Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

Submitted by the Upper Swan Valley Historical Society 

Pinchot Journal: Great Larches and Yellow Pines

Series 2 of 8


In 1896, Gifford Pinchot, who later became the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, traveled south through the Swan Valley inspecting this region of Montana, while working for the National Forest Commission. Jack Monroe, a trapper and guide, accompanied him. The account of his trip through the Swan Valley was recorded in 1897. The Pathfinder will publish Pinchot’s account in a 7-part series. This is the first installment.

In the course of work on the National Forest Commission, I camped last summer, on the shore of Swan Lake, through which passes on the tributaries of the Flat Head River in northwestern Montana. I was anxious to study the forest in the valley of the Swan River from the point where it empties into the lake to its head waters, then cross the divide and see something of the country on the other side. This whole region is embraced in a reserve, at that time proposed, but since declared by President Cleveland under the name of Lewis and Clarke. The pack train which had come with me so far was no longer available and the trip had to be made on foot if it were made at all.

My work has not infrequently forced this kind of traveling upon me, and I have always found a keen pleasure in it. There is more freedom and an absence of responsibility about it which even the best organized pack train can not give, and if it limits the traveler rather strictly in some ways, it opens to him all those rough and beautiful regions where a horse can not go. Life is reduced to its simplest terms, and the conventional yields wholly to the effective. Everything that is not personal disappears. In almost no other circumstances, except in the face of danger, does a man count so purely for what he is, as against what his social condition has made him.

The equipment for such a trip is simple to the last degree. A change of underwear, some extra pairs of stockings, a sweater, and a pair of heavy gloves are the more bulky items of personal belonging; and of these, in warm weather, the sweater may be left behind. A light pair of moccasins is not absolutely essential, but I never go without these comforting evening substitutes for the heavy-nailed shoes of the day. A blanket is a good thing to have, but a heavy thing to carry, and by no means indispensable. Still, it is to be omitted only for good reasons, which reasons will not unlikely be found in the food supply. Here is the fulcrum on which balance the good and ill success of the whole enterprise. Salt, bacon, chocolate, oatmeal of some quick-cooking kind, beef extract, and bread or crackers come first. Sugar is less necessary, but either tea, coffee, or cocoa must find a place. I prefer to take both of the first and the last. The cooking utensils should be of the simplest, lightest, and strongest kind, and the tea-pot in particular must be so put together that the handle will not melt off. Rivetted aluminum vessels are consequently the best of all.

The comfort of the laboring hours of a trip on foot depends not a little on the form of the knapsack (warsack in the vernacular of the woods) in which the load is bestowed. I have found none better than a bag of heavy cotton twill, about 28 inches wide and 2 high, with a gathering string at the top, buckles at the closed corners, and a couple of straps, through loops in the upper ends of which the drawstring passes. This is essentially the German rucksack, and when carried low on the back is easier and less distressing than any other form of load I have ever packed. Finally, the whole outfit, including the rifle, hatchet, and heavy knife, should not weigh more than thirty, or at most thirty-five pounds.

With the equipment as nearly like the above as the resources of my packtrain would supply I started, taking with me J. B. Monroe, one of the best woodsmen I have met. The country was new to the both of us, and hence doubly interesting. We left the outfit about 2 o’clock one afternoon, with five dogs of Monroe’s in the trail behind us. My load was 27 lbs; Monroe’s a little heavier. It was intensely hot, and the unaccustomed packs were heavy upon both of us. But neither the heat nor the clouds of able and enthusiastic mosquitoes could outweigh the charm of the start into a new region, nor destroy the interest of the forest. Great larches and yellow pines, fire-searred at the base, where their immensely heavy bark protects the sensitive tissues within, but above green and satisfying to the eye, kept us company at intervals, while the spruces and lodge-pole pines helped to make a delusive shade till the sun went down.

This first night we spent in a deserted cabin – deserted by its builder, it seemed, before it had even been inhabited. This was Camp Armour, in honor of the beef-extract which gave us supper and comfort. Thus did we break the law of the woods which says: Eat your most portable food last; and we suffered for it later. Next morning, a little after seven, Camp Armour lay behind us, and we went for 10 or 12 miles, looking for another cabin, not deserted, which lay somewhere ahead. It was hard work (for it is always the day after any unusual exertion that the real tug comes) but very pleasant, for we were passing though delightful forests of spruce and larch, lodge-pole and yellow pine, and over a good trail. New facts in forestry demanded attention and explanation in almost every mile, and it was intensely interesting.

Wood, a kindly white-haired old trapper, inhabitant of the cabin which marked the end of the morning’s walk, had shot a deer the night before, and immediately asked us to help him get it out of the river, which he could not do alone. We assented with enthusiasm, for the provisions we had been able to bring were few, and of course he would give us some of the meat. And not only did he load us with all we would take, but he gave us also a rough sketch-map by which to locate the deserted cabin of his son on the other side of the river, where there was a 50 lb. Sack of flour. I wanted to examine the forest on the other bank, and had told him we should swim the stream if we could get across in no other way. The river was in flood from the melting snow on the mountains, and he warned us that it would be a difficult bit of work, and possibly dangerous.


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