Love, Trail Work, and the North Fork
A Volunteer Trail Crew trip to the Blackfoot River reveals some surprising personal connections
From the north, drive about five miles past Ovando on MT-200 and swing a left onto a gravel road. 12 miles later, you’ll pull up at the North Fork Blackfoot River Trailhead, one of the gateways to the Scapegoat Wilderness.
Snaking its way north and east out of the parking lot, the Hobnail Tom Trail parallels the North Fork of the Blackfoot River as it flows from its headwaters on the Continental Divide through a steep canyon, carved by glaciers and finished off by the erosive force of the river.
The area was burned in the Canyon Creek Fire of 1988, and while the scars are still evident – charred trees and blowdowns are prominent – the new life is breathtaking. Young trees, vibrant grasses, and shrubs are everywhere, and wildflowers are scattered liberally along the open slopes.
Given its relatively low elevation, the Hobnail Tom Trail is one of the first trails into the Scapegoat to melt out in the spring. It’s a crucial main line for early administrative access and its longstanding importance to outfitters, including its legendary namesake “Hobnail Tom” Edwards, has solidified this trail’s reputation as one of the primary southern arteries of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Since the Hobnail Tom is so important to our agency and outfitting partners, MWA’s stewardship team set out this spring to help the Seeley Lake Ranger District address some early season maintenance needs. Our primary goal was to construct a spur trail down to a river ford, which will be necessary when the Forest Service replaces an old bridge over the North Fork later this summer.
This trip started like most Volunteer Trail Crew (VTC) projects: the crew of eight volunteers gathered in the evening, exchanged a round of warm welcomes, established camp, and made a fire to see us through the still chilly spring night. I expressed my gratitude for the volunteers who were taking the time to contribute, gave an overview of the project, and explained the significance of our work even though, to these dedicated trail dawgs, no explanation was needed.
One of the great joys of getting to know a new VTC cohort is learning what motivates trail dawgs to come dig dirt in the wilderness and hearing the often highly personal stories that motivate folks to join the crew. Working alongside one another and sharing our experiences, our reasons for being there quickly become each other’s and before long, the whole crew is working toward a cause that supersedes personal interest.
On this project, the personal connections of the crew to the place ran deep, and they helped foster one of the strongest commitments to our work I’ve seen in all my years leading trail projects. The folks who came out to give their sweat to the trail came from different walks of life and had fallen for the North Fork in different ways, but their common love for the landscape brought them together.
In years gone by, a staffed lookout tower perched atop East Spread Mountain, which we’d gaze at every morning during our “commute”. As it turned out, one of our crew members had been the last lookout to man that tower during its last two summers of operation in the late 1970s, a decade before the Canyon Creek Fire. He’d spent countless hours gazing down into the North Fork and out at the Bob and the Scapegoat, and had come back to give some sweat to the landscape he’d surveyed from on high.
Hiking past the Lake Creek Drainage would bring us to a junction with the Hobnail Tom Trail. In our ranks, toting a pulaski and wearing a hardhat, was a trail dawg with a family connection to this trail: the grandson of Hobnail Tom himself. He was stepping onto a trail he knew well, both from family lore and a formative summer over thirty years ago he spent volunteering for the Forest Service at the North Fork Cabin.
After another quarter mile, we’d reach the first stock bypass section. An MWA crew had improved this stretch of trail the previous summer, and one of our current volunteers had been a part of the project. Now, she meticulously critiqued her efforts from the season prior, examining just how well her work had withstood the winter snows and spring runoff. A trail dawg after my own heart!
At the three mile mark, we’d cross into the Scapegoat Wilderness and make for Smoke’s Bridge, named after North Fork outfitting legend Smoke Elser. Around the campfire at night, we’d hear tales of Smoke and North Fork outfitting adventures from Jack Rich, who ran his pack train along this same trail and was becoming a Bob Marshall Country outfitting legend in his own right.
Half the crew had deep personal connections to the North Fork of the Blackfoot, spanning decades and generations. These volunteers had already been seduced by “the hush of the land” and they knew maintaining the Hobnail Tom Trail would help preserve that hush for those who might come after us.
It was a productive trip, but there’s more work to be done in and around the Blackfoot. We’re proud to announce that, on June 7th, Senator Jon Tester announced that he was reintroducing the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (BCSA) which will add nearly 80,000 acres of Wilderness, including the southern end of the Hobnail Tom Trail, to the Scapegoat, Bob Marshall, and Mission Mountains Wilderness Areas. The BCSA is the result of over a decade of collaboration between local loggers, ranchers, outfitters, conservationists, snowmobilers, business owners, and outdoor recreationists, and we're proud of the part we've played in setting the stage for permanent protection of this special place.
You can learn more about the BCSA here, and I encourage you to call Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte at (406) 510-0339 and request that they support the BCSA.
- Sonny Mazzullo, MWA stewardship coordinator