In the summer of 2019, I took a job in the Idaho wilderness with the US Forest Service as a wilderness ranger. My duty station was on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, otherwise known, to the dramatic, as the River of No Return. The river’s popular with whitewater rafters and thrill-seekers as well as the more well-to-do that spend up to $10,000 a week to stay at Wi-Fi-equipped cabins with hot tubs and mini-golf. My cabin, unfortunately, sported propane appliances, propane lights, and a wood stove for heat. I shared it with two trail workers, Mike and Andy, and dozens of venomous spiders (who, unlike Mike and Andy, contributed nothing to rent payments). I went out there for a few reasons: I’d worked for the Forest Service for a couple summers in Arizona, the job paid well, it sounded fucking bad-ass, and the work schedule was awesome. Sure, I worked 8 ten-hour days in a row, but I got 6 full days off after. Since the duty station was only accessible by plane, raft, and a 25-mile hike, the Forest Service gave us all that time off so we could actually either pay upwards of two hundred bucks for a flight out or get some actual fucking hiking done. I opted for the latter.
Mike and Andy were both skilled hikers: Mike was given the nickname “Strong Mike” early on in our season, and Andy had once completed the 25-mile hike to our little guard station at Indian Creek in 10 hours, which was no easy feat over the rough-and-tumble terrain of Idaho’s Salmon Mountains. Andy liked to take his days off back in Missoula with his girlfriend, so Mike and I stayed up late one night, getting plastered and squishing spiders, and came up with a plan: we’d knock out the 11-mile hike from the guard station to Big Baldy, a nearby mountain peak. Big Baldy was about 5,700 feet above the guard station, so we figured that elevation gain over 11 miles wasn’t too bad. Of course, we forgot to factor in that we were fucking idiots. Big Baldy was also home to an old, abandoned Forest Service fire lookout tower, so we decided to ditch the tents and ground tarps and take the key to the tower with us.
A little background history real quick: the Salmon Mountains are well-known for mining and hunting activities. Remember when I referred to our lack of brain cells and computing power? We hadn’t considered what the trail looked like when it wasn’t on a topographical map. The Baldy trail was actually cut by trappers on horseback using plows, meaning it wasn’t really meant for people. Sure, it was only 11 miles, but of the 5,700 feet we had to climb, about 4,000 of them were right in the first mile and a half of that goddamned trail. When we left at 6am on our second-to-last day off, we figured that shit out real quick. It took us about two hours to get to a point where we couldn’t hear the river anymore, and it took everything in me to keep from turning around right then and there. The trail was in good condition, but loose, rocky soil on a 45-degree climb made for an absolutely hellish hike. After that first bit, though, the mountains opened up. We struggled upwards and watched the landscape as it transformed around us: high desert to aspen stands to alpine meadows to the tree line. Looking out over the Frank Church Wilderness, it was hard to believe I’d used a refrigerator last night. There wasn’t a single person or building in sight.
Some hikers had come in a few days prior off the Baldy trail and let us know that there was still snow on the peak, and the trail was partially lost underneath it. “The good thing is, you can just follow the spots where there’s no trees,” is something the dumbass had actually said to me. Great advice, chief! You know where else there aren’t any trees? Crevasses! Cliffsides! Cave openings! Once we reached the snowfall he mentioned, we opted to go up and over it on the pale, loose stones of the mountainside, which is where I damn near shit myself for about the third time that day, when some of the rocks rolled out from under me to plummet over the ¾-mile drop just below us. By the time I finally got to the lookout tower, Mike was ahead of me by a good solid mile, and I had to take a break just a few hundred feet from the damn thing just so I wouldn’t die on my feet right then and there.
When I’d finally finished pathetically struggling up the stairs to the tower, Mike had already started a little fire in the woodstove with the scarce firewood he could find. We got to work boiling snow on the stovetop for drinking water and ransacking the antiquated supplies the last lookout had left behind. We found an old container of Tang (every good hike ends with Tang, one way or another) and some apple cider mix packets and decided to relax after our freeze-dried dinner by mixing them with some whiskey Mike had brought from the guard station. We sat in the dark (real men don’t bring lights on hikes, and idiots forget them) and watched a thunderstorm roll in from the north, heat lightning and all. I wrapped the burst blisters on seven of my toes, rubbed my shoulders, and lay down to sleep on a mattress that was probably 75% mouse shit.
The next morning, Mike decided to head off to a distant lake to spend the night communing with nature and rediscovering himself. I found out later he actually spent his whole time there slaughtering trout in a nearby brook with a stick like a fucking caveman. This left me to complete the return trip by myself. The nice thing about a mountain hike is that the way back is always easier. Right? Right? Wrong, motherfucker! Turns out that going down a loose, uneven, steep-ass slope with a 30-pound pack is just as hard, if not harder! I ended up on my ass, sliding and scooching inch by inch until the trail leveled out by the riverside. I tightened my straps, wiped the sweat off my brow, and started the last three-quarters of a mile back to the guard station. About 25 feet in, I was rudely interrupted by what appeared to me to be the smallest, most ferocious-looking bear I’d ever seen. I was informed later that this was a little critter known as a “badger,” though I wouldn’t have fucking known it to look at the damn thing. The badger puffed up, hissed loud as all hell, and started running down the trail my way. Now I might have some trainings, maybe a couple certifications, but I don’t give a damn who you are; you don’t know what the fuck to do when you’re being run down by a pint-size omnivore with the attitude of a fucking Mack truck. So I did what came naturally: I got big as I could, I threw pinecones, and then I fucking hauled ass the other way. A few minutes of running got me enough distance that the bastard lost interest, and I could finally head home. I found out later my antics had been witnessed by some guys in a raft on the river who then reported it to the ranger on duty at the guard station, which explained the mocking calls I got on the radio after.
All in all, yeah, it wasn’t too bad a hike. The views were worth it, at least. Wouldn’t face down another one of them fuckin’ badgers, though.