MAGRUDER RANGER STATION, Idaho - You smell the scene, don't you? It was a week or so ago, deep in these rain-soaked Bitterroot Mountains, but timeless as a morning campfire.

Breakfast was cooking as moms, dads and kids stood in a sporadic drizzle, hands shoved in sweatshirt pockets, cracking wise but mesmerized by the dancing flames.

A swollen Selway River roared past the wild hay meadow below. Mountains on all sides reached to infinity. Sweet pine smoke wafted in the same direction.

"I wonder," mused one teenager, "what roasted watermelon would look like."

It wasn't just another day in Cheryl Hughes' English class at Missoula Sentinel, and it was far from your standard get-the-school-year-over field trip.

Seventeen ninth-graders were here on a three-day "Selway Sojourn." Five years of dreaming and scheming were culminating for Hughes, here on the seam between two massive wildernesses, the Selway-Bitterroot to the north and the Frank Church-River of No Return to the south.

"It's like Yellowstone Park on one side and Glacier on the other, with the Magruder Corridor running between them," Dave Campbell, the Bitterroot National Forest's West Fork district ranger, noted when the Missoula party stopped by the station on the trip in.

Rain pounded on the roof of a ranger station supply room the first afternoon. Inside, students and adults sat in lawn and camp chairs and listened as Louis Adams drummed on a big hide drum and sang in a mysterious language.

"Whenever something good is going to happen, we sing the honor song," the Salish elder told them.

This Selway Sojourn was funded by a grant from the Missoula Education Foundation. The central idea, Hughes wrote in the application, was "to extend our study of literature beyond the classroom walls."

Her students began their year reading "The Surrounded" by D'Arcy McNickle, a 1930s-era treatment of the cultural conflicts on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Reminders of that world of torn loyalties, vanishing traditions and almost desperate ties to land and family came alive again as Adams spoke.

It was a poignant day for the Salish storyteller and Korean War veteran. Adams is 77. His father's great-grandfather was 80 when he died somewhere in this canyon in 1900. Francis Adams was buried at the top of the divide near the state line, and Louis has visited the grave many times.

Until this day, though, he'd never been down to the Selway.

Many landmarks here bear the names of the Nez Perce, but Adams maintained the Magruder was traditional Salish country. They came to these mountains to camp and hunt.

"This was our home," he said. "Through the centuries the honor song has bounced off these hillsides."

As he climbed into the truck that would take him back to his own car on the Montana side of Nez Perce Pass, Adams took a last look at the stunning surroundings.

"When I come to places where my ancestors have been, I feel them," he said. "I feel at home, because when I look at this meadow I know this was a campground, and I imagine there's more of these through this area. That's what it means to me. It's just like goin' home."

***

To pull this off, Hughes developed a network of collaborators. She got help at home from the Missoula school district and fellow educators - longtime Sentinel teacher Kristine Miller and counselor Mary Younger threw in with Owen and Flint.

They were joined by five crew leaders, ages 20 to 26, from the Montana Conservation Corps. The quintet led the class through team-building and service activities in the same corridor MCC's forefathers, the Civilian Conservation Corps, built road and bridges in the 1930s.

"To be honest with you, I think the bridge we went over at Magruder (Crossing) is one of the first physical items that I've been to that was made by the CCC," said supervisor Valerie Hingston.

"It's sort of just a pride for the organization, because for a lot of the people who are doing it currently and people of the past who have done it, it was something to give back to their communities and to the land - and make very little money doing so."

The Bitterroot National Forest and West Fork Ranger District jumped on board, providing the Magruder station for Sojourn headquarters.

"We think (the Magruder) is a great resource, and we like to see it shared," Campbell said. "People almost always come back from it with a greater appreciation of what a great place they're in."

The six freshmen and 11 girls in the entourage earned the trip by writing essays detailing why they should be included. They're not necessarily all straight A students, but the ones most willing to work to get here, said Younger, who'll be this class's counselor throughout their time at Sentinel.

"We wanted this to be a continuing project, where these kids adopt it and have it be their own for the next four years," she said.

***

After months of anticipation, they'd rolled out of Missoula and up the Bitterroot Valley through Darby, on up the West Fork and Nez Perce forks of the Bitterroot, between window-high snowbanks on Nez Perce Pass, then down into this river-lined wonderland, all on a yellow school bus.

A stop for lunch at a campground on the Montana side was hastened by a pelting rain. Adams had been set to give his talk there, at Fales Flat, in a cathedral of ponderosas that Joe Butsick, recreation ranger for the West Fork, said represents perhaps the most extensive evidence of culturally scarred trees anywhere.

"Our ancestors, the old ladies, peeled the big pine trees," Adams explained later. "They'd peel a big square piece off of it and take the cambium off that. They'd dry it, put it over a dry meat rack, just like they dried deer meat or elk or whatever. And when it got real dry, they'd pound it and make powder of it, because it was sweet."

