“The practice of conservation must spring from a conviction of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community, and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people.” Aldo Leopold
The Continental Divide Trail conserves mountain habitats and serves adventurous people who love the mountains, the people most likely to support mountain conservation. Thread-thin trail tread leads hikers and horse riders through Big Sky Country along the crest of the continent deep into wilderness where they come to know the mountains. We love the places we know best, we conserve what we love. It’s the Circle of Conservation; people come to the mountains, people come to know and love the mountains, people conserve the mountains.
A well maintained trail system concentrates backcountry user pressures on hardened surfaces maintained for boot and hoof traffic. Trailsides are spared the brunt of wear, the area requiring routine maintenance is limited so it remains manageable. That’s where groups like the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) step in.
The Montana Conservation Corps, like Conservation Corps around the nation, stems from humble origins, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was part of the New Deal put into place by FDR during the Great Depression.
Now, I have to put something in perspective for you. The act of you reading Outdoor Readiness gives me an inkling that you are someone who is passionate about the great outdoors: hiking, fishing, mountaineering and such. Though I am an avid adventurer; snorkeling off Ambergis Caye in San Pedro, Belize, or foolishly taking a dip in the Panama Canal: As of late, my camping and hiking experience was incredibly limited, besides car camping for the occasional concert. I was not the guy to ask for any backwoods knowledge. But at the end of the day, I am a biologist and any form of conservation is near and dear to my heart – that is one of the major reasons I wanted to challenge myself by joining the MCC. This is a way of putting my money where my mouth is–instead of just reading about conservation efforts and the deteriorating environment, I want to do something about it. This is really where having good friends, like OR’s main author Tom Bain, pays dividends. After a phone call and two visits, Tom and his wife Jackie filled my Subaru with gear and gave me the best advice they could and I was off to Helena, Montana.
After a week or so of training and another day of hands-on chainsaw training we packed our big white GMC Yukon XL and headed out for our first project on the Continental Divide Trail. We worked in the region of the Helena National Forest where we were able to clear the trail of fallen trees.
Unfortunately, with milder and milder winters over the past ten to fifteen years, the normal -10 degree winter temperatures that control the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) have been few and far between, allowing for unprecedented outbreaks of the beetle throughout the Northern Rockies of Colorado, Montana, and British Columbia. The beetles drill 0.25 to 0.5 cm holes into the trees, normally killing only stressed old growth trees, allowing for the spread of new growth trees. However, the scale of recent outbreaks has caused wholesale destruction of trees out here in the Northern Rockies. The danger is not only due to dead standing trees prone to lightning strikes and fueling wildfires, but also, they are frequently blown down across trails like the CDT. There is not a whole lot scarier moment on the CDT then hiking the trail through beetle-killed trees when the wind picks up. The characteristic cracking and popping of dead standing trees that may blow over at any moment while hiking the trail makes for an uneasy walk in the woods.
This project was essentially a ‘cut and run’ where we just cut out pieces that were in the way of the path. We weren’t felling any trees or cutting fallen trees into smaller portions. In the seven actual work days we covered just about 20 miles of the CDT and hiked over 50 miles in total! It was absolutely insane but it was also incredibly beautiful! We started at Cromwell Dixon campground at MacDonald Pass and worked all the way to Thunderbolt Mountain! We moved campsites four times along the CDT. We packed-in three chainsaws with saw kits and axes, as well as other tools like shovels and handsaws. The first portion of the CDT was filled with match-stick sections covered by countless fallen trees blocking the way of through-hikers. There was a point where we had all three saws running continuously for the better part of an hour working from both directions clearing a 200 meter portion of the trail. As we bumped our campsite closer to Thunderbolt Mountain we traversed sections where there wouldn’t be a blowdown for miles at a time – this just made for a long hike with a chainsaw on your shoulder and an axe strapped to your day pack.
I can’t even describe with all the flowery language of poetry or photos taken how beautiful this part of the world is. Now that I have been out in Montana for about a month, living on the floor of friends’ apartments or camping in some of the most remote, beautiful places around the world, I have found something that I did not have in my life before – space. Perhaps it’s the fast-passed college lifestyle that I had become so accustomed to, the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality doesn’t leave a lot of room for self reflection. Though it was incredibly hard work, physically demanding and in some ways emotionally straining being out of contact with my friends and family, there is a peace that settles in as you watch the sunset over the mountains.
As I go on more and more hitches, beginning with an upcoming trip to the Frank Church Wilderness Area in Idaho, I will delve more into what it’s like to be part of a Conservation Corps, the beautiful hikes and places I visit here in Montana, as well as discuss the assets and limitations of the gear I have been using. As I write my own anthology about my experience in Montana titled, An Idiot Outdoors: Coming of Age in the American West and Other Short Stories, I am learning more and more about myself and my passion for adventure.