The “Eclectic Eels” crew pulls out of the MCC parking lot in Missoula in a rig affectionately known as “Goldie.” Armed with heavy packs, a few snacks, and some good music, we set off for the mountains of Idaho.

After hours of driving and one night of camping, we board a jet boat, strap on orange life jackets, and acquaint ourselves with the Salmon River. Water sprays up into the air and across our faces as the driver navigates around rocks and swells, our vessel continuously turning around new bends, demonstrating precisely why it’s referred to as the “River of No Return.”

After 65 miles of rough waves, we’re dropped off at the riverbank leading to Trail # 577 and soon this remote location is transformed into spike camp for the week. Our crew gets to work setting up the communal kitchen, latrine, bear hang, and sump, before settling into our own personal tents.

We spend the week learning about the land and each other. Each day our hikes become longer, the sharp switchbacks providing a grueling challenge for legs and knees, as we gain 1,000 feet for every mile climbed. With guidance from crew leader Greg Aerni and U.S. Forest Service worker J-Z Savage, our corps becomes familiar with pulaskis, silky saws, loppers, and pick axes, as we work to clear and maintain the trail, which is primarily used for hunting purposes.

We come across several signs of wildlife, including coyote and wolf scat, elk tracks, and even heard a rattlesnake hissing in a bush along the trail to Rattlesnake Ridge. We watch black bears sun themselves on rocks and repeatedly spot a cinnamon colored bear flipping over rocks in pursuit of some grub. The animals go about their days, and we go about ours.

As we gain elevation, we come across fallen logs, which must be cut and cleared. The crosscut saw swishes back and forth, gliding through sweet smelling Ponderosa Pine. When the wood breaks, we sit and use our legs to push the logs off the trail, a sense of satisfaction overcoming our own tired limbs as the barrier tumbles down to the bushes below.

By the week’s end, we’re all exhausted and smelly and happy. We discuss what it means to have a “sense of place” and focus on our personal goals for the season. We’re a crew consisting of members from all over the map—Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Montana, and Maine. We come from varying backgrounds. We have different stories. Sitting around the campfire at night, I think about how something lead each and every one of us to this place, to this point…to this crew in this town at this time. For better or worse, we’re stuck together for the season. So, we laugh and learn. We tell jokes and riddles and get to know one another’s personalities. Having played on sports teams my whole life, I understand the importance of team chemistry and serving with the MCC demands strong social skills just as much as dedicated work habits.

One of our main goals is to express gratitude for one another and the environment of which we are part. In the wilderness, we come to appreciate the simple things. A hot meal. Cold water. Dry socks. A good book.

We’re all at a stage in our lives when we’re thinking about who we want to be and what kinds of lives we want to live. It makes me wonder about the responsibilities of our young generation—the national and global problems including everything from overdependence on foreign fuel to unemployment to melting glaciers. Looking around at the unkempt hair and muddied pants of this group of travelers, I’m reassured that sometimes the best way to tackle such large problems is by taking time to sit by a river and watch the water flow by.

It seems to me the difference between success and fulfillment is that success suggests obtaining something, while fulfillment is recognizing you’ve had it all along. The MCC is not just about the “before” and “after” photos of the trails we work to create and maintain; it’s also about the change that goes on inside every worker wearing a yellow hard hat. It’s teaching us how to become more conscientious about our actions. It’s teaching us how to prioritize values.

As embers from the fire glow, sparks rise above our heads and disappear into the night air, drifting towards the Big Dipper. Our eyes lift to the North Star and the promise of a new day.


WoW!  Nicely written!

Posted by Michelle Hoffman at June 22 2011

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