An unforgettable summer job deep in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness
This was not your typical summer job. Many of us worked in restaurants or mowed lawns during the long school break. Gillian Shannon lived in an historic log cabin at Bear Creek Campground east of Cameron and spent her days improving trails up Bear Creek Loop, caring for horses and learning to wrangle a chain saw. The University of Montana student was the first “volunteer wilderness ranger” intern as part of the U.S. Forest Service’s new program with Wild Montana to expose students to reallife application of studies like forestry science, wildlife biology and recreation management. “This is a great program that helps both Wild Montana and the Forest Service,” said Joel Sather, Madison Ranger District, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. “Gillian did an excellent job and I hope she gained a lot from her experience here in the Madison Ranger District. Sather says the Forest Service is already in talks with Wild Montana about next summer, and he hopes the program will continue. According to Shannon, the experience left her changed and stronger. “I’ll probably remember the things I’ve learned here forever,” said the 20-year-old forestry major from Arvada, Colo., as she packed up after a summer in the woods and prepared to head back to Missoula for fall semester. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Shannon recalled. “I just knew I would be getting a lot of new experiences and that I would probably have a lot of fun, and on both counts I was right! I didn’t expect to work with horses; it was something that I really enjoyed.” Forest Service horses are used to carry equipment and sometimes work crews into the backcountry. She said among the most memorable experiences were “seeing how the things I had learned in previous classes work in real life. A lot of my classes so far have had a significant field portion, so I had a pretty good working knowledge of field tools and general plant science. But here, I got to make the leap between ‘this tree has a DBH of 16 inches [diameter at breast height or thickness of a trunk 4.5 ft from the ground] and that means we can use it in this project. Let’s get ready to cut it down.’ A lot of what I had learned in classes was just impressed a lot more, like when we needed to peel logs for different projects because we didn’t want water to rot them, and seeing with each stroke of a drawknife that what I’m peeling is the cork layer. It’s that type of knowledge that you can totally read about, but it doesn’t make any sort of impact on you until you get to see it hands-on.” Rather than deterring Shannon from her forestry degree aspirations, the summer internship confirmed she was on the right track. “Working outside all day, really feeling like I’m making a difference, and coming home feeling tired from a good day’s work are all such satisfying feelings and I want to be around that for the rest of my life,” she said. One early challenge was building the strength to keep up with the work crews. National forest maintenance involves a lot of heavy lifting. “I definitely felt myself getting stronger from beginning to end though,” she reflected. Her most memorable wildlife encounter? “We didn’t see a ton of people on the trails, and not a ton of animals either since we were a large group with loud tools.” Shannon explained. “We saw one black bear early in the season, a few moose from the trucks, and one moose while we were on a trip in the wilderness. I rounded a corner and this giant moose was just there, we freaked each other out I think, but it ran away from me, which was good for me but bad since it ran into our camp. We eventually scared it off without anyone getting hurt, but that was definitely my most memorable wildlife encounter on the job this season.” As part of her job training, Shannon participated in bear awareness training. Grizzlies have been sighted over the years in the Bear Creek and Sphinx Mountain area. Her tips: “Carry bear spray. Hike in groups. Avoid hiking at dawn or dusk,” she suggested. “One thing we are working on for next summer is to team up with our wildlife biology department,” according to Sather. “The workload for next summer will be trail and wilderness work along with bear safety/awareness education for visitors.” Sather says if the program is to be offered in 2023, the Forest Service will start to publicize it this coming January. Little specific experience is necessary, although he says many applicants want to complete work hour requirements in their fields of study. Also, every summer the Madison Ranger District hires a large seasonal workforce. Anyone who may be interested in applying for a volunteer wilderness ranger internship or the seasonal work crew in 2023 should contact Joel Sather at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 291-3161. From her tidy one-room cabin at the campground, Gillian Shannon had a front row view as a brief but brilliant Montana summer played out-- from latespring snowfall to an array of wildflowers along Bear Creek, to short, starry nights and long light-filled days. We at The Madisonian hope everyone will enjoy the waning days of summer here in the Valley.