Collecting Firewood on Guided Yellowstone Backpacking Trips

For many folks, campfires are an integral part of the wilderness backpacking experience. On most of our guided Yellowstone multi-day backpacking treks, we enjoy the warmth of a morning and evening campfire. Yet fires are illegal at some camps, either because of a dearth of available dead wood or because of localized heavy use in some areas of the park. In these areas, fires are illegal simply due to the need to reduce impacts, and also because heavy use increases the odds that one or more idiots will carelessly let their campfire escape to create a major conflagration. And make no mistake, idiots abound, even in the Yellowstone back-country (however, anecdotal evidence suggests that the idiot factor is considerably higher in the front-country; just look at how roadside tourists behave when one of them spots a bear or a bull elk or a bison within road shoulder viewing distance).

But I digress. This post is about collecting firewood in areas where campfires are legal.

So, please consider the following: whatever you do, do not seek out live trees or branches. Green wood creates lots of smoke and little flame. And collecting live plants goes against the “leave no trace” ethos. Do not look for redwoods or their equivalents to drag into camp. OK, there are no redwoods in Yellowstone, despite what you may have read in Backpacker Magazine. But my point is: for most campfires, especially if you are cooking on a fire, anything larger in diameter than a human wrist is too big. Keep your fires small — and confined to the “official” fire pit! That way, it is unlikely to escape and you are less likely to be classified as part of the idiot factor.

Moreover, collect only dead and down wood, preferably wood that’s neither rotten nor fully in contact with the ground. That’s because the ground is usually far wetter than the air, so dead wood with air circulating around it is usually the driest wood available. And here is one more thing to consider, and this applies just to Yellowstone. No matter how tempting it may be, no matter that the small dead twigs hanging down from the lower branches of a live spruce or fir tree might be the only dry kindling in the forest, do not — I repeat, do not, under any circumstances, collect this perfect kindling supply as fire-starter. If a park ranger is hiding in the bushes watching, you’ll get a ticket. Worse, you’ll also get a lecture. Remember, while some Park Service bureaucrats think it is OK to build paved roads and tacky resorts in our national parks, they are quite sensitive about dead twigs remaining on trees. They may allow trails to be rebuilt with chainsaws; they may allow horse-packers to bring in upwards of 25 horses or mules to a back-country camp , trampling the vegetation and causing horse-shit covered trails to erode into stream beds, but again, they are quite determined to make certain that all trees at backcountry camps have their full compliment of dead twigs hanging down (rest assured, though, on our guided Yellowstone backpack trips we avoid the areas heavily used by horse-packers). Of course, the backcountry rangers did not build the roads and resorts, and it is usually the front-country bureaucrats who set the policies……

 

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Yellowstone’s Trophic Cascade: Of Wolves, Elk and Quaking Aspen, Part Two

A funny thing happened on the way to wolf recovery. While leading our guided Yellowstone backpacking trips, by the late 1990’s I began to notice that old dying aspen stands were beginning to sprout vigorous new saplings. Now, 24 years after the 1995 wolf re-introduction,  these important deciduous habitats are thriving once again. Willow stands also quickly began to come back from near oblivion. With this increase in food and building materials, beaver populations rebounded, and their dams created or re-created wetlands. Biodiversity, especially among birds, insects and amphibians rebounded.

And although elk populations remain healthy throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), their numbers dropped — modestly in some areas and substantially along Yellowstone’s northern boundary. The reduction in elk numbers began shortly after wolf re-introduction in 1995.

It turns out, then, that at least in many habitats, the warming climate was not the culprit for aspen and willow decline. It is much more likely that the primary cause was a lack of large carnivores. As large carnivores made a comeback, elk populations declined. And since elk eat young aspen and willow shoots, fewer elk meant less browsing, and less browsing has allowed aspen and willows to reproduce. But it isn’t just wolves that are responsible for fewer elk and thus more aspen. Concurrent with wolf restoration has been the gradual recovery of mountain lion and grizzly populations throughout the GYE, species that also prey on Yellowstone’s productive elk herds. So there you have it. Although Yellowstone’s climate is warming and drying, the major reason for elk decline and the resulting increase in deciduous vegetation is much more likely to be the rebounding populations of all three large carnivores, not just wolves. Yet this conclusion does not complete this picture.

