Thursday, August 1, 2013 Connective Dislocations is a three part series by Discover Outdoors guide Marc Leone as he heads to the wilderness of Montana.
Our first day of work in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness started with two choices. The first choice was an eight mile stretch of trail at an altitude of about 7,000 feet. The other choice was a six mile trek closer to 9,000 feet. Included in either choice was clearing trees with six foot cross cut saws and digging out water bars.
My head was pounding as I was adjusting to the higher-than-normal altitude and listening to the choices for the day. While I was fighting the somewhat irrational fear of getting altitude sickness at 9,000 feet, I was also thinking that I had better test myself early. When the highest peak that you find yourself submitting on a weekly basis is around 4,000 feet, 9,000 feet can be a little intimidating and you start to second guess your endurance.
My friend Steve, our crew leader Jess, and I decided to opt in for the higher altitude hike. We were paired up with Wilderness Trails and Wildlife Technician Jeremy Zimmer, the boss man at the Forest Service station. We would be going to Sheep Creek Basin, north east of the 200 person town called Cooke City. We jumped into Jeremy's truck with a cross cut saw, a Pulaski, and a
two bit axe.
After a bumpy ride up to the trailhead with outrageous views of the mountains, I realized that trails in Montana are a little different from the ones that I'm used to. First of all, there are no blazes. Secondly, there are a countless amount ofÒsocial trails" branching off the main trails that don't appear on the maps. This means that your map and orienteering skills had better be fine tuned, because another huge difference is degree of severity associated getting lost. There are grizzly's in the Beartooth Wilderness. There is also... wilderness, and not a whole lot of people to bail you out. Luckily we were with local super hero Jeremy Zimmer, so getting lost was out of the question.
The trails are also pristine. The Leave No Trace standards are high here. So high that people in the area request that the Forest Service rub dirt on saw cuts to make them look more natural. Even bear proof boxes have been argued against in the wilderness for Leave No Trace reasons. However, we did come across a few large pieces of old mining equipment that had been too heavy to drag out of the forest. With tangled overgrowth around the rusted metal even the machines looked natural.
As we hiked up the trail, we started to encounter our first trees of the trip. This was still a kind of tool orientation for us, and we swung axes around like children while Jeremy played the coach. We got our first taste of the cross cut saw and realized what an effective tool is really was. These nearly ancient steel instruments have razor sharp teeth that rip right through wood like a New Yorker tears through a slice of pizza.
We also observed the difference between cutting though living, green trees and dead ones. The dead ones are a lot tougher to get through, and there were plenty of dead blowdowns in this area. Jeremy explained that there was a huge wildfire in the late summer of 1988. Nearly 800,000 acres of Yellowstone National Park were affected by the fires, and led to the closing of the park for the first time in history. The adjacent Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness was also heavily affected, as was made apparent by the vast hills of charred tree trunks that stood like totem poles commemorating the conflagration. A large portion of our work for the week would be directly connect with this fire, which had happened 25 years ago.
Jess, Steve, Jeremy and I continued down the trail, which opened up to Sheep Creek Basin. The views here were amazing, with steep terrain shooting up on either side of Sheep Creek. The land in between was carpeted with purple, yellow, red, and blue wild flowers and berry bushes. There were Twin Berries, Buffalo Berries, Huckleberries, wild Strawberries, Salmon Berries, Bagel Berries, and Bacon Berries. I made the last three types up, but the point is that there are a boundless amount of berries and I don't know all of their names.
On that first day we had hiked six miles, cleared six trees, and gained about 800 feet of elevation. To our excitement, we were unaffected by the relatively high elevation and enjoyed compliments from Jeremy. The moral of the story is to respect altitude, but don't be afraid of it.
We headed back to the cabin to reconvene with the rest of the crew. There were a few new arrivals that night, all members of the Forest Service that would be joining us for the week. We learned a little more about these folks and their admirable line of work while we ate dinner together. While most would only stay in one location for a couple weeks before moving on to a new area, they all seemed to be close friends and members of a unique community. There was a twinge of jealousy present while watching them interact and conversing about their daily experiences and lifestyle. It was refreshing to see people who were living in an area without cell phone and regular internet service reunite and pick up right where they had left off.
Feeling accomplished and confident, our crew leader Jess voiced that she wanted us to have a day with a significantly strenuous workload. Steve and I couldn't help but agree with her, we had come to Montana to get our butts kicked and I was eager to really prove myself. Jeremy promised us that the next day would be our day, and we went to sleep excited about what was to come. 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.
Categories: Adventure, People