Daybreak on August 8 found me on a bank of the North Fork of the Flathead River in northwestern Montana, among the mixed tracks of deer, otters, and grizzly bears, marveling, as I have a thousand times before, at the near-magical transparency of these waters.
The bottom stones stood out as if on display under glass. Decades ago, my wife and I built a cabin nearby.
Across the river on the east bank, in Glacier National Park, the campers were stirring in their tents and the first cars were snaking up the Going to the Sun Road. But I was headed west that day, into the Whitefish Range, to see a man about the future of this valley.
Later that morning, I started up the Glacier View Mountain Trail above Big Creek, a tributary of the North Fork. In a month or two bull trout, a threatened species, would be swimming up the creek to spawn. The trail wound up a mountainside that had burned in 2001 and was now dotted with gray, weathered snags. Young lodgepole pines were growing in among them, along with Douglas fir and wild rose and blossoming fireweed. The pines offered the only shade as the day’s temperature rose into the 80s.
After the better part of a mile, I heard the scrape and ping of tempered steel on stone. A trail crew from the Montana Conservation Corps was digging into the steep slope to widen a series of switchbacks. Small plumes of dust drifted from their shovels and pickaxes. I met young recruits from places like Ohio and Brooklyn. I also met a 71-year-old guy in a hard hat, jeans, and sweaty, dirt-smudged T-shirt, who was whacking away at the slope with a pickax.