DUPUYER – Welcome to vacation time in the Bob Marshall Wilderness: Here’s your Pulaski.
Just getting to the edge of Rocky Mountain Front guarding the third-largest wilderness area in the continental United States requires miles of driving on rocky roads and through creek beds to find isolated trailheads. Those passing beyond the boundary must leave all motors and wheels behind. And yet, for two decades, thousands of people have hiked into this daunting territory to work – for free.
“I’ve been coming here for years, using the Bob,” Andrea Onken of Missoula said last week as she lopped a juniper branch away from a trail in a pouring rainstorm. “It’s nice to be able to give something back.”
The land complex including the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat wilderness areas includes about 1.5 million acres spread along 200 miles of the Continental Divide south of Glacier National Park. It receives a fraction of the 2 million annual visitors trooping through that better-known neighbor. But it has more than three times as many miles of trail – about 1,700 at last count. All of which must be maintained by hand, using primitive tools and the occasional mule.
“The Forest Service hires trail crews on mainline trails or for more specific restoration work like bridges or turnpikes,” Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation program director Margosia Jadkowski said. “We come in to help with secondary trails that might not normally see trail crews on them every year.”
BMWF started 20 years ago when some Forest Service retirees convened to provide extra help in a place they’d learned to love over their careers. Volunteer interest quickly grew beyond the Forest Service’s ability to organize, so the non-profit organization took on the role.
Today, BMWF sends about 300 volunteers a summer on 40 projects. Some car-camp on weekend stints renovating frontcountry campgrounds or trailheads. Others log 10 days in the deep backcountry, repairing eroded mountain passes or pulling weeds from valley meadows.
Boy and Girl Scout troops, religious groups, boarding schools and hiking clubs all request work assignments. Don and Colleen Scharfe, owners of Kalispell’s Rocky Mountain Outfitters store and longtime members of the foundation, put together annual groups of friends and acquaintances for a four-day effort that included Onken.
It also employed Phil Albert and Michael Sherman of Kalispell, Caryn Rouse and Renee Therriault of Missoula and Dexter Hale of Great Falls. Rebecca Kambic of Helena represented the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation and its to-do list.
“In a perfect world, none of us would be here,” Don Scharfe said. “We’re taking jobs away from young people. The Forest Service should be funded well enough to hire trail crews and maintain this.”
But given the imperfections of federal budgets, Scharfe was happy to be up at dawn, getting ready for a day of hard work around the flanks of Bennie Hill.
Breakfast arrived with a thunderclap as Rebecca Kambic pondered how to deploy her workers. Morning sun spilled over the rim of Old Man of the Hills Mountain to the east while storm clouds poured over Mount Patrick Gass from the west. A muscular wind probed the cooksite tarp like a boxer, jabbing from different directions in a search for weakness.
The tiny tent city in the shadow of Walling Reef offered no “glamping” amenities some backcountry visitors demand. No solar-powered showers. No selfie-worthy trout fishing. No campfire.
But the Rocky Mountain Ranger District does provide mules to deliver the foundation’s shiny red hardhats, bear-resistant boxes of food and a load of hand tools. The pack string made the first day’s 5-mile hike to the staging area quite a bit lighter for all involved.
Bennie Hill was a 7,681-foot mountainous landmark surrounded by little-known trails. Guidebook author Tom Kotynski reported it was named for a young boy who followed a ranger on a horseback ride through the area. Its accessible peak looks exactly like the target a tired horseman would aim an energetic kid at: Run up there and look for Bigfoot – be back before moonrise.
A 5-minute walk from the campsite arrived at the first trail junction and the first decision. Dupuyer Creek Trail 124 to the left looked brushy. The route to the right led to another junction of two trails – one of which might have been worked on last year, the other unknown. Where was the best use of time and muscle?
One factor was the limited supply of tools. The group had three loppers for cutting small branches, two bow saws for larger limbs and one two-handled cross-cut saw necessary for tree trunks. An assortment of Pulaskis – combination ax-hoe tools good for shaping trail tread – rounded out the inventory.
Half the crew picked up the smaller implements of destruction and got busy brushing the lower path. While the trail tread itself rarely gets wider than a foot, horse-packing standards ask for 4 feet to either side of the center. That’s wide enough for an adult to walk with arms outstretched and a hardhat in each hand.
The other half took the big crosscut and went in search of bigger problems. Clearing blow-down trees is a constant challenge in the Bob Marshall. Spotted Bear Ranger District trail workers reported trail conditions “unlike many of them had ever seen” this spring, according to Flathead National Forest spokeswoman Janette Turk.
“These kinds of projects are tailored to getting good work done and introducing folks to leave-no-trace camping,” Jadkowski said. “I just got a call from a woman who was a trail runner and liked to hike Fourteeners (Colorado’s collection of 14,000-foot peaks) but had never been backpacking. This is the best spot to learn all that stuff. We provide the planning, do the food shopping and bring the kitchen gear. They provide their own tent and sleeping bag.”
The fellowship comes standard. Despite a day that featured a new thunderstorm and sideways rain every 90 minutes, the Bennie Hill crew logged almost 8 miles of inspected, brushed, shaped and cleared trail before dinner. Sharfe said the next day’s challenge would be to penetrate at least 4 miles beyond base camp in search of more work.
“We’re lucky to have so much accessibility to wilderness,” Scharfe said. “Not many places have that.”