Note that I qualified the earlier statement with terms such as “major” and “more likely”. Carnivore rebound is probably not the only cause for aspen and willow resurgence. For one thing, big wildfires in 1988 and in various years since, have also promoted aspen growth, both by providing fertile mineral soil seed beds, and also by creating “blow-down jungles” where elk don’t dare to venture in the carnivore-rich landscape. It is tough to escape an ambush when you are impeded by piles of dead-fall. Moreover, while the restoration of big carnivores has helped aspen and willow growth, aspen and willow have not rebounded across the board throughout the region. In fact, there are areas in the GYE where climate change has slowed down or prevented this response. Some areas are now simply too dry for aspen or willow, though they supported these species before. In addition, note that grizzlies and mountain lions are also part of the equation. In other words, this so-called “trophic cascade” (a situation in which addition or subtraction of one or more ecosystem components has often unforeseen ecosystem consequences which may either promote or suppress biological diversity). In other words, nothing is simple in nature, and most “effects” have more than one cause. And what we think we know today may turn out to be something entirely different tomorrow.

 

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Yellowstone’s Trophic Cascade: Of Wolves, Elk and Quaking Aspen, Part One

By the time the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the native gray wolf (northern Rocky Mountain subspecies, Canis lupus irremotus) had been essentially exterminated throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). The extermination was intentional, primarily to benefit cattle and sheep ranchers who had no use for predators that enjoy an occasional meal of beef or mutton. But extermination was also supported by many hunters, who simply didn’t want to share “their” elk and deer with wolves and other large carnivores (mountain lions and grizzlies were in trouble by the 1970’s). So, guided Yellowstone backpacking treks became a tamer experience, one that took in beautiful scenery in a semi-wild landscape that was missing its dynamic essence of the ancient drama of big predators and their prey.

Then, beginning in 1995, after being absent for three quarters of a century, wolves were re-introduced directly into Yellowstone’s Lamar River Valley. During their absence, the GYE’s only native upland deciduous tree, quaking aspen, was slowly dying out, disappearing from many of its previous habitats. Conjecture suggested that aspens were disappearing due to the well-documented warming and drying climate. But in this case, this simple cause and effect assumption turned out to be wrong. More on this shortly. Anyway, the wolf reintroduction program was wildly successful, taking just a few years for wolves to spread throughout the GYE. This success should have surprised no one, since the Yellowstone Ecosystem is known around the globe for providing rich wildland habitat for huge herds of hoofed mammals, plus many smaller critters as well. In other words, big chunks of wild habitat plus plenty to eat equals an ideal situation for growing wolves — and other large carnivores, too.

As quaking aspen stands gradually died out with minimal replacement, so did willows, another deciduous species that usually forms shrubby thickets primarily in riparian habitats. Willow and aspen are beaver food, and as these members of the willow family declined, so did beaver populations. As beavers declined, so did wetlands — and various birds and amphibians dependent upon them. Other birds and mammals that prefer leafy deciduous species such as aspen also declined.  As we shall see, though, mother nature once again threw us a curve-ball, showing us that obvious conclusions are often erroneous conclusions. Stay tuned to the rest of this story in my next installment.

 

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How to Get fit for a Yellowstone Backpacking Trip, Part 3: Howie’s Program

During the guiding season, my backpack is my exercise machine and the wilderness is my outdoor gymnasium. Of course, as I’ve long argued, wilderness is much, much more than an outdoor gymnasium: it is the genetic repository of 3.5 billion years of organic evolution, and it has intrinsic value simply because wilderness provides habitat for millions of species, including many species that require undisturbed natural landscapes. But this essay is about physical fitness for humans, and wilderness provides for that, too!

As you might imagine, staying fit is pretty easy during the guiding season. When I have a week in between treks, I usually do two or three light to moderate mostly upper body weight workouts. If I’m going much more than a week in between trips, I’ll add 3-4 weekly half-hour runs around our hilly property. But when guiding season ends, my workouts increase. Although I try to get plenty of cardiovascular workouts by hunting in the fall and backcountry skiing during the winter, I augment these activities with occasional workouts on the elliptical machine. One way or another, I try to get two or three cardiovascular workouts each week. But cardio fitness is just one third of the overall program. The other two areas of emphasis are muscle and joint strengthening (weight resistance workouts) and strengthening of the core. Do not neglect the core! Any professional athlete will tell you that core strength is a vital aspect of overall physical fitness. I also stretch regularly, but I don’t over-do it. But stretching is beyond the scope of this missive. Suffice it to say that you must learn to stretch properly, or you can hurt yourself!

