Like Cutthroats, Elk, and Budweiser? Thank the Bob Marshall Wilderness

bob marshall wilderness
The Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.Courtesy Sam Beebe/Flickr

Following Kraig Lang through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, on skis in terrible snow conditions, is a lot like watching the martial artist Bruce Lee play Ping-Pong with his nunchucks (and yes, I know the video turned out to be a fake, which makes my point even stronger, ye doubters and naysayers). What Lang is doing looks impossible—hurdling along over the surface of the snow, a thin crust of ice over three feet of unconsolidated mush—but he's doing it, and he is a man, and I am a man, so I can do it, as well. And then you awake to the reality: you can't do it. A dozen teetering, gut-busting near-spills and a stump upside your face later, you pluck yourself, soaked with sweat within and meltwater without, from yet another icy drift and you go back to the careful calorie-torching slog you used before: 1.5 miles per hour. The loop we are skiing is about 78 miles, all in all.

We were on the first day of this year’s March wilderness snow survey on the Lewis and Clark National Forest, near my home in Montana. The snow survey is conducted three times per year at the ends of February, March, and April. Lang is our local U.S. Forest Service backcountry ranger, and this is the 50th snow survey of his career (a fact that, being a man of long silences born of his solitary job, he does not mention until well into the trip). This is my third, and I’ve done the survey on skis in a howling 20-below blizzard in February, and once in April, in hot sunshine with a full belly and mounted on a fine gaited horse and surveying the mighty wilderness like an emperor in the heart of his domain.

This survey, in these snow conditions, will be a horse of a very different color. My son Harold is with us, on his first snow survey. He will turn 17 on this trip.

Our job (Harold and I are volunteers) is to help determine how much water will come down the North Fork of the Sun River, go into Gibson Reservoir, and be available for maintaining fish survival (sort of—Montana actually has no minimum instream flow laws to protect fisheries, a fact that might change someday) as well as for irrigating the agriculture that turns the wheels of this part of Montana's economy. In particular, this wilderness snowpack will provide the water for the 91,000 acres or so of the Greenfields Irrigation District, which in turn makes the town of Fairfield (population 800 or so) the celebrated "Malting Barley Capital of the World." Anheuser-Busch is the major buyer of the crop, so every American who hoists a cold Budweiser at the end of the workday can toast the visionaries who, in 1897, created one of the nation's first national forests here, and also toast the wild and jumbled Rocky Mountain Front itself, and the wilderness in it and behind it, the wilderness that protects all of that irrigation water, and all of that elk and deer hunting, cutthroat trout fishing, and world-class wandering, free for the experiencing. If there has ever been a collection of so many wins for humankind and wildlife as the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I've personally never seen it.

The snow-sampling system is an idea of simple genius, invented by a visionary pragmatist. In 1906, James E. Church was an athletic Michigander with a wandering intellect and feet to match. Church was educated in Germany and made his living as a professor of Latin, German, and the fine arts, but his true passions lay in the studies of science and weather. While teaching at the University of Nevada, he established one of the nation’s first high-altitude weather stations, at 10,785 feet on the summit of Mount Rose, the tallest peak in Nevada’s Carson Range. At the time, California and Nevada were engaged in what was described as “a bitter water war” over rights to the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe. Church was among the first to try to understand, before the irrigation season began, how much water could be expected from those critical irrigation sources. His tools, which he invented, were the corer (marketed as, and still called, the “Mount Rose Snow Sampler”), the scale, and “the snow course,” a series of measuring sites that vary by aspect and elevation, exposure, and shade. Taken as a whole, the tools create a critical picture of the coming flood and irrigation season.

Church’s system was adopted across the West. In 1935, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) created the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecast. It now includes 900 manual snow courses, as well as 750 automated Snowpack Telemetry Weather Stations (SNOTEL) across 13 western states including Alaska, mostly in high-mountain watersheds. SNOTEL stations automatically deliver snowpack and water equivalent information to the NRCS via VHF radio signals, but manual snow courses in wilderness areas are still monitored by humans (which is what Harold and Kraig and I were doing). Church’s system adds up to a huge collection of information about the one thing—water—that agriculture and human habitation in the arid West cannot survive without. For snow surveyors, it means a lot of adventure time in high-mountain weather during late winter and early spring. As Kraig Lang once told a reporter who asked about his winter work, “I spend three weeks of the month dreaming about that one week of the month.”

