On the road…again!

Afghanistan to Zambia

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek


M for Montana


Having a railroad pass to travel anywhere in the United States was part of the plan to make a summer adventure in a new state after his sophomore year at Rutgers. He thoroughly enjoyed the previous summer working on the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, but something deep inside him always wanted to see what was beyond the next mountain, rather than to return to the place he already knew. Some folks take vacations to the same place, year after year. The Footloose Forester knew that such a choice was something he would not want for himself.  So, when he got the offer of a job on the Kootenai National Forest through the Forestry Department at Rutgers, he eagerly took it.  Getting there or close by, on a train, was going to be another adventure. 

The first couple of legs were the same as the previous year: Netcong, New Jersey to Buffalo; then Buffalo to Chicago.  At Chicago he had to change to the Burlington Northern line to Minneapolis; and part of the way was along the west bank of the Mississippi River. He delighted in recognizing the deep loess banks at Council Bluffs, Iowa. They were described during his geology class as Aeolian deposits transported by wind from more than a thousand miles away. Such morphological features were always somewhat mysterious to him and required a visual interpretation to gain an appreciation of them. If he recalls correctly, their probable source was in the Yakima River Valley of Washington, an area of gouged landscapes with volcanic soils. That is to say, the loess gouged out of the Yakima Valley was transported by wind and re-deposited along the banks of the Mississippi River at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Proving such things is what some geologists are routinely expected to do.  Also along the way, he finished the last of the sandwiches he had packed from home. Coping as a Footloose Forester often meant carrying the kinds of supplies most likely to be needed, so having food in his duffel bag was an essential item.

From Minneapolis west all the way to Montana was on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Along the way, he remembers meeting a a young Montana gentleman who was returning from an enlistment in the US Army in Germany, and a young girl who was taking a summer job at Glacier National Park.  The reason he remembers them both is because of the conversation they shared before the returning soldier disembarked at Big Sandy, Montana, his home town. She was from New Hampshire and her naiveté was unmistakable. She asked us where we were from, and when the lad said he hailed from Big Sandy, Montana, she then asked him where that was.  He explained that it was a little place on the high plains. She then asked him what he did there. He replied that he was a cow puncher.  She asked again, “a what?” He again replied, “a cow puncher.”  Then, with a blush on her pretty face, she once again asked, “What’s that?” Footloose Forester could not help but chuckle when he said, “Shucks, ma’am, I’m a cowboy.” You just can’t make this stuff up. 


A modern Montana cowboy

The cowboy got off a few stops later at Big Sandy and she got off at the West Glacier stop, a little further on. Footloose Forester continued on to disembark at Libby, Montana. For the life of him,  he cannot remember the slightest thing about the station or how he went the final miles to his duty post. Funny how one remembers some things in great detail, but cannot remember other things, at all.   

The assignment at Warland Ranger Station was 25 miles north of the National Forest headquarters at Libby.  He was supposed to be assigned as a Timber Management Aide, which meant that he would be marking timber for sale and would likely be given a pick-up truck to get him to the timber sales. It was a job he was looking forward to, but alas, he did not pass the depth perception test for a Montana Driver’s License. He is still puzzled about that test because he never before had a problem with depth perception and never before or after failed a depth perception test. In any case, they pulled him out of the woods assignment and put him on the On-Station Fire Control crew. 

The job was not his cup of tea, but it was a learning experience. For example, he learned how to put a proper edge on fire-fighting shovels, axes and Pulaski tools; to fine tune chain saws; to maintain Pacific Marine pumps; and a few other chores.  He was also given the assignment to take the local weather data, which involved taking daily temperature, relative humidity, and fuel moisture index, to arrive at the current fire danger index.  Along the way, he and others put a new shingle roof on the Ranger Station.  Those days along the aquamarine colored Kootenai River also included a few forest fires, but he remembers only one of them well enough to provide a few details.

The extremely dry fire season in Northern Montana that year of 1958 had us going back and forth.  One week we put in 105 hours, but he doesn’t remember all the places he and the crew went putting out smokes.  The one he does remember was called the Stone Mountain fire. From a starting point along the Kootenai River where we disembarked from the crew bus, to the site of the fire near the top of Stone Mountain, was about five miles—uphill. There was no other road that would get us nearer, and no chance to ferry us in helicopters. In those days the use of helicopters was very limited and we did not have one on the Kootenai.  So, it was a five mile slog uphill.  At 25 acres, it was a moderately large fire, as fires go, in northern forests. Footloose Forester remembers having to rest along the trail (with the other fire fighters) every half mile the first day, every mile the second day on the job, every other mile on the third day, and so on. We were not looking to set records, but after the end of a week we could all walk the entire five miles uphill without stopping. That was a fact worth remembering; and Footloose Forester felt like he was getting into pretty good shape.

At some point during that first week on the fire line, he got sick from eating days-old baloney sandwiches. It seems that a logistics coordinator in Libby ordered 1000 sandwiches shortly after the fire broke out; and those sandwiches were the only food we had on the fire line for at least four days. Eventually, the hot sun got to them and Footloose Forester and others got food poisoning.  We re-named the fire Baloney Hill. You could see a half dozen baloney sandwiches poking through the stubs of burned off braches along the way, to remind you that others were sick of them, too.  It would be another nine years before he could eat another baloney sandwich; such was the psychological aversion to the thought of eating something that made you sick.  

The Kelly green color of the glacier-fed Kootenai coming out of the Canadian Rockies was spectacular and the water was cold, even in the summer.  On occasion a few of us would take a dip, but never for more than a few minutes. Mostly, we spent our time along the banks fishing for cutthroat trout.  There were plenty of them but fishing would have been better if the current was not so swift.  It would be a great river on which to drift downstream in an inner tube. At least that was the case before the Libby Dam was built downstream and flooded the river valley all the way back into Canada and; in the process, forming the present-day Lake Koocanusa. The name probably implies its Canada and USA origins. The old Warland Ranger Station is now underwater.