Fire in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness: Our ecologist blogs from 'the Bob' - Part 4


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We pack up our things for the last time, and strap on our packs. This day the pack goes on easier with a week’s worth of food eaten and much of the heavy field equipment being floated out by Andrew and Alina in packrafts. We hit the trail around 9:30 and within about 20 minutes and less than a half of a mile from camp, Cory and Matt catch a glimpse of a large print formed in the dust of the trail by a grizzly bear. The grizzly tracks are heading toward us, so we assume this particular bear must have passed by our camp within a few hundred yards, and isn’t in front of us on this day. Did the bear walk by our camp last night? Did it smell Leo’s jambalaya?  We follow the tracks for about a mile until they disappear, stopping occasionally to look, mentally measure, and appreciate the fact that we are in a place that is still haunted by this large, intimidating animal that is now confined to just a couple of states. It is best not to become complacent in grizzly country.

By the time we return to the Bob Marshall Wilderness sign, we’re all anxious to get back to our lives and find a salty meal somewhere. When we get to the car, cell phones, iPhones and Blackberries emerge, though they don’t work for another 2 hours. Once in Hungry Horse, calls, texts and emails are sent and received. We have officially left the wilderness and the mindset of being there allows. We all stink, are dirty, and a little giddy when we order pizzas in Big Fork. Despite the grime and stench - or perhaps because of it - we all are glowing and feeling refreshed after a week-long wilderness retreat from our daily grind.

We came to the wilderness seeking scientific data in old, burned larch forests, and we leave there with a stack of data sheets and the hopes of interesting analyses, scientific publications, and new applications of our research to restoration. Though is often the case, the treasures you find aren’t the ones you seek. In addition to the data, I’m leaving the Bob with a renewed appreciation for quiet country and time in a landscape where 600-year-old larch trees burn and grizzly bears roam, as they did a thousand years ago. It takes big landscapes to support fires and grizzlies. We need these big landscapes to remind us where we’ve come from, and potentially where we can go if we choose. We also need these big, quiet landscapes to have space away from our digital age with instantaneous information. If we didn’t have time away from computer screens and cell phones, we may very well forget how to enjoy our lives and the simple pleasures of spending time in the woods with good company.

I’m already looking forward to next year.