Going the extra mile for a special reunion of four old college friends, we huffed and hoofed deep into a Montana wilderness where roughly 240 square miles appeared to have been reserved for our private party.
The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness has never been a notably crowded destination despite its easy access from Interstate 90 west of Butte. Two weeks ago, however, the backcountry haven was virtually deserted.
“Use drops dramatically if there are forest fires and smoke in the region and especially if we go into restrictions that prohibit campfires,” said Dennis Havig, Wisdom District Ranger for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. “A lot of people – even backpackers – won’t go camping if they can’t make a fire.”
Our original plans to spend a week in the Bob Marshall Wilderness had been obliterated by flames and trail closures.
Putting up with smoky skies and doing without campfires seemed a small consolation for the privilege of going to Plan B in the Pintlers.
The 158,000-acre wilderness straddles the Continental Divide, running from sage and willow flats at 5,400 feet to rugged, rocky mountains topping out at 10,793 feet on the summit of West Goat Peak. In between we enjoyed exploring long valleys carved by extinct glaciers and trails along high ridges and clear streams leading to alpine lakes, trout fishing and daily wildlife encounters with critters such as red foxes and moose.
The wilderness is named for the area’s dominant mountain range (Anaconda Mountains) and a late 1800s Big Hole Valley settler who explored and hunted much of the region (Charles Pintler).
Being rugged, rocky and big-timber poor probably gave the Pintlers an edge for designation as a primitive area in 1937. The Anaconda Company had been ravaging the nearby lands during the operation of its mines and smelters, and little of immediate economic value was spared a heavy human hand.
The Pintlers were reclassified as wilderness in 1962 and listed as a charter member of the wilderness areas protected in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Appreciation seems to ebb and flow for the pristine features that put the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness in that select group.
“Just a few years ago, I would go into the wilderness for a week, consume all of my food and fuel and still come out with a pack heavier than I started with because of all the garbage I was packing out,” said Lucinda Jann, a wilderness ranger in the Pintlers since 1996.
“On my first trip in this summer, I was delighted to come out with only a few pieces of garbage. That’s a big change, and a welcome one.”
More restrictive rules enacted two years ago have helped keep the Pintlers wild. Groups have been limited to no more than 12 people and 12 stock animals. Campfires have been banned within a quarter mile of 15 mountain lakes. Stock is prohibited within a quarter mile of four lakes.
Boy Scout groups from Spokane have been on Jann’s radar for violating the group size limit, said the former Whitworth University student who resides most of the year in Washington’s Methow Valley,
And she keys on the campfire restrictions, which were enacted after four years of study and discussion to curb a variety of wilderness abuses ranging from defacing trees, campsites and shorelines to littering.
“It’s a $300 fine if I walk in on somebody with an illegal campfire, and I wouldn’t hesitate to write the ticket,” she said. “We’re really firm on campfire closures.”
But most of her time is devoted to simply talking to wilderness visitors and giving them hints on treading lightly on the land and vegetation that has attracted them to invest the sweat required to explore the backcountry.
“Sometimes you have to remind people that they’ll do less damage if they camp on dirt rather than packing down more vegetation and expanding the human footprint on the wilderness,” she said.
Only about 6,000-10,000 visitors enter the wilderness each year, with most of the summer use concentrated in July and August in the Johnson Lake and Warren Peak area on the north end of the wilderness near Phillipsburg. A surge of hunters moves into the wilderness, particularly the Big Hole Valley region, during the September archery seasons.
“The heaviest overall use is at the north end where hikers can reach a lot of lakes within three to seven miles of the trailheads,” Jann said. “I was there last week and despite the forest fires pouring smoke into the region, I saw seven parties in groups of up to 11 people in the area around Johnson, Phyllis, Oreamnos lakes.”
The previous week, our group saw a total of three people during a week of hiking along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail just south of this high-impact area.
Jann worries that the days of finding such solitude may be limited even in the lesser-loved portions of the Pintlers.
“We had a Backpacker magazine crew come through two weeks ago for a feature highlighting the Continental Divide Trail,” she said, noting that more than 45 miles of the route winds along the Anaconda-Pintler wilderness spine. “Suddenly, there’s a lot of focus on the divide trail.”
Meanwhile, our group was in the right portion of the wilderness at the right time to find the Pintlers at their solitary best.
We sampled the fishing for rainbow and cutthroat trout at lakes such as Mystic, Hope and Oreamnos (named for Oreamnos americanus, the mountain goats that are barely clinging to existence in the area’s high cliffs.)
We made camp each night and toasted the day’s discoveries with stories fortified by the life experience we’d accumulated since beginning our friendships as wildlife students and University of Montana residence halls advisors more than 30 years ago.
Beth Flint is no stranger to solitude in her job as supervising wildlife biologist for the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex based in Hawaii. She must sail six days by boat from Oahu to reach some of the undeveloped and uninhabited seabird sanctuaries she manages.
The Pintlers, however, were up to her standards of a true wilderness experience. While the rest of us were exploring the cutthroat fishing at Hope Lake and the area torched by the widespread forest fires of 2000, Flint was wandering on her own with her binoculars and field guides to birds and flowers.
“It didn’t take long before I started feeling very alone and remote and thinking that maybe something was following me,” said the seasoned biologist who listed the top three mammals she’s yet to see in the wild are cougars, wolverines and sperm whales.
“This wilderness is that kind of place.”
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