The Wild Places Within
-Phil Hough, Executive Director, Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness
Every summer my wife and I like to wander off into the backcountry. Sometimes we go by backpack. Sometimes by boat. Our vessel of choice usually being a kayak or canoe. We go walking or paddling into the wild landscapes. Because they are silent modes of travel, we can fully immerse ourselves into the wilderness. We can find those wild places within ourselves.
We’ve explored far flung places in North America, including gems like Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the vast reaches of the Boundary Waters Canoe area and unbroken backcountry of the high Sierra. Some years we have less time and stay closer to home to explore areas like the Scotchman Peaks, with country just as wild, and deserving of Wilderness designation by congress.
This summer we ventured into the “Great Burn”, an area along the Idaho/Montana border, southwest of Missoula. An area also proposed for Wilderness, the Great Burn is as wild as any country we have seen in the “lower 48”.
The measure of a place’s wildness can be taken by how we ourselves slowdown. How we become part of the scene. We start to notice things happening around us and notice things within us.
Late in the afternoon of day 4, we stopped for a bit of foot care. Wet socks had started to rub a hot spot. We usually hike at a pretty good pace and this unplanned stop gave us added time to look around. Without knowing why, I walked a few paces away from the trail to look over the edge and into a small lake basin. Something was moving.
It was too small for a bear. And too far away to see details of shape. But we could watch patterns of movement. It was not a moose. It was hunting. And with the phone’s 30x zoom, we could make out a bit more of the fuzzy form. It seemed to “waddle”. We let our imaginations roam a bit. Not hard to do with the sound of wolves howling in the valley farther below.
We watched the critter for 30 minutes, and thought for a while it might be a wolverine!
After sending grainy photos and videos to a couple of expert wildlife biologists, the cautious verdict came back that it was likely a dark phased red fox. Still pretty cool; they are not so common either! And the fact that no one was 100% sure means we can still feel the imagination stir within us of what it might have been.
It’s that feeling of wild discovery within that I will remember and cherish. No matter what the critter was, it was a truly wild half hour, one that we should all have from time to time. And one that you can still find in wild places. Places like the “Bob”, the Boundary Waters, the Great Burn, and the Scotchman Peaks.
This incredible experience happened while hiking in the Great Burn Proposed Wilderness area. The Great Burn, much like the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, spans the Idaho-Montana divide. For more information on this unique area and effort to save it visit the Great Burn Conservation Alliance.