First Spring Hitch

  • May 03, 2017
  • Posted by Calvin Olson

It all began with an email from our program manager, Jess, letting us know that a storm called Spring Hitch was on the horizon. She thanked us for the hard work that we had already put in, but let us know that our next adventure would be marked by long hours of physically demanding work. The snow had thawed, spring had broke, and our working season was upon us. Our first task was to maintain a 23 mile stretch of trail along the Selway River that had not been maintained all winter. The trail leads to the backcountry ranger station at Moose Creek.

All of the Field Crew Leaders were divided into smaller crews to more closely resemble the size of the crews we would be tasked with leading for the summer. My co-lead and I were with three other co-leading pairs and given the radio tag MCC1. On Tuesday we planned a group dinner menu and went grocery shopping as well as exploding our backpacks to compare personal gear. When we were sure we would all be properly prepared for our hitch, we packed all our tools, gear and packs. Wednesday morning we said our farewells to the Missoula office and our regional director, Bobby. Bobby read us a poem from a book titled “Wind in the Rock” by Ann Zwinger. It had a line in which resonated with me and my experience that weekend: “I suspect the quintessential backpacker personality finds pleasure in the fine tuning of re-packing, reaching perfection with just the right amount of usable gear in the least amount of space with the minimum amount of weight.” My pack weighing in at a whopping 55 pounds, I knew I had plenty of room for improvement in this department over the season.

Before I knew it we had crossed the Montana/Idaho border and our caravan of MCC logo-bearing Ford GMC’s was following the Lochsa River on Highway 12. I got lost in it’s white rapids and imagined myself in a kayak bobbing up and down with the flow. We took a left to follow the Selway where it met with the Lochsa and together they became the Clearwater River. Now we were driving slower down a smaller gravel road. I became transfixed with the uphill side, which was covered with splotches of yellow, purple, and white flowers. I recognized the white as my favorite flower, the Painted Trillium. I was told by my field coordinator, Renee, that the yellow flowers, which were more prevalent on the hillside, were Glacial Lilies. The purple flowers went unidentified during the hike, but may have been either Wild Hyacinth, or Lupine. For me, seeing all these early bloomers solidified the feeling of Spring.

We checked in at the The Fenn Ranger Station and made our way to the Race Creek trailhead where we ate our lunch and gathered everything we would need for the next nine days. We were less than a mile hike away from the border that marked an official Wilderness Area. For myself and most of the others on the crew, this would be our first experience in such an area. Our Crew Leaders, Kyle and Aimee, divided the tools among us and outlined our tasks. I was given a shovel and asked to clear drains along the hike until we made camp. I learned about two kinds of drains that day; water bars and culverts. Water bars are structures built at 45 degree angles on sections of sloping trail. They are designed to direct water that naturally follows the trail off to the downhill side. Kick drains look very similar, but are found in areas where water naturally pools against the downsloping side, and the retaining wall (berm) has been kicked out. Culverts are areas where a tunnel that allows water to pass under the trail has been installed. We must clear debris uphill of the trail to ensure it is easy for water to follow the path to the culvert. Clearing the dirt and debris that collects in these drainages is a routine part of trail maintenance.

On the second day I was happy to work on a two person crosscut team. A crosscut saw is a large saw used to cut whole trees that predates the chainsaw. Ours are five to six feet long, punched from tensile steel and roughly one hundred years old. When opening a trail so that stock animals may pass, it is essential to buck large trees that have fallen into the trail so they can be rolled out of the way. Stuart and I hiked about eight miles and cut eight trees from the path.

I started the third day working to fix a thirty foot section of trail where the tread had begun to slump down the hill. This involves using grubbing tools to dig into the uphill side and forming new tread to stand on with the new dirt. I finished the day using loppers and a hand saw to cut brush from the trail’s corridor. Since a person riding on a pack animal is both wide and tall, it is necessary to cut all limbs and brush back that is within four feet of the tread going either direction, or ten feet high.

On our fourth day of moving from camp to camp and working along the way, we were set to arrive at Moose Creek Ranger Station. It was a long day of hiking with some cold and windy hours and I was personally experiencing low spirits due to the exhaustion. It was here I was introduced to the concept of “Type B Fun,” a slightly sarcastic term for the type of fun you have that can only be described as fun at a later date, when one is warmer and drier and less exhausted. I thought about how I would describe my week to my parents when I had the cell service to call them: “It was incredible Mom! It was rough but it was beyond words!” I realized then just how much I loved to have Type B fun.

I was in the front of our crew and had begun to work backwards towards them when I heard a familiar “whoop!” and turned around to see Dylan and other Field Crew Leaders from MCC2. I felt my spirits immediately lift from such a reunion. We shared stories from each other’s projects as we took our afternoon break. Once our whole crew had reunited we hiked on to wood fire stoves and mattresses that awaited us.

Moose Creek Ranger Station is a historic collection of handmade buildings and an airstrip that has been around since long before the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964. It has been used to house Civilian Conservation Corps members as well as forest service workers in the past, but is now primarily occupied by members of the MCC who have joined the immersion program, meaning they spend their whole season working more than twenty miles away from the Wilderness border.

Upon our arrival we nearly collapsed under the weight of our packs. One crew leader lay face down on the earth for a couple minutes to recuperate. We each did an afternoon cool down stretch, and I could feel the lactic acid being worked out of the aching body.

The next morning we were able to take a day off from strenuous labor and go through some FCL led lesson plans. We learned about the traditional uses of many of the wild plants we had passed on the trail from Brittne and Henry, including vitamin C found in Ponderosa Pine needles and yarrow’s ability to ease a toothache when chewed. Aimee taught us how to use a map and compass find our location on a map as well as how to find a bearing to a land mark. I taught a lesson on becoming found by search and rescue parties should you find yourself lost in the woods. After we got a warm meal for a lunch for the first time all hitch, and had a group discussion about the meaning of community, as well as some time to talk within our co-leading pairs about specific goals and needs. Discussions like these have been instrumental to building the tight bonds that are so essential to doing work like this.

To wrap up the day we were semi-surprised by our Roving Crew Leader, Josh, with a medical scenario: one crew Leader from every pair fell off the trail and tumbled, resulting in abrasions, a sprained wrist and ankle each. The other leader was to prepare them for a four mile hike out to the nearest road. We got a wide array of crutches, splints and slings made from sticks, tent poles, bandanas and basically layers. It was a nice refresher for our Wilderness Advanced First Aid course taken earlier that year.

We got to work from Moose Creek for one more day, and I went with a team up the trail to Shissler Peak. Shissler has a radio tower on top of it, so it is important that stock can make it up to the top to bring in supplies. I again was part of a cross cut team, and managed to clear sixteen trees before hiking down for the day.

We had three remaining days to hike back to the rigs where we had left them. There was some sporadic work along the way that we had flagged to be finished on the way out. We built two retaining walls for especially difficult sections of tread that couldn’t be cut back further. We also were able to clear a lot of brush that we had missed on our way into Moose Creek, as our ability to spot intruding branches had grown considerably since the beginning of our hitch.

On the morning of our final eight mile hike back to the comfort of our rigs, it was raining. We were all sore and wet but motivated to make it back to the city. Conversation was full of burger toppings, warm showers and other creature comforts. My thoughts were looking back at all the Type B fun I’d had on this hitch and all the people I’d had it with. Type B fun has a funny way of bringing us all together to accomplish great things.


I hope I get to partake in some of this “Type B fun!  Sounds like you are having a great time!

Posted by Krist Smedley at June 07 2017

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