- August 09, 2017
- Posted by Todd Harrell
The year has been an eventful one for my crew and I. Since this is my first season, I did not know exactly what to expect and its taken the two returning members in our crew, Guillermo and Stratton, the job of helping the two new members, Alex and myself. Together we make up one of the four wilderness restoration teams out of the Missoula office in the Western Wildlands region. We have spent our season doing a large variety of work, far more than just weed spraying, in the Seeley Lake Ranger District.
Our first nine day hitch was an excursion to the Scapegoat Wilderness. We had an almost seven mile hike in to get to our campsite at North Fork Cabin. This was the beginning of a long week of hiking for us, and for myself it was the most I have ever done. We had our work cut out for us with our average hiking distance about 10 miles a day with our longest being 20 miles, by far the most I and a couple other crew members have hiked before. Most of our work consisted of hiking around the trail complex in the areas near North Fork Cabin to survey helicopter landing zones for the Forest Service to see what work needs to be done to have them in working order. We would write down the coordinates, record the slope, the amount of trees that need to be cut, etc. It was an amazing opportunity to get around and see the gorgeous views of the Scapegoat.
The cold, wet mornings would quickly transition into hot, dry afternoons. The cabin (mostly the wood stove) was a helpful friend our first hitch. We would have a fire going in the morning to get us nice and warm and dry before we went out and faced the cold and wet. None of us realized that we would appreciate how cool it got early in the season as opposed to the almost unbearable heat that was to come in our later hitches. After a brisk hike out and a debriefing at the office, the four of us went to enjoy our first dirty dinner together at the Chinese Buffet back in town. We were quickly becoming friends as well as coworkers.
Our next hitch was a bit of a different story as far as the work and location were concerned. Instead of a lot of hiking in the backcountry, we were mostly spraying noxious weeds in the front country in the Seeley Lake area. It was a car heavy hitch and we got to see a different side of the ranger district than our time before. However, before we sprayed we did some fire reduction work in a campsite with a fire team to get ready for the coming Fourth of July weekend. It was a good couple days of some physical labor pulling out felled trees and putting them through a wood-chipper.
After two days of fire reduction, we went to sites in East Morrell and West Morrell that used to be owned by the Plum Creek Timber Company and is now managed by the Forest Service. There is a whole concoction of noxious weeds in the area and we spent the next 3 days working to reduce the problem. We were first met by an entire field of houndstongue, spotted knapweed, mullein, and both canada and musk thistle; all common noxious weeds in the area. Each take a different method to deal with and we spent many hours clipping the flowers and seed heads of second year houndstongue plants to keep it from spreading further. It’s an extensive process that requires carefully removing the seeds from an area without spreading them. Houndstongue in particular leaves seeds in the ground that are viable for up to ten years. We removed about 8 contractor bags full of houndstongue stalks from problem areas. This, along with a combination of herbicides to effectively combat these different weeds, is part of the process of helping to remove these weeds from an area. Killing and removing the invasive weeds in an area allows the native plants to have an opportunity to bounce back and retake that space that was once claimed by weeds.
Next came leafy spurge, a particularly resistant weed that requires stronger herbicide use because it cannot be pulled because the taproot can be gigantic on them. Our job sites were on two different hillsides, and after three days of slowly side-hilling to make sure we sprayed everything we were able to move on to our last invasive: orange hawkweed. Orange hawkweed is our crew leader Guillermo’s least favorite noxious weed and for good reason. After it is sprayed with herbicide it can still go to seed, just like houndstongue, so the flower and seed heads need to be pulled off. It also grows on a long stem which often falls over leaving the flower heads hidden under other plants. In a field of grass that was up to our shoulders in some spots it was very slow work and it was a job that would have to be completed the next time we came out.
Heat was the theme of our third hitch. The cold, wet mornings we once had now seemed like a luxury with days that were regularly getting up into the 100’s and extremely dry. The heat was bearable the first few days while we finished our orange hawkweed site and sprayed the North Fork trailhead of the regular mix of noxious weeds. After that it was time for some different work in the Burnt Cabin area up the Monture Creek trail past the Monture Guard Station. We got packed in by our project partner, Jeff Bogie, and did some helicopter landing zone work along the way. Our first night inside the cabin, which some people say is haunted, left Stratton and I waking up with a scream from night terrors that we both had and Guillermo waking up and sleepily saying, “It’s fine just go back to sleep.” Guillermo promptly gave us the crew nickname of The Night Terror.
After a rough night’s sleep we went up behind the cabin to a trail that leads up to Limestone Pass, a mountain pass that leads to and overlooks the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On our way up and down there was such an abundance of huckleberries that we were constantly snacking on our hike. All the way up, with our huckleberries in hand and stomach, we surveyed three landing zones and sprayed four campsites for invasive weeds, finding a new one that I had never seen before called sulfur cinquefoil. Upon reaching the top of the pass, we were greeted with a lovely little meadow with a spring running out of the side of a hill. This area overlooked the Bob and we agreed it was one of the most spectacular views we had ever seen. The next day is when the heat really decided to kick into high gear.
Our next three days all began at 5 AM before the sunrise so we could avoid the late day heat. Three of us were clearing downed snags and trees out of the Monture Creek trail using crosscuts while one of us went to survey the helicopter landing zones in the area and spray the campsites along the trail. However, our job was left incomplete because severe weather on our third night caused us to have to leave a day early without getting the trail cleared. A fire was started up at Limestone Pass and our project partner had us leave to get out of the area. This meant a very long hike out with 70+ lb. backpacks. After the exhausting ordeal we finished up the next couple days with some spraying and left for Missoula.
The second to last hitch of the season we found ourselves doing the most spraying we had done so far that year. We were set up in a complex of ski trails that had not been worked on in what looked like quite some time. For four days we hit sites around the trail and had to deal with large amounts of oxeye daisy, thistles, knapweed, and mullein. As always, it was a slow tedious process to make sure we got all the invasive weeds in an area before moving on. It was satisfying to be able to get in and work in an area that has not seen any help for quite some time.
After completing the ski trail area, we moved on to do more helicopter landing zones and trail corridor spraying. Wildfires began to break out across the district and we were completely smoked out on these long hiking days. Most of us were left with our eyes watering and burning lungs after strenuous hikes with thick smoke and falling ash. On some days the smoke was so thick it would make the sun have a red hue to it or it would disappear completely behind the smoke. I am from the east coast and have never seen anything like that before. It left me with an eery feeling that I was on an island floating in the clouds because I could not see any of the surrounding mountains. While the hitch was extra smokey, we were still able to have a wonderful time working together like always.
My first season has been a pleasure so far. Since Guillermo and Stratton are both summer only session members, Alex and I will be having our last hitch with them coming up soon. It will be a strange transition after getting to know them so well and having an excellent time working with them. Even with the changes I am sure my time at MCC will continue to be just as positive and exciting as it has been because of the people and opportunity that make MCC a special experience.
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