Because we are on a job, we’re able to use some of the U.S. Forest Service wilderness work cabins as night stops. Because of the snow conditions, the best traveling is from just before daylight, when the temperatures are lowest, to about noon, when the snowpack becomes almost impossible to traverse. A 10-mile ski that takes two hours or less in perfect conditions—hard packed snow and powder on top—takes six or eight hours in the kinds of conditions we’re traveling in, where at best you can stay on top for a 100 feet or so. At lower elevations, we ski long stretches of slush over mud, trying to connect the snowfields rather than take skis off and slog over bare ground and deadfall to the next stretch of snow. The snow bridges across the creeks are thin, and some collapse as we cross, forcing a scramble upward before a boot dunking, which happens as well. We cross logs, small creeks, thickets of snow-buried willow already starting to leaf out, all with skis on, and always cognizant of the fact that, if the ski breaks (this has happened multiple times on snow surveys) a moderately difficult trip becomes a terrific challenge. I remember how I felt once, back here in February with 56 inches of good snow beneath us—the skis are like a sailboat on an ocean of water. Without them, you are basically swimming in the wilderness, or slogging in a way that recalls the grim days of the Donner party, with a careful eye on one’s companions for who’s the fattest.

The usual method of long-distance ski travel is to have the most powerful and skilled person start out in the front, breaking trail, with the next following closely behind (unless you are in avalanche terrain, where you wait safely for the person in front to cross any dangerous slopes and attain safety before you head across yourself, closely observed in case of a slide) and a third or fourth person skiing the smoothed out, well-broken track, and saving lots of energy, humming to oneself, looking around at the grandeur, and generally having a fine time of it, until called upon to take over the trail breaking when the leader wears out. This usually works, and we’d planned on making my son Harold (a distance runner in high-school track) break most of the trail for us oldsters. But for most of this trip, Lang, who is even older than I am, stayed out in front in the plowhorse position, paying a high physical price for being so much more skilled than we are.

I fell farther and farther behind, until, sometime during days three and four, I embraced my lack of skills and power, and simply drifted in the track made by the long-gone Lang and Harold. On the early morning ice crust, on the steeper side hills, my downhill ski just wouldn't hold, and after a mile or so of struggle, I gave up and put on my climbing skins, which slowed me down even more. A wonderful transformation occurred, though. Earlier, as we'd skied fast down trails in conditions not half bad, I was intent on making time and keeping up. A sudden appearance of moose and elk tracks in the trail were fascinating only because I was hoping with all my might that I'd be able to ski over the holes without a wipeout. Same was true with the meandering plunge-prints, big as a snowshoe track, of early-riser grizzlies (and the grizz tracks that did not post-hole through the crust, but stayed on top, clearly at a trot, could not help but remind me just how easy it would be for such a mighty beast to come padding out of the timber, snatch me from the ensnaring snow, and eat me like a Milk Dud).

But, abandoned by my companions, skinning along slowly and alone, I felt much better. The early-morning sunlight burst through a heavy spring overcast and lit the snowbound bulk of Hahn Peak in glorious cathedral splendor. Mists rose and tumbled to reveal the north end of the Chinese Wall far to the west. We were north of Gates Park now, and headed for Wrong Ridge, and the country north of Gates Park, to me, is a place so removed from the tumult and smoke and blather of human life that it is almost magical, as if another, older reality prevailed, as if the ancient stories and petroglyphs of trickster coyotes and talking bears could still be a fact of normal daily life here. I climbed over a series of logs in what must be, in the brief wink of summer, a marsh, willows sticking up all through the snow, their bark as red as lung blood, vibrant and alive. There was no big game up this high, but the utterly distinctive tracks of wolverines crossed and crisscrossed the open expanse, joined by the splayed tracks of a lynx, a few snowshoe hares, a weird Loch Ness monster trail that Lang would tell me later was an otter, passing through on a mission that we would never know the why of.

I find Harold and Kraig Lang waiting for me, skis off, in a deep canyon where the upper North Fork of the Sun River is thrashing and boiling between banks of five-foot deep snow. One solid snow bridge remains, and we cross it one at a time, throwing the skis across so carefully, packs unbuckled for ditching in case we end up in the maelstrom. To leap a gap in the bridge, we each extend one ski pole (they are adjustable), make sure a hand is firmly in the handle strap, and the man who is safely across grabs the end of it and yards on it as you jump, pulling you through the air, and providing a chance for rescue if you land short in the water.

All three of us cross without any trouble. Harold says he knows my skis must be giving me a fit (because I’m so far behind) and offers to let me use his. There has obviously been a deeply subversive conversation going on while these two wilderness athletes have been waiting for the thrashing sloth-geezer, the same man who was once (when Harold was a short legged child) way out front, yelling for him to speed it up and quit the lollygagging. Now, my son, 17 just that day, was offering me his skis.

“But of course,” he said, suppressing a grin, “when and if you fall far behind again, you’ll have no excuses left. It will be even more humiliating.”