For generations, cambium was a healthy, tasty and important supplement to the Salish diet.

***

By dinner, no one had dry feet and no one had melted.

"I was, like, omigod, it's going to ruin everything if it's snowing," Amanda Jaynes admitted at lunch on the next day. "We won't be able to do anything. We'll be stuck in a cold cabin the entire time.

"But they kept the (camp) fire going last night, even though it was raining really hard. I was like, yeah, maybe it won't be so bad after all."

The rain stopped and the sun peeked out the next morning, and spirits were buoyant.

"It still feels like I'm in a dream," Jaynes said. "Like this isn't real."

"In a lot of circumstances, you'd see kids whining and moaning about the rain and how they were jinxed," Hughes said proudly. "This didn't seem to deter anyone or dampen any spirits. It was just: It's the way it is, and we're going to have fun anyway."

There were journals to keep.

The time for the first entries came after dinner, during marshmallow roasting time. ("Whoever came up with the idea of s'mores was a genius," one student, Noelle Smith, pointed out from fireside.)

Hughes passed out the "ammunition" - new paperback copies of "Indian Creek Chronicles," one for each student. It was the second and, as usual, most popular book on the class reading list, she said.

"I read it in like third grade and then my uncle gave it to me and I read it four or five more times," Erik Mason said. "When I heard that we were reading it in freshman class I was pretty happy, and then when I heard we were coming up here, I was all over it."

Mason and his classmates were venturing into the same river canyon author Pete Fromm did more than 30 years ago. Almost on a whim, a 20-year-old Fromm took a winter off studies at the University of Montana to guard millions of salmon eggs in a hatching channel at Indian Creek, nine miles downstream.

Fromm lives in Missoula now, and met with Hughes' classes last fall after they'd read the memoir he published in 1993. The ties were too many to ignore, Keith Leathers said after he closed his journal for the night.

"I wrote about how interesting it is after reading the book and meeting him to come where he was. Before it just seemed like a book," Leathers said.

Fromm had wanted to join this Selway Sojourn, said Hughes. But as it turned out, he was on his way to New Mexico for the shooting of a movie made from his 2003 novel "As Cool As I Am."

"Claire Danes is starring in it, so you know it's a major movie," Hughes said.

After that Fromm was bound for a book fair in Paris, where "Indian Creek Chronicles" enjoys wide popularity.

"He's having a great time, but he told me to tell you kids his heart remains here, in the Selway," Hughes said.

Written in spare, self-effacing and often moving prose, "Indian Creek Chronicles" goes down easy.

Fromm's sole duty for seven months was to keep the lower end of the hatching channel free of ice, a task that took no more than 15 minutes a day.

"I thought it was real interesting how they would pay somebody to just basically camp during the winter, which would be very hard in the first place, and how they'd have somebody interested in even doing it," Leathers said.

***

On the second morning in, the Sentinel students spent a couple of hours on a project that hit close to home. Under the guidance of Hingston and her four-person MCC crew - Jacqueline Forsyth, Devin Kavanagh, Michael Lattanzio and Meriden Vitale - they snipped, sawed and hauled away brush from the abandoned salmon channel.

Built in the mid-1960s by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and by the Job Corps, it was one of four located along the Selway to help re-establish the spring chinook run after hydroelectric dams were built downstream.

Two million or more eyed eggs were planted each fall through 1981, and again in 1985, in gravel upstream from a concrete weir. The fry that emerged were swept into the weir, captured and distributed in the upper Selway by vehicle, stock and aircraft. Those that survived to the age of four or five returned upstream to their birthplace to spawn and die.

Two conservation corpsmen went to work sawing away a fallen tree over the earthen channel. The other three directed crews of teens manning clippers and Silky saws and tore into the red willows and overgrowth that surrounded and led down a creek bank to the hatchery.

"I'd love to come out and work in the wilderness," Erik Mason said during a break. "It's more peaceful and quiet, and you're not always worried about cellphones and iPods and computers. You're just out with what truly should be happening."

As the project wound down, Campbell drove up. The ranger was showing a district manager newly arrived from Florida around the forest. He walked down to the salmon channel to inspect the teenagers' progress, and his smile affirmed what everyone else was thinking: It was a job well done.

Her expectations were being met and perhaps exceeded, "and they were pretty high to begin with," Hughes said over a lunch of roasted hot dogs at the Indian Creek campground.

"I love the Magruder personally, and I'm really happy that my students and my colleagues love it as much," Hughes said. "I just think it's been an incredible adventure that none of these kids are ever going to forget. And that's really my goal as a teacher, to create memories about things that matter."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266

or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com. Photographer Tom Bauer can be reached at (406) 523-5270 or by email at tbauer@missoulian.com.

 

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