This is wild and dangerous country. Montana and Idaho collectively hold the largest swaths of public lands in the lower 48, from the 2.2 million acres of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness over to the 1.5 million acres of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Even the most trafficked parts of these Wildernesses and their respective National Forests are not always accurately mapped, requiring recreationists and trail workers alike to have a strong sense of direction and flexibility with navigation. My crew this season is known as the Western Wildlands’ Roving crew. This means our range of travel is enormous and the places we visit are far-flung and always new to us.
This past hitch found us driving five hours from Missoula to the Red River Ranger Station followed by another drive of three and a half hours along remote Forest Service roads. Finally, we made it to our first camp at the Elk Mountain Trailhead, which ended up being our only camp for the entire hitch. But we had all the luxuries and amenities of a front country campsite; our respective tents, a Kelty tarp for shade and protection from the rain, a handwash station, a dishwashing station, water filtration systems, a table, camp chairs, our Ford F-250 for food and tool storage, and a little mountain stream for rinsing our faces and feet. But our biggest luxury here, the biggest game changer of all, was an outhouse, graciously built by the Backcountry Horsemen of Idaho.
On the fourth day of hitch, we woke up to a layer of frost on everything. Keep in mind this is mid-August and most of us are either from the South or flatlands where elevation plays no role in the weather. But at 6500 feet in the eastern Nez-Perce National Forest mid-August has no bearing on what the weather means. It will drop to the low 40's at night and rocket up to the mid 90's during the heat of the day. Throw in the fact that our objective out here is to brush out a trail deep in the canyon, we are hiking up to five miles a day with over 1500 feet of elevation change.
Down in the canyon, the brush is so thick that you cannot see the trail. The spruce and cedar hold in every bit of humidity and the chaps, long sleeves, and hard hats we wear while chainsawing soak through with sweat. Despite the struggle of it all, this canyon held an invaluable respite: huckleberry patches as far as one could see, bright red perfectly ripe thimbleberries, and even a meadow filled with wild strawberries and fresh mint. Needless to say, the trail quickly took on a new name amongst the crew- Candy Land Canyon.
Being in such a remote place at the peak of fire season means that the Forest Service radio we have been provided is always on and we are constantly listening for any new reports of fire starts. After thunderstorms rolled in on the fourth night, the radio was abuzz with new fire reports and the logistics of countless different firefighting resources being deployed. It was hard to keep up with all the new fires, stopping every ten minutes on the hike into work to write down the coordinates that were being called in to dispatch. The next priority was to get out the map and our Garmin Inreach device, plot the coordinates, and measure on the paper map how far each new fire report was from our canyon.
As we hiked further into the canyon, making progress brushing out the trail and dropping further and further in elevation the voices on the radio sounded more distant, more staticky. By the start of work on day five no traffic could reach us on the radio and the towering spruce and cedar blocked any chance of getting out a satellite message. It really was just us out here, dependent upon our own judgment and awareness to stay safe in the face of a potential fire starting right there in the canyon with us.
Not only that, but while deep in this canyon, there is no hope of a helicopter coming in even for a short-haul, and no way of communicating an emergency without hiking a mile uphill. And, we are running chainsaws for at least six hours a day. But that is just a normal day out here! We assess the risk, we mitigate it through the application of policies and procedures, and we know that we have to look out for one another. Of course, it is dangerous work but we are given the proper resources to manage the danger. We are given the proper training to determine when a risk is not worth the consequences. And each of us knows when it is time to put down the saw, take a rest, and appreciate why we do this work.
For all of us, this means taking the time to pick huckleberries and stuff our faces with an endless bounty. On a deeper level, the reasons behind doing what we do are different for everyone and are often a topic of conversation. Being an all-male crew, the focus often falls on the strength we gain through pushing ourselves to accomplish such hard work for nine days at a time. Or, the power that we gain from learning new skills and building muscles. But as the conversation typically drifts in other directions we encourage one another to appreciate our public lands, to recognize that these amazing places are ours, that without joining this program we would likely never visit these places and we may never return to them. Then there is always talk of where this work will lead us, and how doing a season at Montana Conservation Corps sets us up for so much more. Sure there is always more trail work, with other nonprofits or with the forest service but the most important part of this program is that we grow as people, and develop skills applicable to any situation.