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Jul 19 2013

Beauty just beyond the boundary

A spring traveler leaves civilization behind in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness

Exploring Montana, Featured

May is a funny month in Montana. The weather has finally warmed, the snow in the valleys is a distant memory, and the mind starts drifting towards summer. Yet, the snow stubbornly persists in the high country. Only the hardiest of travelers, willing to don snowshoes or climbing skins, can access those high alpine lakes and passes, leaving more weather-wary travelers like myself in the low country, impatiently gazing upwards in hopes of summer’s arrival.

Every May as the weather warms, I prepare for another summer season of hiking, backpacking and fishing in Montana’s storied mountain ranges, and every year I am forced to wait a few more weeks. But this year, I was more determined. After visiting some friends in Bozeman, I decided to head into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. I had driven the Gallatin Canyon many times, but am ashamed to say that my feet had trodden few of the valleys and ridges that extend in either direction from the road. To remedy this regrettable situation, I purchased a map and began studying the trails to find one suitable for an early season excursion.

The next morning, I drove south out of Bozeman and turned off onto a dirt road just a little bit north of Big Sky. After a mile and half, the trailhead parking area appeared on the right as the road continued uphill. I parked my car, arranged my backpack, and set out up the road, which continued for a half mile before giving way to a trail. On the way, I passed a few log homes, but once on the trail, every indication of civilization quickly melted away. 

My thoughts wandered as I walked. I was happy to be on my feet with a backpack on my back for the first time since the previous fall. After about a mile, I crossed into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, an area named after the former Montana senator and conservationist, and the last wilderness area designated in Montana, thirty years ago now. I continued up the trail and after another few miles, I started to hit snow. I had decided against bringing my snowshoes, because this trip wasn’t about a specific destination at the end of the trail. So, I happily returned to the boulder-strewn meadow through which I had passed a few minutes earlier. It was only one o’clock; plenty of time to soak in all the solitude the meadow had to offer.

A strong wind complicated the usually simple task of hanging my hammock, but I soon had it strung and sunk into it with a good book. For long periods, I set it down in my lap and just stared blankly up and down the forested ridgelines and to the other side of the canyon, where a group of six bighorn sheep quietly grazed along the rocky slope. 

I was only three miles from the trailhead, yet I felt like I was days from civilization. As I sat about, I thought how fortunate I was that this serene little canyon was part of a wilderness area. I had had to walk around a house in the first hundred yards of the trail, so it wasn’t too difficult to imagine how this area would have been developed if it had not been protected as wilderness. For the remainder of the night, I read, cooked dinner, ambled about the meadow, and climbed up the canyon wall to view my surroundings. It was the perfect night in the woods.

The next morning I awoke early, ate breakfast, broke camp, and was back to my car by 8:30 a.m. The phrase short and sweet never meant more to me. While we might normally think of wilderness as remote backcountry, unreachable to the average day hiker, this particular trip was a great reminder of how accessible wilderness can be. 

My trip also served as an important reminder of just how important wilderness is. What would that campsite have looked like if it were not part of Senator Lee Metcalf’s legacy? Would the trail be that quiet, the meadow so relaxing? It’s hard to say, but I’m sure glad that those questions are merely theoretical. 

This June, the Montana Wilderness Association kicked off the “Summer of Lee”, a four-month celebration of 259,000 acres of wilderness. It’s the perfect opportunity to visit one of our state’s most storied landscapes, and to remember how fortunate Montana is to have had leaders like Lee Metcalf, who protected the wild places that make Montana what it is today.

Michael Dax recently completed his masters degree in history at the University of Montana. He is an occasional contributer to High Country News and other publications. He's also an active volunteer with the Montana Wilderness Association in Missoula, MT.