The wind ripped across the summit of Garnet Mountain with such intensity that the single-pane glass windows in the fire lookout tower were humming in vibration. I pulled on my boots and stepped onto the balcony, gripping the icy railing of the fire lookout tower with my mittens as I leaned into the single digit temperatures and windswept snow. Peering into the Gallatin Canyon bottom thousands of feet below, I could see tiny dots of light moving along highway 191. While the cars were traveling at 60 mph, from my vantage point they appeared to barely be moving at all.
At 8,245 feet, it no longer felt as if the stars and crescent moon were suspended in the night sky. Rather, they seemed to swirl endlessly before my level gaze as if they were bobbing in dark ocean—one more daunting and mysterious than those ever traversed by human ships.
Old Man Winter was in one of his fierce moods, again. He seemed intent on seeing my lookout tower tumble to the bottom of the icy canyon.
Feeling alive once again, I stepped back into the toasty lookout tower warmed by the glow of a wood fire. Thanks to the National Forest Service cabin rental system, I knew I had a safe place to spend the night, and plenty of wood to keep the cast iron stove roaring.
While most have visited a National Forest campground, few have taken full advantage of the vast array of Forest Service recreation cabin rentals offered to the public at unbelievable prices.
The Gallatin National Forest alone has 24 different cabins. Some are accessible by car and have running water and electricity. Others (such as my lookout) are located in remote wilderness areas that take some serious dedication to access. Recreation cabins are fun any time of year, but they’re a particularly awesome amenity during the harsh winter months where tent camping can be miserable and downright dangerous.
I was in need of a winter wilderness adventure, so when I saw that the lookout was available for Saturday night, I gave a ring to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center to chat about snow conditions.
“Avalanche risk is moderate,” the ranger said. “But if you stay near the trees most of the time you should be fine. Wouldn’t stop me from going.”
“Thanks”, I said as I hung up the phone.
Less than 24 hours later, I was several hundred feet below the summit of Garnet Mountain. Struggling just to lift one foot in front of the other, I trudged uphill through deep snow. While it’s only 4 miles from the trailhead to the summit, the trail gains nearly 3,000 feet of elevation. Add December in Montana to the equation and this would-be strenuous summertime hike turns into a serious winter expedition.
After a full day of travel, I finally stumbled into the lookout, dropped my snow crusted backpack on the floor with a thud, and collapsed onto a
wooden chair. Recognizing that I had less than an hour of daylight left, I took in the sweeping 360 degree view of mountain wilderness. From inside the lookout I could see three different major mountain ranges of the Northern Rockies including the Bridger, Madison, and Gallatin Ranges. As I took in the enormous scale of the landscape around me, I wondered where the wolves that had survived Montana’s hunting and trapping season were denning.
As dusk crept over the 45th parallel, the Rockies disappeared beneath a sea of stars. I sat next to the crackling fire and recognized I was living a childhood dream. As kid who learned to love nature from rambling around old tobacco irrigation ponds in eastern North Carolina, I dreamed of one day having adventures in great western mountain ranges. Here I was, on top of the world, and living in the browning pages of the Jack London novels that captured my imagination as a child.
We need places like this to exist, even if we’re never fortunate or adventurous enough to set foot into them. The fact that there are still places that echo with the hoof beats of great bison and elk herds (where you can escape the chatter of our wired, fast paced, suburban lives) remind us of an Old World— a time when our survival was more intimately interwoven with the lands around us. Untamed wilderness reminds us of our place in this world and our dependence upon her sustenance. The wild awakens our spirits and imaginations, and it encourages us to dream like children.
Looking south over the Gallatin Range, I hoped that my grandkids would one day have the opportunity to stand on top of Garnet Mountain and look out over the wild Rockies, and wonder where the last grizzly bears chose to hibernate through the dark Montana winter . I recognized, though, that there is much work to be done to make sure this opportunity exists for future generations.
The Gallatin Range before me, extending from Yellowstone National Park to the foothills of Bozeman, serves as a key wildlife corridor for some of the healthiest wildlife populations of any temperate ecosystem on Earth. The Gallatin Range helps connect Greater Yellowstone with the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and this connectivity between large swaths of undeveloped land is why Greater Yellowstone is one of the last places in the United States where all of the top predator species present before European exploration still roam free.
However, the future of this wild artery and the ecosystem that depends upon it remains tenuous. Gallatin County, home to Bozeman, Big Sky, and West Yellowstone is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. Booming development and ever increasing recreational pressure present serious threats to the Gallatin Range. Meanwhile, rapidly changing national politics threaten to undo current but inadequate protections.
Standing on top of Garnet Mountain, I felt thankful that conservation groups like the Sierra Club are working to secure permanent Wilderness protection for the Gallatin Range. We must recognize, though, that conservation groups cannot do it alone. If we are to be successful, we need the help of passionate and engaged citizens who are willing to step up to the plate.
With your help we can make sure that the Gallatin Range remains forever wild. To find out more about volunteering with Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Campaign, contact Zack Waterman (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Bonnie Rice (email@example.com).
Post by Zack Waterman