During the off-season, I train with our weight resistance machine about three times each week, for about 30 minutes. I try to work all of the major muscle groups, including arms, shoulders, quads and hamstrings. For healthy knees, do not ignore the hamstrings! Which brings us to the core, my least favorite part of the routine — but essential nonetheless. Confession: my entire core workout consists of exercises I have learned over the years from qualified physical therapists to help control pain from various injuries incurred on the football field, in the wilderness, and, I am ashamed to say, off the bar-stool. Never mind the specifics. Let’s just say that my frontal lobe was slow to develop. For example, in my early guiding years, I thought nothing of carrying an extremely heavy pack loaded with unnecessary luxuries. But I digress. My point is, don’t ignore the core, but learn how to do it right, from a professional.

In fact, that’s good advice for fitness in general. At least begin your program with a professional trainer or physical therapist, as the case may be. Learn to do it right, and the benefits will befit you for life!

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How to Get fit for a Yellowstone Backpacking Trip, Part 2

OK, you’ve lost the abdominal basketball, you’ve quit smoking and your probation officer has OK’d your travel to Montana for a guided backpacking trip with Big Wild Adventures. Great! What now?

Hopefully, you won’t first begin to ponder this question right before your trip. That’s because, unless you stay fit year-round (as a shrinking minority of Americans still do), you’ll need some time to get into backpacking condition. Fortunately, most of our clients sign up for trips well in advance, giving them plenty of time to upgrade their physical condition as necessary.

Next move: Visit your physician and get a physical exam. Make sure that strenuous exercise is OK for you. What with an aging population and increasing numbers of folks on Medicare, many doctors just aren’t rolling in the dough anymore. So,  help a physician send an offspring to college — and make sure that you are cleared for backpacking.

Then: Hit the gym. And the track, or the swimming pool or bicycle. A combination of weight resistance training plus regular cardio-vascular work is best for most people. Weight training is important for maintaining muscle mass plus bone density and joint strength. This is especially important as we age. And cardio work will help you to help us maintain our perfect Big Wild record of never having “lost” a client (though there have been a few who we might have liked to at least misplace…).  As we head into year 41, not a single client has dropped dead on a trip, so let’s all work to keep that record intact: this means getting into great shape — and hoping that you are not otherwise doomed by bad genes!

Remember, though, backpacking is not some exotic activity that requires super-human strength and fitness. We two-legged upright great apes are born to walk, and run. Our ancestors have been walking across wilderness landscapes since long before Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons exchanged genetic material in pre-historic Eurasia. It is probably safe to assume that they often carried loads in primitive “backpacks” that were nowhere near as comfortable as those which we use today. If they could do it, so can you! In the next installment of this series, I will discuss my exercise program, especially for the non-guiding season, in order to maintain the level of fitness I need in order to guide and partake in all of my other favorite outdoor activities.

I ain’t no spring chicken. And if I can do it, so can you!

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How to Get Fit for a Yellowstone Backpack Trip, Part 1

Our guided hiking trips in Yellowstone National Park — and for that matter, our trips throughout the American West and Alaska — all require a certain level of physical fitness. The level of fitness required for a guided backpack trip depends upon the trip rating. For example, a “fairly strenuous” trip is going to be more challenging than one that we rate “moderately easy”. Here at Big Wild, we rate our trips as follows: easy, moderately easy, moderate, fairly strenuous and strenuous. Note that for the trips that include the word “strenuous”, you can expect a couple thousand feet of vertical gain with a backpack on one or two days, or, a couple of ten miles or so days, or both. And there will likely be at least some off trail backpacking, too. Not so for the easy to moderate treks.

Nonetheless, all guided backpacking trips require a level of fitness above and beyond that of the average American. In other words, when preparing for a backpack trip, get into the habit of exercising regularly year round, but increase the workouts for the last few weeks prior to the trip.

