Volunteerism and Solitude, Idaho

It was a long drive to Idaho, and fortunately my truck was doing pretty well in the way of gas mileage. I drove twelve hours from Vail, CO through Utah and into some Idaho state park on I-84 before I couldn’t see straight enough to steer. Summer nights here are cozy enough that I didn’t even reach for my sleeping bag before reclining my seat for a roadside rest. The next morning I made the final three hour leg to McCall, ID, a lakeside town of three thousand up against the Rocky Mountains of central Idaho.

A good friend of mine was waiting there. He guided me in around the small airport to his barn loft. The airport is impossibly busy. It’s where regional forest fire related air traffic is based, so powerful spotter planes, retardant bombers, and helicopters blazed with orange insignia rattle constantly overhead, on their way to manage a burning state. Rumor has it that this airborne fire fight burns through three quarters of a million dollars of federal money per day in operations costs. Spare-no-expense orders from US Forest Service’s chief in Washington DC after criticisms from last year’s ‘devastating’ fire season. An orange skycrane, a giant helicopter made for lifting heavy loads, took off with a storm of wind and noise, off to douse some burning tract of wild land. Around the corner, Eric flagged me into his driveway.

The barn is sizable, and his loft apartment is complete with kitchen and living room. In the yard is a donkey named Soda Pop. The barn is packed with man toys typical of an Idaho resident: mountain bikes, a raft. But there are also stacks and racks of tools and camping equipment beyond what any one man can enjoy. The barn is the Idaho headquarters of the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation (SBFC), a nonprofit stewardship organization working as a partner to the US Forest Service to advocate and preserve of the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church designated wilderness areas.

For those of you unsure about what designated wilderness areas are, it’s defined by the Congressional Wilderness Act of 1964 as land untrammeled and undeveloped by men which retains it’s primeval character and natural conditions. This is something rare in the world, so kudos to the America for having the foresight to preserve natural areas in any quantity. The areas of wilderness which SBFC works to keep accessible to the public add up to an area larger than Connecticut. No cars, no bikes, no motors, no roads, no structures. Just trees and bears and nature things.

And Eric is its program director on the west side, a passionate and outspoken wilderness advocate. This is my third visit to Idaho/Montana as a Volunteer for SBFC, and it satisfies my deepest animal desires for solitude and hard work. Big saws and axes. Backpacks and tents. Trees and bears. Nature things.

Soon we totaled three staffers and four volunteers like myself. About one hundred miles south and east of McCall, we prepared ourselves for a week in the wild at the Pistol Lake trailhead. Lacking a mule packer, we took multiple trips back and forth over a ridge between the trucks and lower Pistol Lake, bringing bear-proof boxes of food and equipment to camp.

The trip was led by Seth, a tall, blonde and rugged SBFC staffer. Mornings were a time to prepare breakfasts, pack lunches, and talk over daily plans while stretching. Personnel were split into groups and sent north or south along the Summit Ridge trail with appropriate tools. Over the course of the week, we totaled two hundred something trees removed from the trail and about two hundred and fifty walking miles between us. We only ever saw two other humans and their dog.

During the week, SBFC staff counted encounters with aircraft, for the disturbance they create degrades the solitude of wilderness, and a tally of disturbances creates a measurable quantity of how well the Wilderness Act is being upheld.

The big orange skycrane flew over one day as we rested on a high ridge with a view. It labored through the air towards us, dangling a broad hose like an overused sex organ. It roared less than one hundred feet directly over our bared asses. Keep out of this wilderness, chopper man. Your machinery is not welcome here, fire or no.

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