Jim Cyr, center, leads a hiking group including Naomi Evans, left, and Tom Castles to Copper Lake recently. Cyr has spent a lifetime hiking the Great Burn area along the Montana-Idaho border and learning its history.

SUPERIOR — Two weeks short of his 80th birthday, Jim Cyr still looks like the youngest guy in the hiking party.

“Somebody told me once, if you don’t let the grass grow under your feet, it won’t grow over your head,” Cyr said while checking his pulse on his wristwatch. His doctor recommended keeping his heartrate around 110 beats a minute, but he prefers staying below 120.

The restriction makes for a relaxed saunter up the 710-vertical-foot-rise along the 1.5-mile Copper Lake trail, which leaves Cyr plenty of time to recount bits of history and trivia along the way. With a lifetime spent rambling the mountains around Mineral County while building many of its highways, hiking with Cyr is like taking a two-footed historical society into the woods.

“Jim — he’s got that engineering in his blood,” said frequent hiking partner Tom Castles. “He’s got to document it, write it down. He’s got notebooks full of all this.”

Several times this summer, Cyr will select from among his bookshelves of notebooks the appropriate collections to illustrate trips with the Mineral County Hospital Hikers. That volunteer exercise group started last year with the dual intention of improving local physical fitness and rejuvenating local knowledge of the dozens of trails, lakes and wonders in the surrounding Great Burn landscape.

On a recent Thursday-morning trip, Cyr pulled out photos of old railroad trestles that once spanned the canyons where Interstate 90 trucks now rumble. He stopped the shuttle bus next to a shuttered building to point out where John Mullan established Cantonment Jordan to wait out the winter of 1859 while building the first military road between Washington and Montana.

“They thought this would be more protected from the weather,” Cyr said of the hollow in the hillside. “But they about starved to death. The temperatures were down to minus 20 and the snows got deep. The highway didn’t make it here until 1947.”

Cyr retired 30 years ago from the Montana Department of Transportation. He recalled his first days on the job working on the still-troublesome set of curves above the St. Regis River near mile marker 27. During right-of-way clearing near the Taft exit, he stumbled upon a hand-set stone oven rendered nearly invisible by moss and brush.

It was likely built by Chinese railroad workers to bake bread toward the end of the 19th century and coincidentally remained undamaged when a steam engine caboose derailed and scattered debris all over the hillside. Bits of bottles, an old stove and hunks of coal still surround the oven, but few other than Cyr can find it in the thick forest that’s grown up since.

Cyr’s family was woven into much of that forest. His grandfather came to Montana in 1873 and homesteaded in the Fish Creek drainage south of Alberton. The family came from the French-speaking Arcadian regions of Canada, part of the community that helped establish Frenchtown. Their property title was finalized in 1902, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

While he was working, Cyr typically saved two days a week to hike a trail. Routes usually went 10 or 15 miles, although he’d occasionally put together a 20-mile stretch and run it with his brother.

“My passion is the Stateline Trail,” Cyr said. “I love Bonanza Lake and Cascade Pass, going to Illinois Peak which is better from the Cascade side than from the Hoodoo Pass side. But it’s hard to pull yourself away from anyplace up here.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.