Three Forest Service engineers, an accountant and a forester took a hike through the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 1975.
“It rained every night except the first one,” one of the engineers, Darrell McNenny of Missoula, remembered Thursday.
“We had a ritual every morning," said Dick Haines, another engineer and the other one of the five who ended up in Missoula. "Get up, light a big fire and dry out the sleeping bags. You’d stand around with steam coming out of the end of them.”
The sights and smells of a backpacking trip among Forest Service friends 42 Julys ago brought four of the five trekkers back together for a day and a half this week at the Haines home in Miller Creek.
Jim Abernathy traveled from Federal Way, Washington. John Morrison, the Forest Service accountant, came from Lakewood, Colorado. McNenny drove up from 39th Street.
Only Bob Wynecoop, the forester among the five, was missing. At 81, he’s battling Parkinson’s disease in a senior care facility in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
The men in Missoula signed each other’s copies of a hard-backed photo book from the 1975 trip. Haines’ son, Bob, just put it together from his dad’s pile of old slides. They ribbed and reminisced as old friends do. And they prayed.
“When (Haines) prayed for us the other night, he said, ‘I’ll never see some of you again,’” Abernathy related. “So it’s good that we’re together.”
Haines, a former state legislator who finished the second of two terms on the Missoula City Council in 2013, has prostate cancer.
He’s had it for six years, but the disease has advanced into the lymph nodes, his wife Bunny said. Haines underwent chemotherapy last year and had 10 radiation treatments in November, but the cancer, he said, is "very aggressive."
"It's not a curable disease,"said Haines, who has been under home hospice care since March.
“There’s some emotion attached to all of this,” McNenny allowed. “Can’t help it.”
So they traveled back to 1975.
U.S. and Soviet spacecraft were docking in space on the Apollo program’s last mission. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band were finishing off the classic “Born to Run” album.
In Montana, Haines’ parents dropped off the five men and their gear at a trailhead on a fork of the Teton River out of Choteau.
Over Headquarters Creek Pass on the first day. Through Gates Park, where the big fire of ’88 would roar. Big Prairie and the South Fork of the Flathead, and over and out at Holland Lake. Six days and five nights of pristine, wet wilderness.
"We went when we went because we wanted to go at a dry time of the year," McNenny said.
The only night it didn't rain buckets, the men were too tired to set up tents. They woke up soaked by a heavy dew, and McNenny fought a sneezing cold the rest of the trip.
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They love to bandy about the distance: 96 miles? Or was it 98?
“It was a 100-mile trip any way you look at it,” Abernathy said with finality.
They dined on big, beautiful cutthroat from the White River, wrapped in tinfoil and roasted over the fire. There were no grizzly encounters, but lots of signs the second night in at My Lake. Abernathy reminded his friends of a rare wolverine sighting, something none of them had experienced before or has since.
“Mosquitoes were not bad anywhere on the trip,” McNenny said, “but along (Holland) Lake they just ate us alive. We were tired and we were beat, and we just wanted to run and get away from that pile of swarming mosquitoes.”
The coup d ’grace: The truck that awaited them at Owl Creek and, specifically, a cooler that sat within.
“God, that beer was good,” Abernathy sighed.
It was half a lifetime ago for the four men who sat around a table at the Haines home. They range in age from 75 (Morrison and Abernathy) to 81 (Haines). Each was well into his Forest Service career in 1975.
Their collective friendship is rooted in the North Fork Ranger District at Orofino, Idaho, where Wynecoop, Haines, Abernathy and Morrison arrived in 1968. McNenny had been there for a couple of years. Only Abernathy was still in Orofino by the summer of their hike through the Bob, but the men had forged a lifetime friendship via backpacking, hunting and fishing expeditions.
“We decided to make a hike across the Bob Marshall Wilderness on our own time,” Haines said.
They were in their mid- to late 30s and all five were married. They still are — to the same wives — and each couple's 50th wedding anniversary is in the distant rearview mirror.
The five men went separate ways in their Forest Service careers but met, intact or in twos or threes, to hunt elk, fish or hike together. Morrison and McNenny, who’s 79, are still active backpackers. The wives are fast friends, and they were in Missoula this week as well.
The Bloomsday Run in Spokane became a common meeting ground each May and continued so until a dozen years ago.
“I finally decided I couldn’t run any more and ended up walking the last two,” Haines said.
The last time all five men were together was at Abernathy’s retirement from the Forest Service in December 2004 in Beaverton, Oregon.
“It’s been a while, but we’ve seen each other independently since then,” Abernathy said.
And now the meeting in Missoula, one spiced by laughter and a tinge of sadness.
Haines uses a walker but remains vibrant and opinionated. The cancer prognosis is uncertain, but it’s not good.
“You finally have to back off and say everybody’s got a time. Your time comes and that’s it,” he said Thursday.
“Thank God I got to do things like this hike. We’ve hunted together, we’ve been all over the country together. Someday, if you want to hear real stories, ask about our elk hunting stories.”