This is rule number one for Hiking with Howie: Don't get too close. A gangly
and earnest young guy named Christopher made that mistake a mile down the trail. Wolke
didn't exactly bark at him; what he said was, "Please. Don't. Hike. So. Close. Behind
me." He said it in the manner of a long fuse burning evenly but inexorably toward a
very large stick of dynamite.
With Wolke in the lead
and Olsen bringing up the rear, we hiked nine miles that first day, entering the
Selway- Bitterroot Wilderness and climbing quickly through a thick forest of ponderosa
pine, Douglas fir, and western red cedar into higher country dotted with Engelmann spruce,
subalpine fir, and lodgepole pine. Wolke identified the trees, the flowers ("That
spiky white puffball is bear grass. It's actually a lily, and bears don't eat it"),
the birds ("Hear that'free beer, free beer'? Olive-sided flycatcher"). We
made camp next to the I Can't Tell You River. In the morningcold, clear,
gorgeousWolke blew reveille on his harmonica and euphemistically announced that we'd
soon encounter "some interesting navigational possibilities."
The trees thinned, dirt
gave way to snow, the trail disappeared, and we slipped and slid and slithered through a
narrow pass before entering a moonscape of rocky peaks and ice-rimmed lakes. We camped on
the ridge that second night, got blasted by 40-mile-an-hour winds, and elected to lay over
a day; in the morning we scrambled up through snow and bouldery scree and bagged an
8,500-foot peak. Below and all around us, rolling into the horizon in waves of gray and
green, lay an expanse of forest and ridge that reached as far as the heart could bear to
This was a small corner
of the Greater Salmon–Selway Ecosystem, which comprises some 40,000 square miles of
wildlandsan area, as Wolke pointed out, that is roughly the size of Ohio "but
much more pleasant." Looking southwest we could see the wild Selway River Gorge; on
its far side, drained by the Main and Middle Forks of the Salmon River, began the Frank
Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest designated wilderness in the Lower
48. Beyond the Frank were the Gospel Hump and Hells Canyon wilderness areas; farther
south, the Sawtooth; and, in and around them, at least 10 million acres of roadless wilds.
"This is an
ecosystem no one knows is here," Wolke said. "It's far bigger than Greater
Yellowstone. It has thirty-four roadless areas exceeding a hundred thousand acres. But
threaten Yellowstone with a mine and Bill Clinton shows up and shuts it down. Do it here
and nobody knows."
Until Wolke took up the
cause of the Greater Salmon Selway Ecosystem, no one had given voice to what now seems
obvious: This massive checkerboard of roadless areas and protected wilderness is a
biological whole. It includes the largest temperate forest in the continental United
States, some 90 percent of which has never been logged; spectacular granitic peaks and
glacial tarns; high, dry, sagebrush-filled basin and range; deep, undammed gorges of the
Salmon and Selway river basins. All this makes it prime "big tracks" country,
perhaps the last best habitat in the Lower 48 for wolf, bear, elk, moose, puma, wolverine,
marten, lynx, and fisher—wide-ranging, top-of-the-food-chain carnivores that survive by
spreading themselves thinly over a broad landscape.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that
the roadless areas are controlled mainly by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land
Management, and that a lot of them are scheduled for logging and mining.
That will change if a
visionary bill now working its way through Congress ever becomes law. The Northern Rockies
Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), would protect a 26-million-acre web of wildlands with
the Greater Salmon– Selway Ecosystem at its hub. Sponsored by Representatives Christopher
Shays (R-Conn.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), it is the first wilderness bill based on the
biological health of an entire ecosystem rather than on recreational and scenic values.
would protect some 6.5 million acres of migration corridors that connect five major
ecosystems: Greater Salmon-Selway, Bob Marshall–Glacier National Park; Greater
Yellowstone, the Cabinet-Yaak-Selkirk roadless area in northern Montana, and Hells Canyon
in eastern Oregon. The bill also contains a pilot program that would rehabilitate nearly a
million acres that have been destroyed by roadbuilding, logging, grazing, and mining. In
other words, NREPA is about wilderness as habitat rather than playground. If passed, it
would make real, on a spectacular scale, the vision Wolke has been pushing for most of his
The Sierra Club
supports the bill, but, says Larry Mehlhaff of the Club's Northern Plains office,
"this is a long-term campaign. We believe that eventually those areas will be
protected as wilderness, but like any vision, it's going to take a while." Bob Clark
of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (which has played a central role in crafting and
selling NREPA) says that even though the bill has 82 cosponsors thus far, "that's not
enough to push it through. We need to reach representatives of the western states,
particularly the Northern Rockies, and the sort of moderate Republicans who have
traditionally been conservationists but have fallen off the bandwagon in the last fifteen
Of some immediate
comfort is the likelihood that the majority of the NREPA lands will be included in the
Clinton administration's recent initiative to gain protection for up to 60 million acres
of roadless national forest. (See "Bill Clinton, Roadless Warrior," page 18.)
