For a three-day trail maintenance expedition with Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness (FSPW) I volunteered driving my rig and help out. Permission to use the Troy Mine road was granted a week before our scheduled workdays. It was a fairly long drive so one volunteer (Matt) and I carpooled from Sandpoint at 4:30 am. The others were Sandy Compton, Kara, Lindsey and Karen. After meeting in Heron, Montana, we made it to our campsite in the saddle between Spar Peak and Mt. Vernon around 8:00 am. The last mile of mining road was fairly overgrown and a bit lumpy, but not too challenging for two experienced 4-wheelers.
We expected to hike about 90 minutes to the trail area that needed work over a mostly flat ridge. After 20 minutes we heard some consternation from our trail-dog ‘Laddy’ a bit ahead. Branches broke and Laddy came running back toward us. Sandy was leading the group and saw a large, black bear, in full chase of his dog, coming straight for him. As she saw us humans, she turned quickly and ran. This is when I watched two black bear cubs climb up a tall tree, as if they were cats. Their mother sat protectively at the base and stared at us in distress.
If only she knew how distressed we were… Now we noticed the wonderful field of huckleberries all around us. We had walked right onto these animals’ breakfast table without invitation. We retreated a bit farther and waited for 30 minutes. The cubs came down the trunk and we continued after they surely had left. Sandy knows this area well and impressed upon us that she was a beautiful specimen of around 400 pounds and the cubs must have been born some time last February.
It took us over 2 ½ hours to get to our work place, which is the last section of trail #513 going up to Spar Peak (6585 ft.). Our camp was at 5292 ft. and we carried our tools up and down slopes, the worst of which was aptly designated ‘Heartbreak Hill’. Half the distance meandered through a meadow with ghostly dead trees destroyed in a 2006 wildfire. Its eerie long, pointy trunks contrasting against the sky inspired me to nickname it ‘Toothpick Forest’. The last half-mile of the trail goes up a steep slope to the peak by way of several switchbacks. Bear grass and elk sedge have reclaimed the tread, making it hard for hikers to avoid wandering off trail. We worked for a couple of hours in intense heat and got a lot done. I ran out of water and had to depend on others’ extra supplies.
Hiking back at 3:00 pm in the heat of the day was fatiguing and it became clear we all had some kind of ailment. Low blood pressure, sleep deprivation, recently replaced knees and a cut achilles were some to mention. Therefore we ourselves the ‘Injured Reserve’ and had a good laugh at our own expense. All of us helped out where we could to make dinner come about and we set up our tents (and one hammock). Sandy sang a song while cooking. We were in bed by 9:30 pm.
Up at 5:00 am for a hearty breakfast and back down the trail. Make sure the bears can hear us coming. Try to ignore Heartbreak Hill and refrain from lingering at tempting huckleberry bushes. Feel your work tools get heavier each step. One of us is limping. Let’s all tell jokes and funny stories to distract ourselves from the fact that we must be bloody crazy to be doing this for free.
We walked to the top of Spar Peak and had lunch before getting to work. This is one of the most spectacular views in the area, and you can see 360 around the Cabinet Mountains and Scotchman Peaks. In the distance one could even distinguish the Selkirks. There were butterflies, two Clark’s Nutcrackers, Cedar Waxwings (those are birds BTW) and mountain goat tracks.
We squeezed in 3 hours of work before it was time to head back again — another 3 hour walk. Fortunately, it wasn’t as hot as the day before and a gentle breeze seemed heaven-sent. Perhaps it was the heat, or possibly exertion, but topics of conversation on day 2 became more and more eccentric. Is there an afterlife, New York accents, Katherine Hepburn movies and the psychology of monkeys in captivity were just a few. I learned a lot and heard many new perspectives on things. GPS informed us we had hiked 11.02 miles that day.
Camping is a very intimate thing and fortunately everyone was very relaxed. I think I fit in OK but am now among the real-deal wild folks and feel a bit weak and slightly too clean perhaps. After another magical dinner and two beers, we considered simply staying up there to live. So much laughter and some necessary serious talk was done sitting on some blankets I had laid on the ground. I ate an ant — it was all peer-pressure. How could I afford to be apprehensive when in the Netherlands I was always the weirdest girl around? Then we heard howling from the forest behind us and noticed Sandy was not around. A second wolf joined in and we looked frightened at each other for a few seconds before realizing it was Sandy himself and his dog trying to freak us out, so what else could we do but howl back?
Because the hike was so much longer than expected and everyone was completely depleted, injured, or both, it didn’t make much sense to go out on Sunday because we needed to be at the mining gate at 3:00 pm for passage. I don’t think anybody minded and we stretched our sore limbs by picking wild huckleberries for bacon-huckleberry pancakes with maple syrup and butter and scrambled eggs. After a long leisurely breakfast (involving two rounds of fresh coffee) it was time to pack up and head out. The whole weekend felt like dream to me. At times I felt so intensely happy that my heart about burst from my chest. Back at our first meeting point we had a reflective beer and respective goodbyes.
You know you’ve had a proper weekend in the wilderness when, as you finally take a shower after returning home, the dirt visibly runs off your body for a solid five minutes and for the following three days you discover bruises, cuts and blisters all over, but don’t remember how you got them.