Seventeen miles deep into the Rattlesnake Wilderness, Daniel Droughton found himself unexpectedly alone.

It was the last weekend of archery hunting season, the middle of early rifle elk season, and here were more than a dozen semi-secret campsites with nobody in them. Most of the stone campfire rings had no new charcoal since the U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger was here a week ago.

That might seem normal from a look at the map. Rattlesnake Creek curls through almost 33,000 acres of steep mountain valleys just north of Missoula. A dirt road penetrates 14.5 miles up the “Cherry Stem” corridor, but only Droughton and a tiny handful of others may drive it. Bicyclists can pedal to the end. Those who do better have wrists and butts of steel.

But many Missoulians consider the Rattlesnake their backdoor playground – it is, after all, the nation’s only wilderness area with a city bus stop. It holds 25 lakes, give or take a few ponds. Casual walkers and marathon trainers enjoy miles of trail. And the 454-member-strong North Hills-Evaro elk herd hangs out there all summer before moseying down to its mostly private winter range around Grant Creek.

It’s those elk that keep fall busy in the deep backcountry of the Rattlesnake Wilderness. Since 2006, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has encouraged hunters to seek out the North Hills-Evaro herd with special permits and extended seasons.

Because hunters don’t have access to much of the private land where the elk spend their winters, the herd has grown too big for its territory. Almost a quarter of its members have quit migrating between summer and winter ranges altogether. And hanging around lawns and pastures has developed dangerous complacency among both people and wildlife.

“The word of mouth is out there: If you want an amazing rugged hunt and want to put some meat in the freezer, it’s a great tag to put in for,” FWP biologist Vickie Edwards said of the early season Rattlesnake rifle hunt. “We see people biking up the main stem, pulling trailers. And you can get in cellphone coverage on the ridgelines, so you can have friends ready and waiting if you get something.”

But the area is also a federally protected wilderness, designated for its qualities of isolation, solitude and natural beauty. Using hunters to manage an unnaturally large herd of wildlife in such a sensitive place requires a lot of balancing. That’s where wilderness rangers like Droughton come in.

“There’s 36 sites in the recreation area that we know of,” Droughton said during a patrol tour of the upper Rattlesnake last week. “On a given weekend, I’ve found three groups camping in this one area. We know one group of guys who grew up in Missoula together and come up here every fall to spend eight or 10 days.”

The result has been a scavenger hunt of hunter hidey-holes up and down the Cherry Stem. A few are right by the road, in rare meadows that could be overgrazed by horses in a day or two. The rest lie in the timber, marked by odd tree formations, rock cairns or other arcane landmarks.

Droughton has most of them recorded in a notebook that compiles ranger observations back to 1992. He also has many logged on a handheld GPS locator, under names like “Coors Extra Gold.” That one refers to a camp where hunters left behind four pull-tab cans of beer last made in the late 1980s. Despite all the years of freeze and thaw, the cans hadn’t burst.

***

Most other belongings left in the wilderness don’t fare so well. Droughton’s supervisor, Al Hilshey, once found a camp with several camouflage buckets hidden in the fringe of the meadow. In addition to beer, tarps and freeze-dried food, Hilshey said he recovered a fair amount of expensive rifle ammunition.

“A bear had shredded the plastic into confetti,” Hilshey said. “Some people think if the food is packaged, a bear can’t smell it. They’re wrong.”

So in addition to checking camps, Droughton and Hilshey spent a big chunk of a recent Friday upgrading food storage poles at some of the more regularly used campsites. They started at Poe Meadow, a former homestead along the creek just three miles from the main parking lot trailhead.

The poles are 8-inch-thick logs, suspended some 15 feet above the ground between two trees. Hikers are required to hang their food in the backcountry to keep it away from bears and other scavengers. While power tools and wheelbarrows are forbidden in the wilderness, Droughton and Hilshey can use their modern conveniences in the recreation area (including the Cherry Stem).

