By Fletcher Keyes, for the Big Sky Weekly

This summer a wildfire has torched more than 800 acres of
Montana’s 1,009,356-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness. This
leaves well over a million acres of forest in pristine condition.
Thank God.

At the end of July, I spent one week in the depths of that
magical place. It was my first backpacking trip, and I emerged
from it reborn, smelling like campfire and body odor, and unknowingly
wearing remnants of the previous night’s s’more
on my face. Mission accomplished.

My prior camping experience consisted of driving to campsites
in beautiful locations, pitching my tent 12 feet from the
car, and cooking baked beans and hot dogs over what could
have been labeled as fire-pits but would be more appropriately
called barbecues.

“This is the life,” I remember telling myself on one such
night. I’d kicked back under the stars, and was using all my
mental capacity to block the sound of the next-door camper’s
car stereo blasting NSYNC’s greatest hits.

That was before a heart-throbbing love of the Bob entered
my life. Before my definition of camping changed from a long
scenic drive and a community campground, to an eight-hour
hike spent under the hot sun, swatting horseflies and mosquitoes,
climbing over deadfall, and setting up camp 14 miles
from the nearest trailhead.

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Thanks to the expertise of the good
folks I camped with, our expedition
traveled in style, hiring local
outfitters to pack our gear in with a
parade of mules. This left our group
with nothing more to do than worry
about the hike itself.

As an inexperienced deep woods
camper, I found the level of technology
on our trip shocking. We
had a solar shower that rivaled most
fleabag hotels, and bear boxes I’d
have placed money on surviving a
nuclear explosion. In addition we
had a full kitchen set, recreational
gear, and the pinnacle of them all, a
bear fence. This mesh fence packed
6,000 watts of electricity into any
creature unlucky enough to touch
it, a worthy fortress for our week’s
supply of food.

When we weren’t fishing or hiking
we kept busy with what I call “day
activities”: Frisbee golf, wiffle
ball, ladder ball, cribbage, and
the consistent hooting and hollering
that can only be associated
with absolute freedom. The “night
activities” were strewn between
campfires, s’mores, the occasional
splash of whiskey, and contemplating
one’s existence under the stars.

It wouldn’t have been a proper
camping trip without wolf howls,
which we practiced regularly, but
the best night was when the wolves
howled back.

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We’d heard this was the Bob’s worst
bear season in recent years, due to
the late spring thaw. I was half-expecting
a wilderness version of Park
Avenue full of Winnie the Poohs,
so I kept a constant lookout.
One afternoon three days into our
trip, a friend and I were hiking a
couple miles from our camp when
we discovered a bear track in the
mud that looked as fresh as our
own footprints. We took a minute
to process and then kept walking,
thinking the wisest move would
be to cross the river to the opposite
bank. The bear was thinking along
the same lines.

As soon as we crossed, we found
ourselves among more tracks.
Beginning to feel like mice dropped
in a cage with a hungry snake, we
kept pushing forward. Eventually
we crossed again and found a trail
leading up the hillside and away
from the river. We took it, and I felt
the squirming discomfort of doubt
lift from my shoulders.

As we rounded a bend, my friend
stopped cold. He pointed down the
hill 25 yards. “What does that look
like to you?”

A large, slightly dome shaped hole
had been dug out of the hillside. The
entrance was small enough to crouch
through, but I could tell something
big had expanded the inside of it.
Something bigger than me. It seemed
we’d found where Pooh slept.

We backtracked, fast, bear sprays in
one hand, fishing rods in the other.
Returning to our sacred campsite, we
were spooked but unscathed.

Over the next four days, we caught
rainbows and cutthroats, played
games and enjoyed good company.
Each night, looking up at the
brightest stars I’d ever seen, I realized
this was the life. For me, nothing
can replace the Bob’s absolute
solitude, especially with friends, a
campfire and the comfort of a day’s
adventure behind me.

Fletcher Keyes is entering his final
semester as an English Literature
student at MSU. As a soon to be college
graduate, the world is his oyster.
Or so he’s told.