A Historical Journey through Bob Marshall Country
Rings of Time
October 21, 2021
It had been a long day on the trail in 1996 as I slowly worked my way toward the top of the ridge clearing downfall from the trail. When I reached the top of the ridge, the land opened up and the views were especially beautiful as the late evening sunshine cast a golden hue across the landscape. Overhead, a few reddish, wispy clouds contrasted the deep, cobalt blue sky. A nearby hermit thrush began its melodic song.
I was less than a hundred yards from a trail intersection that would lead me to my camp. I came around a slight bend in the trail and to my dismay, found a large whitebark pine tree across the trail. Suddenly, I knew that my day as a Forest Service backcountry ranger would be a bit longer. As I took out my one-person cross-cut saw and began cutting through the large tree, I wondered about its age. I inhaled a mixture of evening coolness and the aroma of fresh-cut wood as I worked the saw rhythmically back and forth. As I sawed through the growth rings of this majestic tree, I could not help but speculate about the history of the surrounding land.
Although the tree succumbed to the white pine blister rust that plagued this region, it survived the historic forest fire season of 1988.
It stood proud during the 1964 signing of the Wilderness Act that gave areas like this formal protection. The tree also survived the 1964 floods that wreaked havoc on the lower elevation lands below it.
This tree was still thriving in the winter of 1954 when the coldest temperature ever recorded in the Lower 48 registered an incredible 70 degrees below zero near the southern edge of the Bob Marshall country near Rogers Pass.
It survived the severe windstorms of 1949 that toppled so many trees in this area of Montana.
In 1940, this whitebark pine was in all its glory when the Secretary of Agriculture established the Bob Marshall Wilderness, named in the honor of the man who championed the cause for areas like this one to remain forever wild. Sadly, Bob Marshall died the year before in 1939 at the young age of 38.
This tree survived the severe winter of 1933 when snow depths were great and temperatures cold. That spring, over 500 elk carcasses were counted in a 10-mile stretch along the South Fork of the Flathead River, between the White River and Cayuse Meadows.
In 1929, fortune was again on its side as it avoided the potential destruction of yet another historic forest fire season.
Human tragedy struck in 1925 when forest rangers found the frozen body of a trapper named Marshall in his cabin near Cabin Creek. The trapper had apparently committed suicide.
Tragedy also struck in the winter of 1923-24 when the young daughter of the caretakers at Big Prairie Ranger Station fell sick and died before her father could return from his 100-mile snowshoe trip to obtain medicine for her. She is buried nearby.
In 1923, the Forest Service attempted to use dog sled teams as a means of winter travel in the backcountry but found this method unsuitable due to the steep, side-hill trails.
The year 1919 was once more a historic forest fire season. That same year Joe Murphy of Ovando, Montana began packing hunters into the South Fork of the Flathead River. Murphy Flats now bears his name.
In 1914, the first permanent fire lookout building in the Flathead National Forest was built on Spotted Bear Mountain.
Once again, this whitebark pine was spared during the 1910 forest fire season when large areas of the Bob Marshall backcountry burned.
In 1903 over 21 miles of Forest Service trail was built from the Ovando, Montana area into Danaher Basin.
In 1898, the whitebark pine had lived over half of its life when Tom Danaher and A.P. McCrea each homesteaded 160 acres in the upper reaches of the South Fork of the Flathead River drainage. Neither man experienced success, and the land eventually came into Forest Service ownership.
In the winter of 1896-1897, six French Canadian fur trappers spent the winter trapping in the Big Salmon Lake and the South Fork of the Flathead River area. They brought out 2,700 pine marten pelts and other furs that spring.
From 1886 to 1889, Charles Biggs and a few others built a wagon road from Hanna Gulch up the Sun River to the Gates Park area. They cut 200,000 railroad ties and 25,000 cords of fuelwood from Headquarters Creek and Biggs Creek drainages before abandoning the venture.
Legend has it that the U.S. Army made a trip through the South Fork of the Flathead River area scouting a possible route for a railroad when the whitebark pine reached middle age in the 1870s.
Around 1840 a major battle between the Flathead and Blackfeet Indians took place near the Camp Creek area. The Blackfeet were ambushed and suffered heavy losses.
The tree was at least 50 years old in 1806 when the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled through this country along its southern and southeastern edges. The whitebark pine was a mere teenager of 15 when the United States declared its Independence from Britain in 1776.
After I finished making cuts, I rolled the bulky log sections off the side of the trail. While sitting down to rest, I counted the rings of time on the remaining uprooted tree stump. It was approximately 245 years old when it died. Its life began around 1750 during the time period when guns and horses reached the Montana Indian tribes, forever changing their culture and way of life.
The hermit thrush quit singing and darkness had settled in when I finally put my cross-cut saw away and headed for camp.