the dew off of the grass. My mom has been up all these Bitterroot Valley canyons multiple times and the last time she was up Bass was 28 years ago, almost to the day. She was 8 months pregnant with me. She remembers looking up at the ridge where she thought Lappi Lake was nestled and noticing two prominent spires that looked like devil horns. She points at the southern ridge, and sure enough, there are the devil horns. We start looking for the rock cairn that marks the junction. My mom also remembers that the trail was pretty overgrown and hard to find back then — what will it be like now, 28 years later?

My mom is an amazing trail sleuth. I think she has a special 6th sense for finding obscure routes. We thrash our way through the underbrush, battling downed tree branches and grippy alders. We slosh through hidden puddles and huck ourselves over jack-strawed trees. All the while, my mom’s looking for clues. She spots a pitchy overgrown blaze and we know we’re still on track. When I think all hope is lost and the brush can’t get any thicker, she spots the cut end of a tree and the path emerges —a little easier to follow than no path at all! About half way up, we’re shoving through the brush and we realize that we are off the trail. She seems to remember that the trail goes up the rocky hillside so we try to angle that way, but a woven pile of trees stops us in our tracks. We decide the best way out of this mess is to go back to the last cut log that we saw. When we finally find our way back, we realize that the trail has become the creek, or vice versa. So, we slosh on. Finally, we emerge onto the rock slope and follow a series of rock cairns that seem to have no rhyme or reason. Perhaps some sculptor went for a hike and decided to get creative. But we’ve got our eyes on the ever-growing, ever-looming devil horns and we know that we’re getting close. After hopping over the outlet and scaling a few more rocks we’re treated to a lovely view of Lappi Lake surrounded by snow-covered slopes and rocky outcroppings. My mom and I don’t say a word. We know what’s next: s swim! My mom would swim in an ice cube if it was a backcountry lake and she could. I’ve seen her swim in water that was so cold it was slushy. She doesn’t stay long, but she gets her whole body under the water. She hoots and hollers like a banshee but no one can say that mom can’t stand cold temps. We used to see who could swim in the most lakes in a summer but once I started working in the woods, I out-swam her with ease. She’s at a distinct disadvantage with her desk job . . . .

After our swim we get to work inventorying and cleaning up a campsite that used to be an old cabin site. The Forest Service burned it years ago and all that’s left is a mossy spot and some rusty nails. Folks have camped here recently and there’s lots of trash and two fire rings. It’s hot dusty work to pitch rocks and scoop us ashes. I admire my mom for volunteering her time to spend grueling hours mucking in damp, ashy campfire rings looking for some careless schmuck’s discarded, burned-to-a-pulp aluminum beer can (yeah, we might enjoy our wine in the backcountry but at least we put it in a plastic bladder and we don’t try to make it disappear in the camp fire) or half-burned plastic Mountain Home dinner packet. Maybe we swam and cleaned up in the wrong order, but every backcountry swimmer knows that you get your swim in while you’re hot and sweaty from your hike up.

Mom is a quick learner and after about 2 campsites we have our division of labor down pat. I do the inventory paperwork and she counts damaged trees and roots. Then we both work on dismantling fire rings and picking up trash. She’s also on the lookout for interesting developments in the campsites that help me with the inventory matrix: nails in trees, constructed seats, or ditched-out tent pads. Generally, wilderness campsites need to be inventoried every five years to make sure that their impact level is in sync with the opportunity class designation for the area that they are situated in, but these sites need to be cleaned up every year. My first year working in the woods, I was a Wilderness Ranger in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington. I packed out more trash in three months than I could imagine. The area is close to Seattle and gets a ton of use. I packed out a rusty cast iron skillet that my dad cleaned up and still cooks with. My mom hasn’t had much experience with trashy camps and she is livid with anger at the carelessness of some people. She really cares about wilderness and can’t believe that people would treat it with so little regard. After a full day of inventorying and cleaning up sites she is telling everyone that we see to pack it in, pack it out. A group of teenagers on their way to Bass Lake to swim commiserate with her and promise that they never leave trash in the Wilderness; my mom is heartened to hear that these youth have a such a sense of responsibility.

