Cherishing Wilderness in Step with Bob Marshall

In the six decades since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, it has shaped Montana’s landscape more than any other law, protecting 3.5 million acres in the Treasure State. But long before the landmark legislation, it began as one man’s wild idea.

By Kay Bjork
A hiker on Lindy Peak gains a new perspective of the Mission Mountain Wilderness. Photo by Kay Bjork

I spot the gray wooden sign, marked by time and possibly the teeth of a grizzly bear, that displays the fading words, “Bob Marshall Wilderness.” Even after two hours of steady uphill hiking, my step picks up, in anticipation of crossing into what feels like a sacred place. For me, the wooden sign marks a portal into another world.

Sixty years ago, in 1964, the Wilderness Act was passed to preserve otherworldly places like this, “recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain … an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions …”

Decades before, a young forester and hiking zealot, Bob Marshall, helped lay the groundwork for this timely effort, before his untimely death. He died from heart failure at the age of 39 years old in 1939. Even though he would not live to see his life’s work come to fruition, his efforts were memorialized by naming Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness area after him, one of the first established after the Wilderness Act was passed. When the Scapegoat Wilderness was established in 1972 and the Great Bear Wilderness established in 1978, they were added to comprise the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex spanning over 1.6 million acres, the third largest wilderness in the lower 48.

Because it bears his name, one might think Montana and the Bob Marshall Wilderness were at the heart of Marshall’s adventures; however, it represented only a fraction of the time he spent exploring the outdoors during his short but illustrious career as a forester, conservationist, writer, and social and political activist. He spent his summers as a youth and young man in the Adirondacks where he discovered the rewards and exhilaration of roaming in wild places and became one of the first to climb all 46 of the Adirondack peaks. The fact that he climbed 14 of them in 19 hours, which totaled 12,600 feet of elevation gain, revealed a somewhat obsessive approach to the activities he loved. It was an obsession that became centered on enjoying and preserving wilderness. 

A sign at Gordon’s Pass tells its own story with the passage of people and time. Photo by Kay Bjork

His education included a masters in forestry from Harvard and a PhD in plant physiology. His work with the Forest Service, which included serving as the head of recreation management, took him to many wild places throughout the rapidly developing America. The extremes of Alaska and time in the Wiseman community in 1930 inspired an affection for the people and place, as well as the book, “Arctic Village.” He visited over a dozen Indian reservations as director of the Forestry Division of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he also fought for the rights of minorities. Throughout his career he worked to protect wild places for everyone. He helped found the Wilderness Society in 1935, working to unite people in preserving wild places. 

It was his first Forest Service job after college that brought him to Montana, to the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station in Missoula. His primary work was researching forest reproduction after forest fires, but during his free time he was often drawn into the backcountry to do his own exploring. He was famous for his frenetic hiking pace sometimes covering over 50 miles in one day.

In 1928 he embarked on an eight-day, 288-mile trek into the Swan and Mission Mountain Wilderness. Some days he hiked over 40 miles, using nearly all of the daylight hours available at the end of August and early September. He ran up mountains, followed rocky ridges and down brushy gorges as the sun’s arc softened, days grew shorter and the high mountain country colors warmed to orange and reds as temperatures cooled.

Marshall set a high bar for hikers who might aspire to follow in his footsteps, which can’t all be replicated anyway, as the passage of time has changed the topography of the area with man’s building of the Hungry Horse dam and nature’s own remodel through wind, fire and water. His trek began at Echo Lake and led him into the Jewel Basin, now designated as a hiking-only area, and continued into what was later designated as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Mission Mountain Wilderness.

I have followed in some of his footsteps, although my preference for days hikes has limited me to only skirting sections of the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, the depths of which would require more time than a single day affords – unless you are of the hiking caliber of Bob Marshall. The Mission Mountain Wilderness can be reached more quickly, sometimes less than a mile up the trail, allowing hikers to spend the better part of the day in actual wilderness.

I have hiked over a thousand miles throughout these spectacular places, but over several decades of time. (I could tell you exactly how many miles if I kept detailed logs like those recorded in Marshall’s journals.)  Many of those miles I have revisited dozens of times, which might seem redundant, but with nature’s constant change they are never the same.

For Marshall, it was the first time exploring this still wild place. His hiking journal shows that he began this trek on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 1928. He rose at 6:30 a.m. with a departure from Echo Lake at 8:35 a.m. Not that impressive of an hour for embarking on an ambitious eight-day trek, until you read that he walked six miles and climbed at least 4,500’ of elevation to reach the top of Mount Aeneas at 7,510 feet by 11:10 a.m. the first morning. 

