Voices in the Wilderness: Patrick Shea

Yellowstone was my first love. Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley, and Old Faithful Geyser Basin stole my heart, but the Northwestern Rockies took my soul. I was molded by the subtlety of the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina, but Yellowstone dropped me into a new world of enchantment and awe.

I worked in Yellowstone National Park for a month during the summer of 2017, and returned for an entire season during the summer of 2018 after having fallen completely in love with “dirt work.” However, it was during my second summer working for the Yellowstone Youth Conservation Corps that I started looking to the mountains. Longing for the mountains. Wishing to exist within them.

I started looking to the mountains. Longing for the mountains. Wishing to exist within them.

I started looking to the mountains when I began a week-long project installing bear boxes at the Bridge Bay campground. Installing bear boxes is a 20 step process that involves everything from precise measurement to lifting a 500lb hunk of metal and carefully placing four awkward legs over a bolt. In other words, installing bear boxes is a grueling process that is significantly different from working on trails.

 Maybe the feeling was born from a jealousy that I had close friends working on trails juxtaposed with the frustration of bear box installation. Or maybe it had more to do with a newfound obsession with exploration. Regardless, at every chance, I would look up across the lake into the Absorkas. 

 But, something changed that week in Bridge Bay. I would finish pouring cement into a post hole, and I would look to the mountains. 


I spent the next summer working for the Idaho Conservation Corps. I was put on a project in the Salmon National Forest cutting tread along the Continental Divide Trail. The work was hard, but I was in the mountains. I woke up early every morning to boil water before our five-minute walk to our worksite. As the weeks progressed, the more tread we cut, the longer my walk became in the morning. What started as a five-minute walk to work became an hour-long trek as we continued to cut tread along the CDT. I remember my “CDT mornings” as some of the most magical times I’ve spent in the mountains. But my obsession persisted. Through the pouring rain, the oppressive heat, and indifferent snow, I would look across the Salmon Valley to an intersection formed by the Bighorn Crags and Fishfin Ridge. 

“That’s where the real mountains are,” I’d think. 

“That’s where I want to be.” 

The raw exhaustion that carried my blistered feet across scree fields back to camp at the end of the day only amplified this jealousy.

The raw exhaustion that carried my blistered feet across scree fields back to camp at the end of the day only amplified this jealousy. I’d hear the district’s wilderness rangers, Harry and Maizie on the radio as they navigated the Frank Church, and I’d imagine roaming the wilderness alone. Digging tread for five weeks is physically exhausting. The repetition of swiping a pulaski or a mattock is emotionally draining. On days that the 6:00 a.m. walk from camp would drain my love for working in the dirt, I would look to the mountains.  


Without question, my worst day out of my four summers of work in the Conservation Corps world was a Friday during the summer of 2019 spent in the Clark Fork Delta. The project was a run-of-the-mill invasive species project. We bagged oxeye daisies, pulled mullein, and weeded bull thistle on islands marking the terminus of the Clark Fork River. By 2 pm, I had had enough. I was exhausted from wading through waist-deep swampy water and yearning for a pint of Ben-and-Jerry’s. However, it wasn’t the promise of ice cream that carried me through the day, it was a series of snow-capped peaks to my northwest.

Those mountains promised something detached from the sounds of the highway and above the heat of the valley They were too great not to indulge.

Those mountains promised something detached from the sounds of the highway and above the heat of the valley They were too great not to indulge. I looked to the mountains. I did not know they were the Scotchmans.  


The relationship between wildfire smoke and the early August sun is nothing short of magical. A red hue echoed throughout the southeast corner of the Scotchmans as I lugged my tools and overnight gear up for a two-day patrol on Pillick Ridge. Back in June, I had helped the trail crew clear the first seven miles of Pillick Ridge on one of my first 10 hour workdays. The trail slowly weaves up to rock formations on the eastern side of the Scotchmans before abruptly climbing up to the ridge. The first four hours of my patrol were fairly uneventful, hiking on the same section I had helped clear two months before. But after the seventh mile, what had been a clear, consistent, well-defined trail became a mess of down trees and tread destroyed by game and uncertain hikers. I cleaned down trees and reworked sections of trails destroyed by erosion for another four hours before continuing on to the intersection of Napoleon Gulch Trail and the Pillick Ridge Trail. Although the Cabinet mountains were hidden behind a layer of smoke, a stark contrast to the snow-covered peaks of early June, Billiard Table, Sawtooth Mountain, and Star Peak was visible.

I set up camp near a water source almost dry from the summer’s heatwaves and sat down with my back against a tree looking down into the Clark Fork valley. I was in the mountains, I was alone, and I looked up at the Montana Stars. 

I set up camp near a water source almost dry from the summer’s heatwaves and sat down with my back against a tree looking down into the Clark Fork valley. I was in the mountains, I was alone, and I looked up at the Montana Stars. 


I fell asleep in the mountains. 

Patrick Shea is a student at Gonzaga University who spent this past summer as a Backcountry Ranger in the Kootenai National Forest. He is originally from Asheville, North Carolina, where he grew up exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains with his Pawpaw who is a section maintainer on both the Appalachian Trail and the Mountains to Sea Trail. After working for the Youth Conservation Corps in Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 2017 and 2018, Patrick has spent the past four summers working on trails in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Interested in writing a Voices in the Wilderness story? Contact us today at info@scotchmanpeaks.org

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