When I was in college, I wanted a job working in the wilderness. I, however, had a problem. While I had been on many group backpacking trips in well-traveled wilderness areas in California, Colorado, and Utah, I had very few skills to make me employable in such a profession. Could I swing a Pulaski? No. Could I build a bridge? No. Could I pack a mule? No. I wanted to be out there but didn’t know exactly what I could do. Through sheer persistence and because everyone else who applied turned down the job, I ended up scoring one spot on a two-person, primitive tools wilderness trail crew for the summer. Luckily for me, my crew partner was a seasoned trail builder – a scrawny introverted guy named Kurt.
Kurt and I spent two summers hiking hundreds of miles on backcountry trails in western Montana. We carried a Pulaski, a hand saw, and a crosscut saw, in addition to a week’s worth of food and camping gear. We had fun together, swimming in jade pools in the river in the hazy heat of August, casting flies into ribbon trout streams, nodding to outfitters passing us on the trail with their horses and dogs, and occasionally sharing a campfire with a backpacker we met along the trail.
Kurt was patient and kind and gently coached me on how to be helpful on the other end of the crosscut while we moved rocks and dirt, and sawed through branches and occasionally enormous trees blocking the trail. He showed me trail building techniques like how to build water bars that direct the flow of water off the trail instead of running down it, eroding into ruts over time, which can create dangerous footing for horses and people alike. Eventually, I started to learn a few things about trail building and became a useful coworker.
Despite my increased knowledge and new skillset, my favorite part of the work was not the work. It was the place. I loved finding soft white mountain goat fur stuck in high elevation huckleberry bushes, and watching jays and hawks swoop above us in the August blue sky. Wildflowers on the edge of clear little streams brought a smile to my face. It made the hard work feel worth it.
At the end of each 10-day stint in the backcountry, Kurt and I would drive down the old dirt logging road, bumping along, tired and quiet, for three hours back to the interstate. We’d stop for milkshakes and burgers at the first small-town café on the side of the highway. We’d be ready for a few days away from each other, checking emails, getting drinks with friends, re-engaging with society. But while the warm showers of civilization felt good, I’d always look forward to our next chance to go back out into the wilderness for another hitch on the trail.
That summer laid a foundation for a lifelong passion. After college, I continued to develop my skills and knowledge about wild places, and their relationships to the people, plants, and animals that inhabit them or places nearby. I now have the great pleasure of working as a professional conservationist. I feel so lucky to go to work every day for wild places, wild animals, and the people, all of us, who need nature.
Jessie Grossman is the U.S. Program Manager at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. She is also the Board Chair for Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. She has a deep passion for wild landscapes and loves hiking local trails, hunting morel mushrooms and whitetail deer, and exploring on skis.