In addition to working out, if you are overweight, lose the extra poundage! There is a great benefit in not carrying extra weight when you are already loaded with a 30 to 40 pound backpack!  Also, if you are a smoker, give it up! Clogged up lungs will serve you poorly out on the trail! If you are not overweight or a cigarette smoker, please skip to the next paragraph. But first, remember this: drinking in moderation is OK. As Ed Abbey once wrote, “A drink a day keeps the shrink away!”

Of course, getting fit for a backpacking trip entails far more than simply losing weight and overcoming your addictions (whatever they may be). Particularly if you are not fit and active to begin with, it is going to take some work. But it is work that allows you to see the results almost immediately! You’ll feel great! For specifics, please stay tuned for the next installment of this series.

 

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Montana Backpacking in the Beartooths

Marilyn and I live in southern Montana just a few miles from Yellowstone, and a big chunk of our business is guided Yellowstone backpacking trips. And our Yellowstone backpacking adventures are wonderful! Let’s face it — there is only one Yellowstone, and about 95% of the park is roadless back-country that is wild and teeming with wildlife. Due to the volcanic plateau and caldera topography that dominates most of the park, most of our Yellowstone backpacking routes are fairly mellow, over rolling terrain without many long or steep ups or downs. The eastern boundary of the park, though, is mountainous (the Absarokas), as is the northwestern corner of Yellowstone, where the Gallatin Range rises above the volcanic highland. But most of the rest of the park is wild but relatively gentle terrain that’s perfect for wildlife!

By contrast, look at any large-scale map of the region, however, and you’ll notice a large blank area with no roads just to the northeast of the park. This area, the million acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, may be blank on the map, but on the ground the Absaroka-Beartooth is chock full of natural wonders in a jaw-dropping setting of glaciated alpine peaks, tundra plateaus, lakes galore, spectacular stream and river valleys and huge vistas across a vast alpine upland that reminds us of the Alaskan tundra! While the northern end of the sprawling volcanic Absaroka Mountain Range is within the Wilderness area, about two thirds of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is occupied by the towering granitic Beartooth Range, the highest range in the Rocky Mountains north of Wyoming. That’s where we backpack.

Of course, as part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Absaroka-Beartooth supports bears, wolves, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, marmots and other wild species, but the biggest attraction on our guided backpacking trips in the Beartooths  is the amazing alpine mountain scenery and summer wildflowers. In fact, partly due to its unusual (in the U.S.) east-west topographical orientation, the Beartooths have a greater variety of alpine (above tree-line) flowering plants than any other mountain range in the Rockies!

We meet our clients in Bozeman, Montana for our annual scheduled trip in the Beartooths, and this year’s trip dates are July 29 to August 3. For an astounding alpine adventure in an iconic chunk of wild Montana, our guided Beartooth backpacking trips can’t be beat!

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Montana Backpacking in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

The rugged Bitterroot Mountain Range straddles the Idaho/Montana border just to the south and west of Missoula, Montana. It forms the eastern portion of the vast Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, and provides the setting for our wonderful “Peaks, Lakes and Big Trees of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness” guided backpack trip.  We run this guided Montana backpack trip each July, and this year, the dates are July 8-13. This relatively unknown mountain range is as rugged and wild and beautiful as any mountainous area in the U.S. south of Alaska, with the only qualifier being that grizzly bears no longer roam this lake-strewn granitic wilderness. Yet, few people outside of Montana and Idaho know much about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Which is why we rarely fill this wonderful trek — if folks only knew what a great place for backpacking it is! Big naked walls of granite rise above dense forests with huge trees and lush mountain meadows. Every few years, there is a massive bloom of spectacular “beargrass”, which is actually more important as food for elk than bears. Moreover, it isn’t a grass; rather, it’s a member of the lily family (so it should be called “elk lily”). Throughout the Bitterroots, roaring streams define the spectacular mountain canyons, and the sub-alpine high country cradles hundreds of clear and icy lakes and ponds. The fishing is great, too (please let us know in advance if you plan to fish, and if so, be sure to secure a Montana fishing license). This guided backpacking trek includes a mix of hiking on well-maintained trails combined with a nice dose of off-trail hiking across the higher, more open sub-alpine terrain.