On the third day, as we’re hiking out, my mom and I get a chance to chat and reflect. We realize that this trip has really brought me full circle in my hiking career. Not only did she come up here when she was pregnant with me, but this hike also helped my overcome my dislike of hiking when I was younger. I hated to hike. I liked being outside and camping, but I didn’t like hiking. It might have been a bit of rebellion since it was something both of my parents loved. I resisted for years and then for some silly reason, probably because it’s in my blood, I joined the high school hiking club. She reminds me that one of hikes that she chaperoned was to Bass Creek Falls in the early spring. We didn’t make it to the falls because of a treacherous high water crossing but that hike put my mind on a path that my genes were already on. My mom gave me an external-frame backpack and sleeping pad for high school graduation and we spent the whole summer before college backpacking.

I’m still learning how to travel and live in the woods from my mom. She is strong and confident and responsible. She can go anywhere and even after 3 knee surgeries and struggles with back pain she still hikes close to 100 miles a summer. Her adventurous spirit inspires me and her company helps me get through the mentally and physically grueling aspects of my job. I’m lucky to have her as my mother, but more importantly, I’m lucky to have her as my friend and number-one hiking buddy!

      — Rachel Kaufman, Lead Wilderness Steward

July 3-10: Wind Lakes Female Crew Hitch

This tour was the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation’s first ever all-female hitch. I joined crew leader Courtney Oyler and fellow interns Harper Kaufman and Emerald LaFortune in clearing 480 trees, inventorying 8 campsites, and removing and installing a sign. To top it all off, we caught a rare wildlife sighting!  

The before photograph and what we like to call Gomorrah.


Interns Harper Kaufman and Emerald LaFortune show their excitement after having cleared Gomorrah.


Probably the most exciting part of the hitch was seeing a wolverine. It was after lunch and we were walking back down the trail to do work. All of a sudden we saw a small animal dash across the trail and up a tree. At first, we thought it was a small bear cub, but we were confused when we saw its fluffy, long tail. After some speculation, we decided that it was most likely a badger. It wasn’t until we were back in Missoula that we discovered we had in fact seen a wolverine! I was able to get a photograph of the wolverine in the tree.


The all-female crew on the last day.

      — Sam Smith, Wilderness Ranger Intern


July 3-9: Glen Lakes & Big Creek Lakes

This hitch, Rachel and I spent some time at a few gorgeous alpine lakes doing campsite inventories. We spent the first two days on Glen Lake and then moved over to Big Creek Lakes for the rest of the hitch. Of all the trails I have been on in the Bitterroots this summer, Big Creek Lakes Trail is by far my favorite!  


Hiking up to the lake will definitely take a full day for most parties and I recommend taking it slow and enjoying the beautiful scenery. The trail reminds me of what you would see out in the Cascades: dense forest with lush green underbrush and many small creek crossings (with optional foot bridges). Like many trails in the Stevensville District of the Bitterroots, the trail closely parallels Big Creek for most of the hike, giving hikers views of some cool rapids and waterfalls!



The lake itself is one of the largest alpine lakes I’ve ever been to. It offers great camping options for both backpackers and stock users. If you’re planning to spend a few days up there I would recommend packing two things. The first is a fishing rod; I know Rachel was bummed that she didn’t have her rod as we watched hundreds of fish rise while we ate dinner on the lakeshore. The second thing to bring is your bathing suit! The lake is the perfect temperature for swimming and cooling off during the hot hours of the day. I spent many hours after work sitting on a rock slab half submerged in the lake, back up against a log, reading my book and watching the sun set on the peaks across the water. And if you’re a photographer, this is a great place to get some awesome sunrise pictures!



One thing to note about this lake is its popularity. If one of your goals is to be isolated, then staying on Big creek Lake may not be what you’re looking for. However, there are a number of other lakes that can be reached using the same trail. The South Fork Lake Trail branches off from the main trail approximately 7-8 miles from the trailhead. This is a good option — if you don’t mind climbing over a ton of downed trees. The other option is a lake above the southwest bank of Big Creek Lake. It’s unnamed and some maps won’t have the trail marked on them. The trail to this lake is hard to spot because the area has become overgrown; it’s hard to stay on trail because not that many people use it and there are a few downed trees to navigate around. Nonetheless, if you’re down for an adventure and are comfortable with orienteering I would definitely recommend a trip to this unnamed lake!



One last message for all you mountain adventurers: It’s thunderstorm season out here and storms move in quick and heavy in the mountains. So before you go out, make sure you know what the weather is doing — and be prepared for some afternoon thunder showers. Don’t let this discourage you from getting out there, though! My experiences out here so far this summer have shown that a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms means mostly sunny with storms that roll in around 2 or 3 p.m., last about an hour, then disappear into sun.



Be safe and have fun!!!

     — Rikk Dunn, Wilderness Ranger Intern