“Happy Birthday to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. It’s fifty years old today.” The Fire Dispatcher in Grangeville, Margaret, always sounded cheery, even after she’d been working long, long days. This was September 3 and I was on my third week as the Coolwater lookout. I knew that the Wilderness Act had an anniversary coming up and it made me smile to hear the birthday greetings on the radio.
The photo at the right shows Coolwater Ridge in early August when it still had a lovely cornice of snow. Actually the snow was too lovely this summer — it made the high country trails impassable until the middle of July. On a memorable week of trail work in July we had to ford icy Boulder Creek, a river so swollen with snow melt that we decided to cross it in the morning when we hoped it would be a few inches shallower. On the other side we hiked for miles but couldn’t finish clearing the Surprise Creek Trail as the last part of the trail was deeply covered in snow.
We always try to finish our trail contract as quickly as possible, both to maximize our profits and stay ahead of the fire season. One summer we didn’t get to do half of our trails as that part of the forest closed down due to lightning-caused forest fires. This summer every time Lee and I stopped to rest on a ridge or mountaintop we checked out the plumes of smoke around us and fortunately none of them were close. Meanwhile, over on Coolwater Lookout, Tom was treated to a wild display of smoke and fire on the Johnson Bar Fire. A single lightning strike on a dry north slope became a raging fire that needed hundreds of fire fighters and multiple helicopters just to contain it.
When I left the lookout and signed out at the Fenn Ranger Station at the end of September the fire was still burning. I walked up to a little beach along the Selway River and sat on a log to watch the show. Flames licked along the ground on the slope on the other side of the river and every few minutes a tree would burn through and crash to the ground. To make it completely surreal a doe and her fawn wandered across the river to the side where the fire was burning and then meandered along the edge of the fire as if it was just a part of their everyday lives, which it actually had been for a couple of months!
In this fiftieth anniversary year of the Wilderness Act I am grateful that I have been able to spend time in the wild places that are now protected by this legislation. I’ve had thrilling moments– encountering a cougar on a trail or hearing wolves howl under a full moon– but I’ve also had moments of slow joy at the sight of a slope covered with the puffy blooms of beargrass and the deep morning mist on a mountain meadow. Happy Birthday Wilderness Act and may you have many more!