by Fischer Gangemi
When I was eleven years old my parents took me on a family river trip not far from home on the South Fork of the Flathead River. I had been on many river trips and have been on many more since, but something about this trip was special for me. I think it was the isolation. The only ways to access the headwaters of the South fork is to either hike or ride a horse somewhere between fifteen and thirty miles depending on the trailhead and the tributary you want to start on. Starting at Young’s Creek, it’s over a forty mile float through wild and scenic river regulated land to the edge of the wilderness boundary. The Forest Service maintains this land, and it is strictly a no motor, no wheel, and has low impact policies, from several historic cabins and ranger stations. Along our float, we stopped for a few hours at the nation’s only true Wilderness Ranger Station, Big Prairie. The Wilderness Act of 1964 regulates any motors or wheels at this station with exceptions being only for emergencies and Forest Service needs; which are rare because they are very knowledgeable on primitive tool and stock use. After spending just an hour or so at this station, I clearly remember telling my parents simply that I would one day live there at Big Prairie.
June 23rd and 24th 2013
Today I decided that I am probably one of the luckiest kids—just out of high school—in the world. It is the 7th day of my first hitch, working for the US Forest Service. My two week training period is over, and I am now officially working for the man. Tonight will be my second night at my new home, Big Prairie. I have scored probably the nicest bed in the country. It’s basic— a small twin bed that I don’t quite fit straight on—but its location is what matters. Three windows open up in front of me to reveal the foothills and start of the Flathead Alps and Brown Sandstone peak. Yesterday I was woken up by the best alarm there is, 40 head of stock, mostly mules but also horses, galloping through the meadow that gave Big Prairie (BP) its name. I hear it’s normal to be awakened by the sound of wolves howling at night, as there are three active packs in close vicinity; they are drawn by the small herds of elk that often enjoy the good graze in the prairie.
Coming into the station, I rode a horse for the first time in a while. The horse is named Tux; he’s a huge black and white paint, and kind of an asshole. He was raised by some 12 year old girl that treated him like a pet, so he doesn’t always feel like going to work. I rode him for the 22 miles from Black Bear Cabin to BP. I thought Tux was being great at first: he was easy to saddle and somebody else set the bit, but not long after we had started riding I had noticed that his cinch was a little loose. So, I tried to slow him down to tighten it, but that jerk started trotting, and my saddle started to slip. Pretty soon I found myself face down in the dirt, with my feet stuck in the stirrups—which were upside down, on Tux’s belly. Just to make it worse, he stops right away and turns back to give a snooty little neigh as I tried to disentangle myself. I guess Tux likes to puff up his chest when you saddle, so when I resaddled him I pulled that cinch so fucking tight you could barely slip a finger in.
It’s incredibly humbling to walk up to a government facility with just three dusty trails leading to-and-from its small, old buildings. The crews here are awesome; just a couple weeks ago I was in high school, and now I am the youngest guy, hanging around mostly 22 to 26 year olds. Plus, they are almost all straight up badasses; I have met more than a couple of girls who could easily kick my ass. It’s a crazy mix of people that all come together and become involved in the same awesome thing: there is a sailor, a mountain man, a ski bum, a carpenter, a world traveler, a fisherman, a gardener, an engineer, a dumbass, and of course, a few good ol’ fashioned rednecks. We spent our first night out drinking around the campfire while a few guys messed around with some guitars, a fiddle, and a banjo.
Today, I cleared from the station north, along the East Side Trail, to the White river. The first 4 or 5 hours were the worst, because it’s all burnt, and the matchstick trees bar the trail endlessly. The river ford had been washed out, so we had a high water ford to get to the other side, to dig out some new trail. Then, a 7 mile walk back—which was hell—because I am now insanely saddle soar. The next morning I swear I couldn’t put my feet together, I just walked around all bow legged and stiff. This isn’t an easy life, but it’s a beautiful one. I always knew growing up that I was born way too far in the future, but now I have found a way to bring myself back in time to simpler days.