They also rake through campfire rings, looking for unburned aluminum foil and other debris. They scrape out an average 20 pounds of charcoal, ash and trash, leaving the fire pit looking untouched. At the Poe Meadow food pole, they throw pine needles around their work to erase their presence.

“Even though the Rattlesnake is five miles from downtown Missoula, you feel like you’re in a special place,” Hilshey said. “It doesn’t look like somebody comes here every weekend.”

“Sometimes I think we’re kind of glorified wilderness janitors,” Droughton joked.

The janitorial tasks go beyond firepits. Where hunting camps spend multiple days, tents can leave drainage trenches outlining their location. Improperly tied horses can grind the bark off of trees. The creek bottoms don’t hold enough forage for horses, so riders must pack in hay. If the hay isn’t weed-free, suddenly the backcountry has patches of knapweed and common tansy sprouting.

As a wilderness ranger, Droughton spends about 100 days a year camping in the Rattlesnake. Each season brings its own cast of characters. Summer attracts mountain bikers to the area’s southern recreation area, where nonmotorized wheeled traffic is allowed. Many joggers morph into cross-country skiers come winter.

While the creekside trail gets the most use, many more come in via the higher Stuart Peak trail or the even higher approach off of Snowbowl ski area (especially in winter). In muddy spring, Droughton and other Forest Service trail crew maintenance teams often have the place to themselves.

***

For bikers Evan Holmstrom and Patrick Colleran, the eight-mile ride to Franklin Bridge was more than enough of a training challenge. The ride took both men about an hour on thick-wheeled cross-training bikes.

“This is really a picturesque place to stop,” Holmstrom said as he munched an energy bar on the concrete bridge. “I’ve been here several times.”

Yet as hard as it is to get there, the real Rattlesnake Wilderness wonders lie still farther north. The old road switchbacks through a long scree field, and the vegetation rapidly changes. Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir get replaced by mountain larch and subalpine fir trees. The mountainsides loom 1,000, even 2,000 feet above the bottom of the drainage.

A seasonal Forest Service employee, Droughton landed in Missoula after a solo roadtrip scouting colleges when he was 17. The Ohio native earned a degree in resource conservation and wilderness studies from the University of Montana, and spent a year as a Forest Service trail crew worker before landing his first wilderness ranger posting two years ago.

On a patrol up the Porcupine Creek trail between Rattlesnake Creek and Boulder Lake, Droughton and Hilshey checked out a campsite some 10 minutes off the main route. A spiderweb of paths led to, through and around the site. The wilderness rangers must divine which are actual game trails and which are “social trails” cut and maintained by human visitors.

Each part of the Rattlesnake has a standard, known as the Limits of Acceptable Change. At the Porcupine site, it looks like people have created routes approaching from both the creek and the lake, as well as tried several different ways to get to a water spring. The rangers dismantle a stone fire ring that hasn’t seen use in at least a year.

Back on the main Porcupine trail, Hilshey points out where some volunteer has sawn away a fallen tree. Although the trail width standard in that part of the wilderness is just 18 inches, the downed tree actually needs to be trimmed even farther back so horses can pass safely. Hilshey makes a note for future trail maintenance.

“We know that elk herd needs to be managed,” Hilshey said. “But we don’t want to pursue one goal and wind up compromising another.”

When the special permit hunt first got going in 2006, lots of people with little experience in the Rattlesnake came to try their luck. FWP’s Edwards said she fielded a lot of questions about what kinds of activity was allowed back there. Could one bring horse-drawn wagons? Game carts?

“We survey all the people who get permits back there, and we have a really good return rate – better than 60 percent,” Edwards said. “So I get a very good idea as to what’s harvested, and the general experience from folks. Some rate it very low, saying it’s really tough to get into the backcountry and hard to get out. It’s physically challenging. On the other end, some say it’s the most amazing hunt they’ve ever done.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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