The Scotchman Peaks roadless area northeast of Lake Pend Oreille isn’t an official wilderness, but it was served by a “wilderness ranger” this summer and gained a standout new trail built the wilderness way – by hand.
“I could have got more done if I’d have carried a chain saw,” said Joe Zimmerman, 23, a University of Montana student. “But the goal is to teach people how to respect this area as wilderness, and that includes me.”
Zimmerman, of Walla Walla, finished his summer stint Monday as the first five-day-a-week Scotchman’s ranger, trail crew and ambassador for the proposed 88,000-acre wilderness.
His tasks included educating hikers about safely viewing the fearless mountain goats on Scotchman Peak.
He dug in with volunteers to reroute the gnarly old fire lookout trail to Star Peak.
He also was prepared to pick up a ton of trash, but hikers left him pleasantly surprised.
“I didn’t have to do the ‘leave no trace’ talk too often,” he said. “Most people who hike into the Scotchmans already have that down.”
Zimmerman’s job was created by a rare partnership between the Sandpoint-based Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness and the Forest Service.
“The Kootenai National Forest put him up in the Trout Creek Ranger Station bunkhouse and gave him use of a pickup and we paid his expenses,” said Sandy Compton, a friends group program coordinator who lives near Heron, Montana.
“The district rangers could have found reasons to turn down the proposal, but they were all for it and found ways to make it happen. Joe wears a Scotchman Peaks hat along with a Forest Service shirt and patch on his arm.”
Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness was formed in 2005 to promote official wilderness designation for the roadless area that straddles the Idaho-Montana border in the Cabinet Mountains north of the Clark Fork River. The group’s efforts have won approval from Bonner County commissioners and a wide range of people in both states, making the Scotchmans one of region’s leading candidates for Congress to consider in a wilderness bill.
The summer ranger position in this scenic area satisfied Zimmerman’s internship requirement for graduation from UM’s recreation resource management program. “I’m just barely making expenses,” he said during an interview on the new trail to Star Peak. “My food bill is significant.”
He had a spartan room in the Forest Service seasonal-worker bunkhouse, where six men and two women shared a kitchen. The summer experience helped confirm Zimmerman’s course of study in Missoula.
“I started in forestry management and switched to recreation because I thought I’d prefer working with people more than with trees,” he said.
Noting that he’d always been reserved and hesitant to start a conversation, the wilderness ranger position forced him out of his shell. Engaging people at parking lots, on the trail and in backcountry campsites was the main part of his job.
“You couldn’t pick a better place to get confidence,” he said. “I haven’t met one grumpy person up here. Everyone’s been receptive to the message I’ve tried to give.”
Zimmerman focused on the four most popular areas of the proposed wilderness:
• The more difficult trails to Scotchman and Star peaks.
• The moderate 4.5-mile trail to Little Spar Lake.
• The gentle Ross Creek Giant Cedar Grove Trail.
Looming above the Clark Fork River, 7,009-foot Scotchman Peak is the highest point in Bonner County. The steep 4-mile trail to the summit attracts hundreds of hikers each year eager to soak in the view of wildlands to the north and Lake Pend Oreille to the southwest.
The peak is known for harboring mountain goats that sometimes greet hikers with the persistence of Third World tourist-trap beggars.
“It’s a good place to contact the public about the Scotchmans,” he said, noting that he counted 40 hikers on the summit on Sept. 6.
“It’s not uncommon to see people offering potato chips to the goats or letting them lick the salt off their arms,” Zimmerman said. “Encouraging wildlife to see us as a food source may lead to injury to a hiker. That could lead to the demise of the goat for public safety. Feeding wildlife is a lose-lose deal.”
One hiker this summer was gored in the leg by an aggressive goat, he said.
“Most people get it pretty quickly when you explain the situation,” he said.
The Scotchman’s friends group plans to partner with the Sandpoint Ranger District to reroute the eroded lower portion of the Scotchman Peak Trail in the next two years.
The Star Peak Trail is one of the legacies the friends group and Zimmerman carved into the ground this summer.
Three years of scouting, routing and volunteer labor culminated this summer with the opening of Trail 999. The 5-mile single track switchbacks to the top of a forest fire lookout site formerly called Squaw Peak.
“Every time I went out on a trail this summer, I’d carry a pulaski and take out rocks, fix sloughs – things like that,” Zimmerman said. “But the Star Peak Trail was a priority.”
Friends of the Scotchman Peaks ranging into their 80s pitched in to finish the trail in September.
“I’ve worked on fire crews in the past and there’s a lot of difference between cutting out a fire line and building a trail,” Zimmerman said.
The Forest Service recruited him for a few stints with a pro trail crew this summer in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness where he learned valuable skills such as building water bars and using downed trees to shore up corners, he said.
Star Peak’s vista has the potential to lure some of the pressure off Scotchman Peak. The lookout, built in the 1950s, is being restored. Even more impressive is a nearby ranger’s cabin built of stone around 1910.
The new trail actually is a step back in time before the lower 2.5 miles of the route were abandoned for a mining exploration road.
“A Forest Service staffer (a few years ago) found the trail on an old map from the 1930s,” said Phil Hough, the friends group’s executive director. “Our 2011 intern searched out the route and flagged it.”
The grade of the new Trail 999 is much more pleasant and the route leads through several viewpoints over the Clark Fork River and out to Lake Pend Oreille.
“It feels good to be a part of making this trail,” Zimmerman said as he hiked through the crimson leaves of a fall huckleberry patch.
Heading to his next job as a snowboarder on the ski patrol at Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah, he has fond memories from his summer as the Scotchman’s wilderness ranger, but no mishaps.
“I saw moose, bear, elk, and deer but didn’t have any major encounters,” he said.
The highlight of the summer was the people. “Everyone was so friendly. It was amazing how many people offered me a cold beer, even on the trail.” (He said he politely declined.)
The summer wilderness ranger internship is just one of the cogs in the long-haul mentality of working toward wilderness designation, Compton said:
“The foundation of support for wilderness is already here. Getting new supporters and promoting wilderness ethics isn’t done through mass campaigns. You almost have to do it one on one,” Compton said.
People are reading Twitter posts, not John Muir, he pointed out. “But they’ll chat with an enthusiastic young ranger like Joe.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review's sports newsletter
Get the day's top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.