I Hear Voices of the Wilderness

If any of you are unfamiliar with the job prospects in Montana, it may come to shock that well, there really aren’t any. A good paying, full-time, year round, 9 to 5 job doesn’t exist. In the past six years since I moved to Montana, I’ve had two full-time gigs.

But that’s not why I moved here nor why I live here.

I work, when there’s work and scrape by the rest of the time. I’ve cobbled together more jobs than both my parents, combined. I’ve wrangled sail boats at a dude ranch, made espressos according to box store corporate recipe standards, taught at a therapeutic boarding school (full time job #1), waited tables (my mainstay), ran an outdoor education center in the remote North Fork region of Glacier National Park (full time job #2), babysat, waited tables (again, the mainstay), serve as tour representative for Red Ants Pants (co-pilot, pants fitter, blog writer, and beer drinker), managed a restaurant (moving up in the hospitality world!), worked as an environmental educator and visitor center guru on all things Montana, including answering the question: are the Tetons are visible from the summit of Big Mountain? No, they’re not (working for the government in classy high waisted green pants), and freelance writer (waiting for my big break!). But, all those jobs are highly seasonal, dependent on tourist seasons and budgets and publication costs.

So, I tend to have a bit of down time, which is wonderful in a lot of ways. I get to play outside, a lot. I also get roped into volunteering.

Volunteering isn’t a bad thing, and I like the term much better than community service. Community service makes people think you’re serving a sentence from a crime you’ve committed. And I’ve done community service for some little issues in college.

And this time I really like who and what I volunteer for.

The kind folks at the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation asked if I’d join their Board of Directors after I resigned from the Glacier Institute. The executive director, Paul, figured I had some time on my hands. He was right. And honestly, I’m honored to be part of their organization. The BMWF is a non-profit that puts together volunteer trail crew projects in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex for kids and adults. The Complex is affectionately called “the Bob” is the third largest Wilderness area in the continental United States.

And when I mean Wilderness, I mean designated by the United States Government to be a place that remains wild and free. There are no roads in the Bob. But the Bob is not just an open landscape, free of people. Actually, there’s several Forest Service work centers and cabins in the 1.5 million acres to manage the wilderness–but all the work they do, from clearing trails to gathering fire wood is done with any motors. It’s all human and horse power. No chain saws or ATV’s allowed. The crosscut saw and the Pulaski, tools of our grandparent’s past, are used daily in the Bob. The Bob’s remote, stunning and wild.

Unlike it’s neighbor to the north, Glacier National Park, the Bob needs a lot of help in restoring the trail system, historic cabins and phone lines, and helping stop the spread of noxious weeds. The Forest Service couldn’t keep up with the maintenance and in the late 1990s, a group of citizens who were intimately involved in the Bob wanted to form an organization that help preserve the Bob and granted public access to the wilderness. So the Foundation was formed, with the support of the Forest Service, and is now one of the leading volunteer trails organizations in the states.

Youth groups like the Boy Scouts and adult volunteers are taken into the Bob, led by a trail crew leader, and given a chance to connect with the Wilderness and give back to the Wilderness. I am a huge  proponent for getting people out into the woods. I love connecting kids to nature, showing them that their imaginations can be fully explored about the rocks along the river, hiding behind a Douglas Fir tree and in petals of a  lupine. My parents gave me the woods as my own world and I think it does kids and adults alike a lot of good to get outside and be in the forest.

I like the Foundation because it has a very simple mission of linking volunteers to the Bob. Let me tell you about the projects–they’re trips of a lifetime! Yes, you do have to work. And you have to work hard. Your days are spent rebuilding trails using your own strength and a saw, shovel or axe. But you’re in the middle of the Wilderness, underneath mountains, crossing fine trout streams, and camping underneath the Big Sky. And there’s a certain “coolness” factor associated with the BMWF’s trips. You’re a part of a legacy and a part of history. Some trips base out of a remote Forest Service cabin, right along the rocky banks of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River (it’s designated Wild and Scenic and contains several Class IV rapids) and your food, tools and camp supplies are packed in by a backcountry horseman and their pack string. Trails that were previously closed due to a wildfire and fallen dead trees are reopened with your own sweat. Imagine being a kid, sent away to a boarding school because you’ve screwed up one too many times and then your school takes you on a trip into the mountains and you spend a week with a crosscut saw, and when you return to the trailhead, you look behind you and say: “I did that. I helped open that trail.”

I’ve been apart of the organization for close to two years now and while my role as a Board member is a lot of fundraising, meetings, and strategic planning I also have a lot of fun with my fellow Board members. We drink beer at our meetings. We laugh a lot and we all go into the woods each summer and help with a project. Sometimes, ahem, I’ve been misled about a trip and ended up being the crew leader. Good work Paul.

Last July I was able to volunteer on one of most coveted and phenomenal trips the Foundation offers. It’s a week long trip that involves noxious weed eradication (code for: picking weeds), bases out of a cabin along the Middle Fork and ends with a whitewater kayak trip down the infamous and powerful Middle Fork. Guess what? You don’t pay for this trip. You don’t even pay for your food. The Foundation takes care of your meals–and we’re talking really good food, better food then what I’d backpack with. Meat is involved on these trips: bacon, pork chops, sausage. Backpacking with stock support is amazing. A trip like this, minus the work, would cost a lot. A lot more then I have.

