Just Sawing Logs
By Lisa Schmidt
The horses were shod, the packs were tight, the water bottles were full.
My friend, Jennie, and I were ready for an overnight jaunt in the mountains. Jennie had plans to attend a wedding as soon as we returned, but we could fit a quick trip into her tight schedule.
We planned to follow the Olney-Nesbit trail over a pass, then loop around on the Wrong Creek trail and back to the truck and trailer parked at the West Teton campground.
It took us a half an hour to find the right trail.
Several trails begin at that campground, but the signs had burned in a fire a few years ago. They have yet to be replaced.
Our saving grace came with a topographical map. Fires don’t burn geology.
Fires also don’t burn all trees completely to the ground.
For years after a fire, standing dead trees test the question of “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there, does it make a sound?”
By the time we made camp, we had sawed through three logs that crossed the trail, found a way around several more and stepped over dozens.
The rejuvenated forest understory made up for the bleak blackened trees. Crimson Indian paintbrush, purple bluebells, golden balsamroot, creamy beargrass blooms and many others that this amateur botanist cannot identify bloomed among the broad leaves that had been waiting for years for some sunshine to reach the forest floor.
Hot hamburgers and horse pellets added another dimension to the festival of the senses.
Activity the next day used all of the energy from those hamburgers and horse pellets, plus more.
The trail to the top switchbacked on a steady gentle slope. But erosion after the fire had created a steep, straight line down the other side. Jennie and I tightened the cinches and hoped the saddles would not slip over the horses’ necks. We couldn’t meander off the trail because of the downed timber on both sides. If the horses had not known how to step over logs before, they certainly learned on that trail.
Two more sawed logs and many detours around trail-crossing dead trees later, we joined a trail used often by outfitters. This trail looked like Interstate 15 to us. We clip-clopped along, enjoying the enormity of the mountains contrasted with the tiny details of a ruffed grouse chick and hen, among other sights.
Apparently the Wrong Creek trail is not often used by outfitters.
We found the trail intersection according to the map and started weaving our way around downed trees, glad for the shade when we could find it. I could feel the sweat and dust layering thicker and thicker on my skin.
A half mile or so into the trail, four big logs laid about waist high across the trail. On either side, the forest looked like a giant had spilled an entire box of massive toothpicks.
Jennie and I took turns sawing and chopping. Sweat stung my eyes.
“I’m trying to think of something I’m mad about,” I said to Jennie when it was my turn with the ax. But life is pretty good so I could not use the ax for anger therapy.
We heaved and rolled the cut logs out of the trail and hopped into our saddles once again.
Around the bend, three more logs lay across the trail.
Out came the saw and ax.
We drank the last of our water.
Another bend in the trail, three more logs. By now, one horse had pulled a shoe when he hung up on a log stob and another had ripped a snap off his pack saddle.
Jennie scouted ahead while I stayed with the horses. Her report: nine more saw jobs within a quarter mile and who knows how many after that.
My watch said 5:00.
We were too far in to make it back to the truck before dark.
The map showed two options: Either ride out on the super-highway outfitter trail, over a pass that we had never ridden and would add 12 miles to our route or retrace our steps through and around burned logs in the dark.
The horses were hot and exhausted. Jennie and I were a bit wilted ourselves.
We rode back to good grass, unsaddled and set up the tent. No hamburgers tonight.
The next morning, as we watched our own horse tracks pass below the horses hooves, I reflected on the unfortunate budget priorities within the U.S. Forest Service — that the agency must save money to defend against frivolous lawsuits instead of hiring more trail crews to maintain access to some of the most beautiful vistas in the entire world.
I guess trail maintenance is our responsibility now. Our Back Country Horsemen club spends at least a weekend every summer month clearing trails. Jennie and I cleared the way to Wrong Creek. Anyone else going that way should bring a saw.
Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.
She has two children; Will, 16, and Abby, 7.
She can be reached at L.Schmidt@a-land-of-grass-ranch.com