Bring a spare camera battery; you’ll need it! The scenery is unmatched. And the Bitterroots also support deer, elk, moose, mountain goat, black bear, gray wolf, mountain lion, bighorn sheep and more. Due to the rugged terrain and areas of dense forest, the animals aren’t always easy to spot (as in the more wide open terrain of Yellowstone, for example), but it is a great feeling to ponder the wildlife that no doubt sees you, as you mosey down a trail in the wild and uniquely beautiful Bitterroot Mountains along the western border of our home state of Montana. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore this wonderfully wild place!

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Montana Backpacking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

In the previous installment, I discussed the geographical quirk that the wildest areas of Montana are all border areas, shared with Canada, Idaho and Wyoming. The wild Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem along the Canadian border includes the 2.4 million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, which is actually one unbroken chunk of roadless, undeveloped wild country. Maps depict three different Wilderness Units here (The Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear), but these three Wildernesses actually constitute one unbroken wild area, divided by bureaucrats and politicians along pre-existing national forest and ranger district boundaries.

“The Bob”, as this wild-land is affectionately known, was named for wilderness visionary Robert Marshall, and includes a lot of unprotected roadless country hugging the outer boundaries of the “three” Wilderness areas. With a moisture gradient running from wet forests on the west side of The Bob to foothills prairie along the eastern “Rocky Mountain Front”, the Bob Marshall is a huge diverse chunk of wilderness, a wilder and less-visited chunk of the Big Wild than its more famous neighbor to the north. Our trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness are primarily along the east side of the continental Divide, where the Rocky Mountains rise in dramatic fashion above the short-grass prairies just to the east. This is the most dramatic area of the greater Bob Marshall Complex.

Our guided and outfitted Bob Marshall Wilderness backpack trips begin and end in Great Falls, Montana. Rugged limestone peaks, dense forests, aspen groves, beautiful meadows, waterfalls, snowfields and more grace this “fairly strenuous” guided backpacking trip. There’s plenty of native wildlife, too, and last year we had a lone gray wolf visit our camp on the second morning of the trip. We were wolf-watching before our very first cup of coffee!

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Three Great Montana Backpacking Destinations — An Overview

Montana may be known as “Big Sky Country”, but the scale of its primary landforms — sprawling prairies and towering mountains — is equally big. So are a number of its protected Wilderness areas and national parks, at least by 21st century standards. And many of her native populations of wildlife are also big and healthy. Yet, ironically, most folks don’t realize that the wildest regions of Montana are actually along its shared borders with Wyoming, Idaho and Canada. Let me explain.

A large-scale map of the northern U.S. Rockies displays three very distinct regions where both protected Wilderness and unprotected roadless areas dominate the landscape. First, along the Canadian border is the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park, Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness complex just south of Glacier Park, plus the Mission and Rattlesnake Mountains just north of Missoula. The NCDE also includes a few hundred thousand acres of roadless national forest lands that could someday be designated Wilderness. Same goes for Glacier Park’s million acres of semi-protected backcountry; like Yellowstone and the Tetons, the park back-country has not yet been designated Wilderness. Big Wild Adventures runs guided backpacking trips in the vast and iconic Bob Marshall Wilderness.

The second distinctive wilderness region is the rugged Greater Salmon-Selway Ecosystem of extreme western Montana and central Idaho. Here is a large complex of unprotected national forest road-less lands that surround the protected River of No Return, Selway-Bitterroot and Sawtooth Wilderness areas. Most of this wildland region is in Idaho, but the beautiful Bitterroot Range, which occupies the eastern half of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, is a particularly striking and wild chunk of this domain. It sits astride the Montana/Idaho border. Accessing it from the Montana side, Big Wild Adventures runs an annual Selway-Bitterroot trek each July, and if you like big trees, sparkling lakes (with good fishing) and towering granite walls in a big and wild setting, this trip is for you!

Finally, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, our homeland, includes a vast complex of protected Wilderness and unprotected public land, roadless areas, in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The GYE may be the most ecologically healthy remaining temperate zone wild-land complex on Earth! Most of the GYE is in Wyoming, with a small portion in Idaho and a respectable chunk here in Big Sky Country. Big Wild Adventures runs trip throughout Yellowstone, plus in the Wind River Range, Wyoming Absarokas, the Gros Ventre Wilderness and the sky scraping peaks of the Beartooths, in southern Montana. For more on our specific Montana trips within our bio-region, stay tuned…..

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