The Week I met Mark and Liz
It was early September when I came in after chores one evening and had a message on my answering machine from Tom Ide, a local outfitter that I have worked for from time to time. I thought, "Oh, no, he knows I don't want to do any guiding during hunting season." As hunting season in the backcountry was fast approaching, I was busy getting ready for my own hunt with my son-in-law and an old high school buddy. I hesitated to call him back, as I have a hard time turning people down when they are in need of something.
I did relent and call Tom back. He informed me that he had a packing contract with the United States Forest Service (USFS) that he couldn't fulfill because he was solidly booked for the hunting season during the end of September and October. I was immediately interested, if I could work around my scheduled hunts.
Tom went on to tell me a little of the job. There would be two people, and I would have to supply all riding and pack stock. The packing trip would consist of traveling from the west side of the Scapegoat Wilderness, across the wilderness and over the Continental Divide outside of the wilderness. I was seriously interested now. I thought, what a job and I get paid for it, too!!! After discussing a time frame and pay, I agreed I would take the job.
Tom gave me the phone number of the contact person, John Huston, to work out the details of the trip. During the first talk with John, I learned that the contract was with the Rocky Mountain Research Station of Fort Collins, Colorado, an arm of the USFS. I had never heard of them before, even though I had completed several contracts and worked for and with the USFS people for the last eight years. The Rocky Mountain Research Station conducts research throughout the Nation with emphasis on the Rocky Mountains, Great Basin, Great Plains, and the Southwest. They develop scientific information and technology to improve management, protection, and use of the forests and rangelands. Research is designed to meet the needs of National Forest managers, Federal and State agencies, public and private organizations, academic institutions, industry, and individuals.
John Huston came to my ranch, as he and I had to locate four plots on the map of the Scapegoat Wilderness and determine which trailheads and trails to use to make the best use of his crew's time. I was told we would travel one day, set camp, and they would do their work the next day. We would continue with this plan until all four plots were worked to the crew's satisfaction. We decided to start the trip on October 3, 2003, and it would last from 10 to 14 days.
The morning of October 3 at 6:30, Mark and Liz came to my ranch to start the trip. Our packing trip would be starting at the North Fork of the Blackfoot River Trailhead. Meeting at my place would enable us to all ride in my pickup and save the time of moving another pickup to our exit trailhead, Alice Creek, near Lincoln, MT. Mark, 41, and Liz, 31, both single, carried all of their gear and food into my shop so I could manty it with my gear for loading at the trailhead.
I had worked for the Rich Ranch of Seeley Lake, MT for six years, with Jack Rich teaching me the job of a packer on wilderness trips. He had been working in the Bob Marshall Wilderness for 40 years and was an excellent teacher and role model for me.
After packing for as many as 15 people on pack trips for the Rich Ranch, this three-person trip seemed like a piece of cake. However, Mark and Liz did have several pieces of electronic gear that needed proper care and protection when packed on the mules. I carefully mantied all their gear and after loading all the manties and panniers in the gooseneck of the stock trailer, we headed for the trailhead.
Even though a pack trip during the fall is a little more difficult than summer trips because water and feed for the animals are in short supply in some areas, the first four days of the trip were easy. As I had been in the western half of the Scapegoat many times, I knew the trails and have used several of the campsites during the last eight years. The first two plots were close to the campsites and the trip was going like clock-work.
After Mark and Liz completed their evaluation of plot two, we headed for the east side of the Scapegoat and the Helena National Forest, leaving the Flathead National Forest behind. This was new ground for all of us. In 1988 many acres of the Scapegoat Wilderness were burned by the Canyon Creek Fire that consumed 180,000 total acres. The trails were good and the views were spectacular. The third plot was easy to locate, but a good camping spot was a little difficult to find. We didn't want to camp under a bunch of dead snags that may tumble over at any time. After checking maps and aerial photos that the USFS had provided for Mark and Liz, we located a small area that had good grass and trees that had been spared the '88 blaze that had burned almost every other tree in the valley.
Finishing the third plot went quickly for Mark and Liz. Most of the dead trees were toppled over and the ground was covered with hundreds of three-foot tall lodgepole pine. One of their tasks at each plot is to core sample and measure the diameter of the trees, but because these trees were too small for that, Mark and Liz only had to count the trees and take pictures in four directions from the center of the plot.
On day six we headed towards plot four. It would be a long ride of almost 20 miles up and over the continental divide at 7200 feet, if we made it all the way. Liz was very tentative and quite nervous around the horses when we started our trip. She was very rigid in the saddle. I decided that she needed to walk at least five minutes every hour and even do some exercises while riding. When I told her of the exercises, Liz said, "What if the horse stumbles while I have one foot out of the stirrup?" She was afraid of falling off. I convinced her to relax a bit, try the exercises, and by the end of the trip her riding greatly improved.
As we headed up the hill, the trail was not maintained nor very well defined. We were cutting way too many dead trees out of the trail so we could pass through. This activity slowed our progress considerably to the point that we may not make it all the way over the divide to the feed the animals needed and water that we all had to have before dark. I thought maybe we had gotten on the wrong trail. I asked Mark if he could pinpoint our position with his GPS. He said that was easy. So we tied up the animals up, got out all of the maps to figure if we were on the correct trail. After checking the GPS, they concluded that we were indeed on the correct trail, even though it had not been maintained or used very much for several years. I said, "Let's give her hell then!" We had two and one half miles to the top of the continental divide.
At that point of the trip Mark and Liz showed me what they were made of and how dedicated they were to their job! Mark said he could walk in front and clear trail if I put his horse behind the mules. Liz also decided that she could do the same. Liz took off and headed up the trail 100 yards in front of Mark and me. Mark stayed right in front of me to clear anything I could not go around with the string. With Liz on the trail up ahead, Mark and I snaked our way up a small creek bed, all the while keeping sight of Liz so we knew which way the trail was headed, as the trail was impossible to follow with the mule string.
We traveled over a mile this way with better progress than we had previously been making. About a mile from the top of the pass, the hillside cleared of trees and the trail was clear sailing from there on. We reached the continental divide at four o'clock. The wind was blowing so hard it would blow a person over if you relaxed, but in spite of the wind, we had quite a celebration right on top of the Continental Divide. We took pictures of each other and the string, with the lead horse on the Atlantic Ocean side of the divide and the last animals on the Pacific Ocean side. There were fantastic views in all directions, with the flat, brown, dry looking plains to the east and beautiful deep green mountains to the west, north and south. Sitting there on what seemed to be the top of the world was an experience that none of us will ever forget.
We descended the pass to the 6,000-foot level where we found a beautifully clear spring and good grass for the stock. While setting camp, Liz's tent blew away after she had staked it down. It was ripped beyond repair by the time she caught up to it. Remember, I said that the wind was blowing!! Liz ended up sleeping under a small rain fly that she had packed. We awoke on day seven to continuing strong winds, but we were happy and lucky that there had been no rain on the trip.
Mark and Liz rose early and headed up the hill 1,300 vertical feet to plot four. This plot only had two small, live, growing trees on it. They were back at camp by 12:30 for a good lunch before we started the twelve-mile trip back over the divide. At 8,600 feet there were many more spectacular views to behold and more picture taking as we were looking down on the pass that we had just come over the day before. We traveled the divide for over three miles before heading down to my pickup at Alice Creek Trailhead.
Living and traveling with Mark and Liz and watching them work, especially on the trail over the divide, I made a very easy assessment that there are still some very good United States Government employees that are dedicated to getting their job done no matter what the conditions.