Thursday, July 25, 2013 Connective Dislocations is a three part series by Discover Outdoors guide Marc Leone as he heads to the wilderness of Montana.
Returning to New York City after being in the wildness is always strange.
Earlier this week I found myself inching out onto 3rd Avenue to get a view of the oncoming traffic, just to the point where I have a good look but don't get slammed by cars. Waiting for an opportunity to cross faster, I couldn't help but think of my surroundings a week before. There, I was inching out into a rushing river just above a massive waterfall, just to the point where I was refreshed by the cold water but not washed away downstream. That was Crazy Creek in the Beartooth Wilderness of Wyoming, a creek with primal torrents that put a New York City street's intensity to shame.
My friend Steve and I arrived at Bozeman not sure what to expect. Our only guidance was in the form of an email that we had received which said, ÒThere will be a guy named Sieger coming to pick you 2 up around 1100 tomorrow. He will be looking for you around the bear statue."
If you don't know me, let me just say that I love stuff like this. A guy named Sieger? The Bear Statue? Awesome, I'm pumped.
We also knew that we would be staying in a cabin near Cooke City and would be doing trail maintenance for a week. We had signed up for a volunteer vacation and I thought that we would be spending the majority of our time with other members of that group. Once we found Sieger, we found out that we would instead be an attachment to the Forest Service rangers in the area. This being our first trip like this, we still didn't have a great idea of the kind of work that we would be doing.
After a scenic drive through Northern Yellowstone with a short layover in Gardiner, Montana, we arrived to the Forest Service's station outside of Cooke City. Elevation is 7,651 feet in this area, and having lived at sea level my entire life I was already feeling the effects. A funny thing about Cooke City is that it's pretty hard to communicate without a radio. Internet service is rare, cell phones don't exist, and Instagram is straight up science fiction.
We met the rest of the American Hiking Society volunteers, including our crew leader Jess Prekel. We also met our hosts from the Forest Service. They were a group of soft-spoken Rangers and Trail workers, with Wilderness Trails and Wildlife Technician Jeremy Zimmer at the helm.
We had a modest dinner at the Forest Service station, and then unpacked in our adjacent cabin. It gets dark late in the mountains, and I was busting with excitement like a kid on the first day of summer vacation. Getting to bed early was out of the question, so Steve and I decided to take a walk around.
It quickly became clear that we weren't in the comfort of Harriman State park in New York anymore. Cooke City is notorious for grizzly bear activity. As we walked through the forest we came across piles of scat bigger than anything the east can offer. Not only gross, but also terrifying. Then we came across some massive claw marks in a couple pine trees. Steve and I looked at each other, and in the eerie silence and fading sunlight realized that there were monsters in these woods that would be very willing to eating us. Steve pointed out that it's a whole new dynamic to hiking.
On the way back to the cabin we came across another first in the form of a gigantic American Bison grazing. Our crew leader Jess had told us a story earlier that day about how she was lurking around the buffalo in Yellowstone and had been approached by a ranger who said,ÒWhat're you doin', girl! Tryin' to get rutted?" which is roughly translated as,ÒThat buffalo will absolutely kill you!"
The buffalo was massive, it looked like it could total a taxi cab with little effort. We inched closer and closer to it so we could get cool selfies like a couple of city slickers. We returned to the cabin after we had our fill, and the buffalo followed us up the path and grazed around the cabin for a while. It was a little wild to think that just a day before I was in Newark, New Jersey where the closest thing to a buffalo is a garbage truck.
We woke up the next morning for our orientation with the Forest Service. Here it was explained that we would be doing most of our work in the Beartooth Wilderness of Montana and Wyoming. Congress had designated 9.1 million acres of Federal land asÒwilderness" with the Wilderness Act in 1964. The legislature provides the following definition:
ÒA wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
So what did this mean for us? Well, first of all it means nothing motorized or mechanized is allowed. This includes wheelbarrows. It also means no chain saws. Instead, we were going to use 5 _ to 6 foot cross cut saws and two bit axes to clear trees. Awesome.
These cross cut saws were incredible. Since they don't make steel like they used to, most of the saws are 60 to 100 years old and sharpened each year by a specialist. Two bit axes are also very cool, I always knew them as battle axes but I came to Montana to learn. After some time going over tool safety, we moved on to bear safety.
This part really humbled us. Everyone comes to Montana with the hopes of seeing a grizzly bear, but after the hearing horror stories and observing all the precautions taken, you can't help but feel a little squeamish. We all had our bear mace canisters, but I was also happy that we'd be hiking with medieval weaponry.
Jeremy Zimmer, our host with the Forest Service and certified badass, finally explained the goals of the week. The third most important thing was to get work done. Number two was to have fun, but the most important goal was toÒnot die". Good goals, but I have to admit that I had different goals when our trip was approaching. Third most important thing for me was to kill a charging buffalo with an axe while saving a baby, then use every part of the buffalo to survive for the week. Second most important thing was to befriend a bear cub that would grow up to be my loyal companion. The number one goal was to get a buffalo leather belt, probably from the carcass of the buffalo from goal three. After our 3 _ hour orientation outlining all the ways that we could die, I quickly adopted Jeremy's goals.
Jeremy and the other rangers also made it clear that they were shorthanded and low on resources, relative to the amount of land in their territory. That means that we were in for a week of old fashioned hard work. It was also explained to us that Cooke City is known for being primarily anti-government, so don't tell too many people that you're working for the government. Bears, unpredictable weather, sharp objects, and disgruntled locals. With my altitude headache pounding and a newly humbled attitude regarding the wilderness around me, we set off for our first day of work. Marc Leone lives in New York City. When he's not guiding for Discover Outdoors or working as a community organizer at Meetup he likes to rock climb and socialize on rooftops.