Pat McCleod’s trail work was a healing experience.

By Pat McCleod

When I read about an overnight work detail in the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness newsletter, I hesitated before signing up for it. I wondered: Was I physically strong enough to do trail maintenance? Would I be able to set up the tent alone? Who would I be camping with?

However, the lure of a night in the mountains gave me courage to sign up. After all, I had spent the last few years in my Houston office, looking at a picture on the wall of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness and dreaming of retirement, when I could hike whenever I pleased!  And my husband, Charlie, had even given me a new tent as a retirement gift. It had not yet been initiated on a backpacking trip.

I was born and raised in Libby and Troy, and it was Charlie — who graduated from Troy High School — who introduced me to the joy of hiking. After graduating from Montana State University, we moved to Houston, but returned home to Troy every year and usually took a summer backpacking trip. Hiking in the Kootenai National Forest was a way to detox from city life: the only human sound I heard was my own heart and with each hard breath I replaced city air with cool mountain freshness. At the end of a hike, I felt physically exhausted, but spiritually recharged.

Soon after retirement, I was spending my summers in Montana. I was doing a lot of day hikes, until a freak accident on the Little Spar Trail led to my evacuation off the mountain by David Thompson Search and Rescue. I was in St John’s Hospital for a week and spent many months on crutches. My recovery took more than a year, during which time my dreams of sleeping in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness had to wait.

When I read about the trail project in Peak Experience, I had been working hard to regain strength and stamina. Was I ready to volunteer? There was one way to find out. I signed up for trail maintenance.

When the day came, we volunteers gathered at the trailhead. We met Forest Service staff, and I was issued a pair of loppers. The weather was ideal and the conversation enjoyable as we started up the trail. Still I kept asking myself: Could I keep up? But it all worked out fine, because when I needed to rest, I just stopped and trimmed some vegetation along the trail.

I did it. I made it to the campsite. It was a personal accomplishment of great significance after more than a year of recovery. And, the campsite was in a fabulous spot overlooking the Bull River Valley.

My biggest contribution to the group experience may have been bringing Jumbo marshmallows for roasting over the campfire. The s’mores were great, but even better was seeing my fellow campers with marshmallow all over their face and hands. It was a joyful evening of staring into the campfire and listening to trail tails. We were no longer just a group of volunteers. We now knew more about each other and friendships were being established.

All of my previous backpacking trips had been with my husband, and he always put up the tent. But since he was not yet retired, on this trip I was on my own. For the first time ever, I found my own camp spot and set up the tent. It was not too long after attempting to fall asleep that I discovered the importance of flat ground. A slight incline meant I was sliding against the side of the tent all night. Oh, well. After a successful — and tiring — day, it was not hard to fall asleep.

Going with the group of experienced backpackers was great. Sandy Compton expertly hung our packs in a tree, following all bear safety rules.

The next morning, serious, hard work with the Pulaski was in full swing as we began cutting trail. With new self-confidence and a quick lesson, I too was swinging a Pulaski. What pride I felt. I was part of a group that was contributing to the stewardship of our National Forest.

— Pat McLeod and her husband Charlie have returned to their roots after nearly three decades away from home.

Pat’s “Voices in the Wilderness” Column appeared in the August 4, 2015 Western News

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