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October 7, 1997

Travelogue: Mild, Mild West

by Woody Justice
Looking along the sculpted bulk of Scapegoat Mountain from 7000 feet.

It was a dark and stormy night... Well, it was but that's not where this story starts out. I signed up for an outdoor group-vacation through Sierra Club. The one I chose was a week-long backpacking trip in the Scapegoat Wilderness area of Lewis and Clark National Forest, in the northern Rocky Mountains east of Great Falls. I enjoyed my pilgrimage to Cove-Mallard in Idaho last year and wanted to see more of the continent's rugged backbone.

In Sierra magazine, the club lists all kinds of trips -- basecamp, lodge, canoeing, family-oriented, etc. -- to all kinds of places -- National Parks, designated wilderness areas, and even international excursions. The prices are reasonable but you have to be a member to go. Sierra's outings program is intended to cultivate advocacy among outdoors enthusiasts by showing them the beauty of the natural environment in the few areas that remain. The price gets you a space on a planned trip with volunteer leaders who have scoped the route, applied for the permits and paid any fees, planned the menus and purchased all the food; Sierra's outings department supplies all the common gear for kitchen and sanitation.

The trip was rated 'light-to-moderate' because daily travel averaged only 5 or 6 miles (most backpackers manage 10 to 12 and I know one lunatic who does 25) with elevation gains of only 500 to 1,000 feet. Naturally, we each had to carry everything we thought we might need to survive, plus our share of food (13 pounds) and commissary equipment (tarps, stoves, fuel, cookware, etc.). It was a challenge to reduce personal gear and leave room for the common goods, while not leaving out anything too important. I ended up with nearly half my body-weight strapped to my back.

Fearing the extra burden on sea-level dwellers of starting out at 6,000 feet elevation, my travel companion, Maggie, and I arrived in Great Falls two days early to acclimate. The city sits on the edge of the Plains, and the upthrust mountains to its west are known as the Front Range. Montana really is big sky country and we were witness to some spectacular sunsets -- as late as 9:30 p.m. at that latitude -- when thunderstorms moved above and around the city. The peculiar light and the expanded horizon combined for phenomenal, unforgettable views.

Saturday found the 15 hikers from around the country together in one group at the trailhead where common gear was divided up and boots tightly laced. The group was diverse, numbering eight women and seven men. Education level was high, with numerous multiple-degreed professionals and a few doctors. Age was spread between one twenty-something to at least one sixty-something, with the majority in their forties or fifties. Most of us traveled from Eastern states for the simple reason that there isn't much wilderness here; most of it was "tamed" in order to make it safe for fearful settlers, while the West wasn't completely ruined before rational thought took hold.

Initially I hesitated camping with such a large contingent -- I thought that it would look like a trailer park when all the tents were up -- but there were two factors I hadn't considered. First, since we were in a remote roadless wilderness and not a national park we saw very few other humans in that whole week, so our group in no way resembled a crowd. What's more, we all have Sierra Club in common and it was nice to get to know people with similar interests. The other factor was the possibility of Grizzly encounters: there have not been any with groups larger than four. The potential for confrontation was further reduced because we prepared only vegetarian meals and the leaders discouraged catching trout from the nearby streams.

(I was aware of the chance, though, and researched the facts a little bit. In Yellowstone National Park between 1839 and 1994, bear attacks caused 5 deaths; the same number ascribed to murder, falling trees, avalanches or lightning. In Glacier NP between 1913 and 1995, humans killed by bears is the seventh-ranked cause of death -- 9 deaths total -- behind drowning, heart attack, various accidents and falls, and is tied with natural causes. All incidents involved either hunters wounding -- and enraging -- a bear, or animals that had been conditioned to associate humans with food.)

The first 5 days were glorious and sunny, usually in the high 60s or low 70s with nights clear and in the 40s. One night it dropped to 25 degrees and 30 another; those mornings the dew on our tents was frozen. It was dark and stormy, as I started to say, but only the last two nights. That made the trails muddier and the creek fording colder and wetter, but we managed. Not because we are tough -- just well-equipped. (When people like John Muir made their way into the wilderness 100 years ago, they didn't have lightweight-insulating synthetics, waterproof-breathable boots or velcro.)

We were fortunate that Montana had a wet Summer and instead of dry, brown hills there was plenty of green, and the fire hazard was low so campfires were allowed. The loop covered 35 miles and rose through passes of up to 7,600 feet. We hiked every day, carrying all of our gear, except for two layover days when people took side-trips, cleaned their clothing or just rested. One dayhike (without packs) was to the top of an 8,200 foot peak not quite on the Continental Divide -- a 2,000 foot climb from our camp.

One layover site was in front of a bowl carved in the face of 9,200 foot Scapegoat Mountain. The meadow was populated by Ground Squirrels annoyed at the intrusion, high-flying Ravens and curious Mule-deer. Another was at the end of a valley several miles long that afforded a spectacular view of the mountains wearing a shifting pattern of light-and-dark as the storm clouds rolled through. And storm it did: that night most of us were awakened by a blinding flash of lightning and the thunder rolling in its wake that seemed to echo for long minutes. [Information about the outings program and other club activities is available at http://www.sierraclub.org.]

Wilderness: "untrammeled by man." No motorized equipment. No growling, whining dirt-bikes or ATCs. No roaring highway traffic or catastrophe sirens. No telephones or telemarketers. No blaring TV & radio; no incessant urgings to consume. No tangle of electrical transmission lines. No broadcast towers, intrusive day and night with sharply pointing fingers and glowing warning lights. No inconsiderate insecurity lights, spotlighting beyond their territory. No sickly yellow horizon-glow from parking lots and shopping mauls. A peace so complete that even the jets lofting high -- normally obscured from notice in busy everyday life -- seemed an intrusion.

We were treated to a crazy-quilt of wildflowers and butterflies in the high meadows. The rocky cliffs and crags, talus piled at their feet, were a welcome sight for eyes starved for relief. Crystal streams as transparent as air hid nothing in their depths if one only looked. Waterfalls far across valleys claimed eye's and ear's attention with glittering and roaring cascades. Snowpacks blazed with a radiance that rivaled the sun. By day the cerulean sky shone, undimmed by smog and haze, as if illuminated with its own glow; at night, meteors left flaming traces behind, and stars brighter than diamonds merged into a Milky Way so dense it belied the emptiness of space.

We passed through cathedrals of old-growth forests -- mossy boughs overhead and deep carpets of needles underfoot, an almost tangible serenity -- in places that were too steep and rugged and wet to clearcut. Of course, there was still government-subsidized grazing. (That's multiple use: if they can't ruin it by timbering, they'll find another way.) Prominent consequences of that are the muddy, washed out hiking trails that are also used to drive cattle in, and their not-so-fragrant leavings that made one look down at the path more than out at the scenery. Setting up camp near these locations required clearing the area of cow-patties before pitching our tents.

Maggie noted, near the end, what a shame it was: When Lewis and Clark's expedition passed through there were thousands of Bison where now only cattle roam, and now all of us got really excited when deer or squirrels pass through our camp. Everyone was wary of the Grizzly possibility, but still hoped that we would see one -- at a prudent distance, of course. We camped out for seven nights and never heard the call of a Timber Wolf.

There are wilder places to visit, but this was a trade-off for accessibility; the best that we could manage in a short reprieve from daily life. What we did was no death-defying feat, though many would never consider trying it. The experience of being "there" and totally removed from everything "here" is worth it to some of us. "Wilderness once offered men a plausible way of life. Now it functions as a psychiatric refuge."


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