By Greg Smith Explorebigsky.com Contributor
When I climbed out of my car at the Bear Creek Trailhead, an older couple was saddling up their horses. The sun was out, and it was a beautiful morning.
“Where’re you headed?” I asked.
The man turned, occupied with the task at hand. “Up valley,” he said.
“Well, have a good ride,” I said. But I couldn’t let it go at that.
Just above the Madison Valley, the Bear Creek trailhead is a quick entryway into the Taylor-Hilgard Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. You could see the wilderness boundary sign from the trailhead.
“Sure is nice to have places that demand old-timey ways of getting around,” I said.
“I suppose so,” he said, quietly.
I hiked to the top of Sphinx Mountain and back that day, accompanied by Timber, my malamute-shepherd mix. It was early season, and snow lingered on the northerly slopes.
Timber was especially fond of the creeks, and took every opportunity to roll in the snow. I was especially fond of the views to the south, dominated by Koch and Imp peaks.
When we returned to the trailhead, the same couple was there again—this time unsaddling their horses.
“Where’d you guys ride to anyway?” I asked. “I didn’t notice horse tracks in the trail very far up valley.”
Turns out I shouldn’t have expected to, as their ride was mostly to the north of Sphinx Mountain. He mentioned something about “checking on his goats.”
Goats, I thought, that seems odd.
“Now, Virgil,” his wife said, “you’re going to have to tell him the rest of the story.”
Virgil Lindsey, retired district danger long based out of Ennis, spent the bulk of his career in making management decisions affecting this part of Montana. He hadn’t been in this position long when in September of 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. At that moment, part of Lindsey’s job became to inventory his forest and submit to Congress areas he thought appropriate for wilderness designation. His “goats” were, in fact, mountain goats inhabiting the higher reaches of the Madison Range.
It would take awhile—almost 20 years in cases with complicated deals involving land swaps and consolidation of federal holdings—but thanks in part to Lindsey’s dedicated efforts, the high alpine meadows and attending peaks of much of the Madison Range are today protected as a part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. You can travel there today—on foot, horseback, or on skis and snowshoes during the winter months, and revel at the same beauty, and a newer generation of mountain goats, that greeted Lindsey more than 40 years ago.
In the bigger picture of wilderness, Lindsey did not act alone. The list of concerned individuals was long—as long as the uphill battle has been to protect, with wilderness designation, some spectacular remnants of the American West. Written by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, the Wilderness Act created the enduring legal definition of wilderness in the U.S. Upon passage, the law initially protected some 9 million acres of federal land. In subsequent years, additional acreage has been added; currently, more than 109 million acres of federal land around the country are designated as wilderness.
Seemingly endless, this acreage represents less than 2 percent of the land base in the lower 48 states. In Montana, 15 separate areas have wilderness designation, totaling 3.4 million acres, or a little less than 4 percent of the land base. Southwest Montana has the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which is directly north of Yellowstone National Park. The largest wilderness unit in Montana is the Bob Marshall/Great Bear/Scapegoat complex, which totals over 1 million acres.
These are magical, sacred places. Go forth and explore. Go for a hike. Thrown on a backpack and stretch it out for a few days. Run. Fish and hunt. Ride your horse. Ski and snowshoe. But no motorized or mechanized forms of transportation are allowed in wilderness areas, so leave your car, motorcycle, ATV, skateboard, mountain bike, go-cart or wheelbarrow at home.
Go, as one of America’s most vocal wilderness advocates Ed Abbey would suggest, “by the simplest means—feet and legs and heart!”
And when you return from your “old-timey” trip into the wilderness, give a tip of your cap or a toast of your beer to those people such as Virgil Lindsey who came here before us and helped make it possible.
Greg Smith is a full-time advocate of an active outdoor lifestyle. Trail running, bicycle touring and fly fishing are among his favorite activities. Smith spent 20 years with the National Park Service in Glacier National Park and now resides in Bozeman. His work has also appeared in Adventure Cycling and Outside Bozeman.
The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of wilderness:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the Earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”