Since my high ranking as a Board member, I was allowed (OK, I begged) to reserve a slot for a friend. I chose Cole, my wonderful (ugh, that’s how I describe him? There’s a lot more to him then just being wonderful but this is about the BMWF, not Cole) boyfriend. Cole’s a genius, a telemark skier, a mountaineer, a gourmet cook,and also can build six-foot tall book cases. But asking Cole to pick weeds for a week took a bit of convincing. So, to entice him into volunteering, I donned on my sexiest long underwear top (also the least stinkiest) and proclaimed our soon-to-be experienced exploits: there would be a cabin! backpacking in the mountains! fishing in the Middle Fork and Castle Lake! a 17 mile whitewater kayaking trip! All this could be his for pulling Toad flax. He mulled it over. I also said we could pack in alcohol and I think that’s what finally convinced him to join me.

We had a small crew: one crew leader Katie and another volunteer, George. Two women from the Flathead National Forest joined us for two days on our weeds assault. George just graduated from college and was on a road trip of the west. Our group made up one of the youngest adult volunteer groups, most of the BMWF’s volunteers are older, retired, and still high-thrill seeking folks. I’ve never laughed so much in the backcountry. We worked hard, pulled a lot of weeds around Castle Lake, and brushed sections of the trail but we also fought of the July heat (it our only week of true summer) by swimming in the lake, fly fishing during lunch–this lake is so well stocked that anyone, including myself, caught fish, and ended the day by reading books along the lull of the Middle Fork after a feast devoured at Granite Cabin.

We made inappropriate jokes while bent over the tiny yellow and white flowers, we invented games at night while dinner cooked on the propane stove, and sipped whiskey until the stars came out. The week hardly felt like work. Sure, our backs ached a bit after a full day on the trail, but we were also on an adventure. One day we returned to camp to find Katie’s tent completely destroyed by an animal…bear? deer? squirrel? Um, yes, it was probably a bear.

Led by a local whitewater guide company, our final day we loaded our gear onto a string of mules, waved goodbye to our hiking boots and strapped on life jackets and helmets. We’d hiked into Granite Cabin and now we’d be floating out of the Wilderness to the Bear Creek take out, marking the boundary between backcountry and frontcountry. The mules brought into the deflated kayaks and rafts. The river guides hiked into the cabin. I was the only volunteer in the group with whitewater paddling experience. While this section of the Middle Fork is known to be big water, at this time of the summer, the flows were a bit more manageable. The river guides would paddle the two rafts, flanking us volunteers in our inflatable kayaks, or Duckies.

Before each rapid we’d scout the section, follow the advice of the guides on how to best navigate the rocks, pillows, and pools. Cole isn’t much of a kayaker. He’s stood on top of a lot of mountains in Colorado and Montana but isn’t quite as familiar with whitewater. He was a bit nervous. I don’t blame him either. I was nervous too. Whitewater, while exhilarating, is dangerous. To float each rapid, one raft would go first to show the safest route. Then the guides would beach the raft and stand along the shore, safety throw-bags in hands, and guide the Duckies through the section.

While paying close attention to the guide’s advice, and mind you Cole is a very safe guy–I’m the risk taker in the relationship–it just ended up that he and his boat didn’t take the safest, least technically challenging route. I’d go first and have Cole follow and once I was through the rapids, I turn around to watch Cole making swift paddle strokes and heading for what me and the rest of the guides assumed was immediate danger. But no, Cole, the man who has zero whitewater experience, made it through the perilous section just fine and then apologized for not running the correct route. We all stood on the rocks amazed at his newly founded whitewater abilities.

Apology? The guides thought not and Cole received the Rookie of the River award and we all drank cold beers which the guides smartly left in a cooler in the car at the take out. After a week in the woods, and an all day paddle through big rapids like Lunch Box, a cold beer was the perfect end to our trip, Toad flax be damned.

Tomorrow, Friday November 5th is the BMWF’s annual fall fundraiser, Voices of the Wilderness. It’s an incredible silent auction event that helps to raise funds to keep those vital volunteers connecting with places in the Bob like the Chinese Wall. It also is the showcase for Montana artists and craftsmen and highlights the Artist*Wilderness*Connection program, an artist in residency program that places Montana artists and writers in Forest Service cabins for up to two weeks to work on their art. The program is sponsored by the Flathead National Forest, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, the Swan Ecosystem, and the Hockaday Museum of Art. Writers, painters, photographers and musicians have all participated in the program, essentially bringing a voice to the wilderness, but also finding repose in the wilderness’s voice.

If you’re in the Flathead Valley with no plans on a Friday night, you should come out to the event and see what Montana artists are creating with their hands, their camera lenses, and with their unique voices. And if you don’t know much about the BMWF (the Foundation is also nicknamed the Bob Marshall Women’s Foundation for the number of female staff: we have a female executive director and all of our crew leaders are women!) it’s a wonderful time to meet the Foundation, check out pictures from past projects and learn about the upcoming field season. Don’t worry, this isn’t a stuffy, high art event. Yes, there’s damn good art to take home and hang on your wall but we’ll all be in blue jeans and cowboy boots and drinking beer too.

Perhaps you too will hear Voices of the  Wilderness.

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