Voices in the Wilderness: Mel Vining

Before becoming the Executive Director of Idaho Trails Association, Melanie Vining worked for the USDA Forest Service in several roles, including hotshot crew member, smokejumper, and hydrologist and taught English in public schools. She lives in Council, Idaho with her husband, teenage sons, and a growing four-legged family of horses, mules and dogs. Everyone in the family spends as much time outside as possible and loves calling Idaho home.

Cadence: the beat, time, or measure of rhythmical motion or activity. 

OK, I had to look that up. I knew other words for it: rhythm, tempo, beat. But the definition eluded me. I have always loved the word cadence the best. It is just a beautiful word.

Last week, I took my horses and mules into the Hells Canyon Wilderness with an Idaho Trails Association volunteer youth trail crew. After what may qualify as the busiest summer I’ve had since the 2000 wildfire season, or maybe since the summer I had a toddler and a new baby at home, I relished three hours on the trail. 

The cadence of the trail. The sound that makes life make sense to me, makes it slow down, and puts Nature front and center, no matter the season or the time of day.

My saddle horse’s hooves played first chair in the band, beginning with the hollow ringing of metal shoes on rocks, then the low thumping as the trail passed through deeper forest soils. Pack mules’ hooves accompanied. The cadence of the trail. The sound that makes life make sense to me, makes it slow down, and puts Nature front and center, no matter the season or the time of day. The cadence of the trail is both slow and soothing, exciting and energizing. 

This year has been for me, as one ITA Board member foretold, like “drinking from a fire hose”. There is so much to learn about running a non-profit. So much to digest, from budget to project planning to outreach to fundraising. Fire hose indeed. The cadence of the first six months was akin to stampeding cattle. 

Looking back and seeing a dozen other people, most of whom I’d just met, embracing this trail as I was, caring for it. Wow. 

Then I spent a week this spring in Hells Canyon with our Board and staff clearing the Bernard Creek trail. The cadence of my feet climbing the trail each day as we worked higher and higher, of my breath finding the right rhythm for the pitch. Looking back and seeing a dozen other people, most of whom I’d just met, embracing this trail as I was, caring for it. Wow. 

Mel exploring trails of North Idaho on foot.

The April Hells Canyon trip was followed by a week in the Frank Church Wilderness with my youngest son, clearing trail with him and a mentor, the retired ITA executive director, and one of its founders. We joined a crew that was led by a woman who worked on trails in “the Frank” for thirty years. She was now volunteering to teach her skills to others. 

Time with these wonderful people and riding with my son, listening to our animals’ hooves pass over trails that had been used for centuries, “What the heck am I doing?” was a mere faint echo replaced with “Look what I get to do!”.

All told, I have been able to spend weeks in various wilderness areas this summer. I have been alone, with family (my wonderful husband volunteered one of his precious few days off as a wildland firefighter to hike in to deliver supplies to a youth crew just last weekend), and with friends, new and old. We are united by our love of the backcountry, and the trails that allow us to find our perfect cadence. Clop clop, scuffle, thud…ahhhh. 

Interested in writing a Voices in the Wilderness story for Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness? Contact us today at info@scotchmanpeaks.org

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