I try to picture his summit, imagining it based on my own experiences ascending its pinnacle dozens of times. I wonder if goats peered curiously over the ridge to see this young man scramble to the top where he could see Flathead Lake, Glacier National Park, the Swan and Mission mountains, and beyond. I wonder if the goats were more fearful in those early days than they are today when a hundred people might visit the mountaintop on a busy summer day. Knowing he often averaged four miles an hour, I doubted that he took much time to sit at Picnic Lakes to gaze back up to Mount Aeneas before continuing to Clayton Lake and then Handkerchief Lake. His day would take him over Crater Lake Divide to the South Fork of the Flathead River and end at the Elk Park Ranger Station at around 7 p.m. with plenty of time for dinner and a two-mile “stroll down the road.” He hiked a total of 30 miles that first day; the shortest day of the eight-day adventure.

Turquiose Lake reflects the rugged Mission Mountains on a windless summer day. Photo by Kay Bjork

The first days of his trek brought him to the Elk Park, Spotted Bear and Black Bear ranger stations where he was fed, given shelter and the companionship and conversation of like-minded outdoorsmen.  

 Many of the next days he covered up to 42 miles daily on rugged terrain, ambling up ridges to mountain tops, over passes and down to lakes where he probably found solitude and awe-inspiring beauty as he climbed the iconic Chinese Wall, passed along wild and scenic designated rivers that lay in broad basins, and hiked through verdant forests and grassy meadows.

On the sixth day he hiked over Gordon Pass, historically and currently a popular trail for horseback trip outfitters. His trek included the Holland Lake lookout, Sapphire Lake and Upper Holland Lake — places I have been several times while on a nearly 20-mile loop hike, which is probably at the outer reaches of my hiking day and ability. Marshall doubled that most days and hiked for many consecutive days without taking a day off. My memories of hikes in this scenic area include a horseman dozing in the sunshine while his horses grazed in a grassy meadow near Gordon Pass, a careful crossing on a steep rocky slope beneath the lookout, and a lightning-speed dip into a frigid Sapphire Lake. Also, the brownies and camp coffee at Upper Holland Lake to help us down the last leg of the trail.

For the final two days of his trek, Marshall crossed the Swan Valley into the area known today as the Mission Mountain Wilderness. The 73,877-acre area was designated as wilderness in 1975. This rugged area is more suited to hikers than horsemen and might have offered Marshall another kind of wilderness experience than the horsemen-dominated areas where he spent his first six days. His hiking log listed numerous alpine lakes including Glacier, Turquoise and Heart, as well as summits of at least seven peaks, including Daughter of the Sun and Point St. Charles. According to his journals, his journey ended at Elbow Lake, known today as Lindbergh Lake.

Over the years I have probably spent the most time hiking in the Mission Mountain Wilderness, where the headwaters of Swan Lake pass in front of my home on the shores of Swan Lake, giving me a poetic connection to the landscape. We have wandered for hours in this high country, up ridges to mountain tops, along tumbling creeks, and strings of sparkling alpine lakes. Wandering off trail, to truly untrammeled places, conjures the intriguing question of whether anyone else has made the exact same steps in this wild and wonderful expanse.

We have discovered what looked like a tiny fairy lake nestled in a rock shelf framed by a wildflower garden. Once we shared a spring in the slanted pink rock slabs with a goat who arrived to watch us fill our water bottles, as if waiting in line at a water fountain. I have plunged into the icy waters of Turquoise when it was still fringed with ice.

Bob Marshall “stressed the spiritual and aesthetic values of the wilderness for all people.”

He speaks a lot about aesthetic, that goes beyond reason or practicality for those of a more pragmatic approach. But if you have climbed a mountain and felt both small and large as the layers of mountains and valley floors spread out before you, or floated a clear river that goes from glass to froth, or flowed in Zen-like steps through a canopy of trees where the sunlight sprinkles the forest floor — you know that the aesthetic is a big part of it.

Right before he began his trek in the Swan and Mission mountains an article written by Marshall, “Wilderness as a Minority Right,” was published in the U.S. Forest Bulletin. He wrote, “The enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness.” It appeared that Marshall was speaking for himself as well as for others. Although he had considerable wealth, he seemed happiest when life was in its most basic and primitive state.

There are hidden treasures around every corner in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photo by Kay Bjork

Wilderness can be a great equalizer. Nature offers her wildness, her beauty and her dangers to all visitors — without prejudice. For many, wilderness might just be a pretty picture. But the profound wilderness experience can’t really be fully captured with words or even a photograph. Pretty photos don’t show the bugs that swarm your nose, the heat that crawls down your back, the discomfort of a pack cutting into your shoulders or the tenderness of each step on sore feet. A photo also can’t capture the emotions that can be felt in the wilderness.

Here is a place that will dish out a full range of human experience — excitement, wonder, exhilaration, peace — as well as pain, fatigue, misery, and fear. A wilderness experience is a lot like a feast with many courses that leaves you satisfied and full, and often with a hunger for more.

That’s where the obsession, the addiction for visiting and preserving wild places might lie. Here is a way and a place where you can feel like you are completely living life using all your senses, free of the distractions of a modern world.

Sixty years ago, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, he said, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.” 

Because of the Wilderness Act, we can be grateful that there are still places where we have the privilege and the thrill of “seeing the world as it was in the beginning.” 

Yes, siree, Bob.