My nerves almost got the best of me. Trail work? What was I thinking, I’m not a tool using animal! Grizzly bears AND black bears? Should we buy bear spray? What if I spray myself by accident (very likely, given the previously stated fact that I am not a tool using animal)? How cold is it going to be? I just keep seeing snow and there was ice on the outside of our tent this morning… And what about the other people in our group? Will they like me, respect me, be patient with me, want to get to know me?
With all of these questions swarming in my brain, Jay and I drove from Hungry Horse Montana, 90 minutes down a dirt road, away from cell phone signal, to meet our crew leader at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station. The drive seemed to confirm my fears as we spotted a bear along the roadside. If it was this easy to encounter a bear on the drive in, the actual wilderness must be crawling with them! The drive also got me excited for the trip, with amazing vistas of the Flathead River and another wildlife spotting, this time of a mother deer and her baby fawn, so young it could barely steady its legs to climb off the roadside.
Just a few days later, I was singing “I whip my hair back and forth” (click on the link to see the music video if you’re unfamiliar with this song), to amuse and motivate my sawing partner, Heather, as we cleared trees from the Black Bear Creek Trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In other words, I was in my element and feeling more like myself than I had in weeks. The 8 mile backpack in to our camp was difficult and the first two days were rainy, cold, and cloudy. However, when the blue skies opened up and revealed the snow capped peaks all around us, it was a magical transformation. Oh, and we didn’t see any bears. Although I did have a super awesome dream the first night in which the bears looked like the ones in Country Bear Jamboree (see photo below) and our crew leader explained to me how they were a different species of bear… the Country species…
We spent two days using a cross cut saw, Oregon saw, and bow saw to clear trees and branches from the Black Bear Creek Trail. This was not our original assignment, but the unprecedented rains in Montana had created such high water levels that we were not able to ford the river to our project site near Black Bear Cabin. While not what we intended, the work we did was important, with several trees blocking every mile of trail and making this section impassable for some backpackers or horse riders. Since this trail is in federally designated wilderness, the work to clear it can only be done using hand tools and is usually handled by either a small staff of Forest Service employees or the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation volunteer crews.
Each day we would hike from our back country camp to the trail we were working on, carrying our tools. After spending several hours sawing and sawing and pushing trees off the mountainside, we would hike back the way we came, admiring the days work along the way. It was dirty and challenging work, but with an obvious sense of accomplishment that comes as a relief after working in a cubicle. With ZERO previous experience, I was able to learn how to operate all three saws, and came to appreciate the logic puzzle inherent in deciding where to cut and how.
Our trip was made possible by our courageous crew leader, Kelsey. This was Kelsey’s first trip of the season. She was coming back to the wilderness with her own set of apprehensions, having been in a potentially deadly sawing accident on the job last summer. She explained to us how she had been helping to relieve tension on the tree when it broke off and rolled over her down the mountain. It was a large tree. Large enough to break her pelvis, fracture several parts of her leg and require a helicopter evacuation. Amazingly, she remained conscious and was able to radio back to the ranger station for help. It was with a haunted look in her eyes that she sized up each tree before deciding where to make a cut and where to stand when it broke off. I recognized that look as one I have had several times since Jay’s accident in March. I trusted Kelsey to keep us safe and had a lot of respect for her in getting back to the job, bringing her experience with her to make us all more careful.
Working in the wilderness is a unique experience. Without modern amenities, you spend most of your “non-work” time doing chores – setting up camp, cooking, cleaning, filtering water, digging a trench to use as a latrine, filling the trench before you leave, building a fire, dousing and stirring the coals to prevent forest fires, etc. You spend a lot of time close to one another, sharing stories or just simply staring out at the clouds changing forms above the mountains. You talk to animals, yelling at the deer to bugger off or threatening the mosquitoes, or beckoning the birds. When we spotted a lone hiker crossing the creek on the 3rd day, we all got so excited. Almost shouting “wildlife!”, before realizing that wasn’t quite right. I can not really explain why you would want to hike away from other people and modern conveniences to spend a week doing hard labor for no pay. But if you have read this account and gotten curious about what it might be like, I promise, it is a special and amazing experience that you can not get any other way.