Voices in the Wilderness: A Summer in the Scotchmans

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(Photo courtesy of JACOB ARRINGTON) Jacob Arrington and Golden Canine patrol the edge of the Savage Creek canyon.

When I applied for the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Backcountry Ranger position, I knew little of what I was getting into. I knew that it would be hard, demanding and satisfying work somewhere in Western Montana. I knew nothing of the unique history of Star Peak lookout, or of breathtaking vertical landscapes the goats call home. All I knew was that it was a new and exciting challenge and I wanted in.

Meeting FSPW program coordinator Sandy Compton for the first time is an experience I’ll never forget.

I’ve met few people who could convey such passion with so few words. By the time our short dinner was over, I was certain that I had chosen the right cause to plant my flag. If this place was so amazing as it had been made out to be, I knew I had chosen the right side.

From Missoula we set out to Powell Ranger Station in the Selway-Bitterroot to convene with a group who combined had spent more time in the wilderness of America than the idea had existed. One could simply scan the crowd and see from the worn-out boots, calloused hands, and tired but fiery eyes that these men and women were the real deal. These people who had stories as different as one could imagine had all come to consensus that wilderness is what calls their heart. While my time with these men and women was short I learned much, not just on the technical aspect of being a ranger and maintaining wilderness, but also of the force that drives their passion for wild places.

After that short but sweet encounter I made my way to Trout Creek, Montana, where I would be posting up my tent for the coming months. There I met a host of characters who I can say are some of the hardest working individuals I have ever come across. Despite varying opinions as to what is a wilderness, what makes a place wild, and what we the peoples’ involvement should be within wilderness, there was always one constant: wilderness must exist, if not for us then for our children, if not for our children then for the planet, if not for the planet then for our own sanity.

During my time, I patrolled the Scotchmans frequently. Sometimes I did encounter people. The interaction tended to follow a fairly consistent pattern: First, asking what my position is and what my duties are; second, comment on how awesome of that job sounds like, usually with a compliment; third, amazement that the place in which we stood was under threat of no longer being itself. Interactions like these showed me the true character of the people around, showed me that the true heart of the local people care about this magical strip of land.

My final journey into the Scotchmans was as magical as could be imagined, a trip into the heart of this magnificent place and Horseshoe Lake. It was there that I was finally able to put into words why this place matters so much.

The Scotchman Peaks aren’t squiggly lines on a map, or a name in a D.C. map of public land: The Scotchmans are the near vertical, impossible to imagine faces; they’re the snow at the top that make the goats disappear like a mountain wind; they’re the rivers and creeks that ebb and flow through the canyons. They are all of this, and none of this, the Scotchman Peaks isn’t just a plot of land, it has a life all its own.

I was truly privileged to see such an incredible place and I hope the next Ranger can feel that life as well.

Voices in the Wilderness is a monthly column written by people in the vicinity of the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, as well as visitors to the area. If you have an adventure tale based in untamed country (it doesn’t have to be local), write to sandy@scotchmanpeaks.org.

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