"That's a great thing, and it really helps to raise awareness of the roadless
issue," says Mehlhaff. "But it's an interim move. It's an administrative action,
and though it would be difficult to do, it can be overturned by the next president. We
want full wilderness designation as soon as possible. Only Congress can do that."
Standing on that ridge,
I saw postcard scenery; Howie Wolke saw habitat and duplicity. For example, wolves are
thriving in the Greater Salmon–Selway. "They were never really extinct here,"
said Wolke. "The government won't admit that. They 'reintroduced' them at the same
time they did in Yellowstone, but it was really an augmentation of an existing
population." He's convinced, too, that grizzly inhabit the area. The last official
sighting, a kill, was in 1956, but Wolke said that he recently spotted a den by
A Forest Service packer reported a 1998 sighting, he said, that "the
government basically buried in its files." (A confirmed sighting would undermine a
federal proposal to reintroduce grizzlies on an "experimental nonexploratory"
basis, which provides far less protection than the Endangered Species Act.) The Greater
Salmon–Selway, he noted, is closer to Glacier and Yellowstone than either one of them is
to the other. "If we connect the ecosystems, the Northern Rockies can probably
support two thousand grizzly bears." That's probably twice the current population, at
least. "Two thousand griz!" he said. "Imagine that!"
We sat on top of the
ridge for an hour or so, locked in the heavens, contemplating griz and wolves and feeling
both very small and a part of something very big indeed. Thick gray clouds scudded in from
the west. Half a mile to the southeast lay a small lake tucked into the flanks of a
neighboring peak. The lake was not on any maps—a clue, perhaps, to just how wild the Big
Wild is—and though access might be difficult, it wouldn't be impossible. "You could
climb right in through there," Wolke began, and then he smiled and stopped. You could
see the wheels turning. We boot-skied down to camp and, giddy and flushed with adrenaline,
climbed up and did it again.
While our snowy descent
from the ridge the next day might fairly be described as harrowing—Wolke shepherding his
clients from boulder stand to tree island, lowering their packs by rope, setting up like a
linebacker at the bottom of the odd ice chute to snag free-fallers—it was nonetheless
exhilarating, and the deeper we pushed into the backcountry, the more relaxed Wolke
became. He's a good cook and a fine raconteur—essential qualities in a guide—and though
his knowledge of the area was obviously immense, it was less imposed than shared.
"Howie's a wilderness person through and through," says Bob Clark. "That,
and a big-time good guy. He's inspired an awful lot of people, me among them."
Wolke's clients seem to
agree. Though he calls himself a misanthrope, you don't stay in a business like his for 20
years unless you like people andmore to the pointthey like you. Christopher
had read Wolke's book and was an unabashed admirer. Deb, a businesswoman and mother of
two, was back for her third trip with Big Wild Adventures. This was the first backpacking
trip for Rick, who makes his living building theater sets in Tennessee, and the second for
John, a financial editor from Manhattan. Neither had heard of Earth First!, Edward Abbey,
or, for that matter, Wolke himself, but when they started looking for someone to take them
into the Northern Rockies, all fingers—including those of other outfitters—pointed
toward the only guide service in the Rockies that specializes exclusively in backpacking.
Most of the crew were
doing well thus far; spirits were high, and laughter rang out from the campfire morning
and night. But John was not having an easy time—his backpack hurt, he had trouble
sleeping, and traveling over snow unnerved him. Still, he was loving it. "This is the
best camping trip I've ever been on," he said one night. "I could never see this
sort of country on my own, and I've had more quality conversation this week than I have in
a year with my friends at home. Howie's passion for wilderness just infects you."
One of Wolke's friends
describes him as "an East Coast Jew who has turned himself into a genuine Montana
redneck. But don't tell him I said that or he'll punch me in the nose." Wolke said
that when he was growing up, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, "the only thing I ever
wanted to be was a forest ranger." That dream died in a computer-modeling class at
the University of New Hampshire, where he was studying forestry: "I didn't see the
point of computer modeling, and anyway I couldn't do it." Announcing, "This is
BS," he stomped out of class and wound up with a degree in conservation biology.
From there, it was a
short step to the profound conviction that the biggest evil in the national forests is the
Forest Service itself, that the agency is devoted to one purpose only, and that is to cut
down trees. "The people in the pickle suits," he calls its employees, or
"the Freddies," after an old movie in which Fred McMurray plays a hapless
ranger. He recites Forest Service doublespeak with perverse glee (clearcuts are
"temporary meadows," timber sales "vegetation management systems"),
and he successfully challenges timber sales regularly, both on paper and in person. When
Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck visited Montana to look into the agency's decision to
allow a key section of the Salmon-Selway to be clearcut, Wolke found himself left off the
list of conservationists invited to the meeting. "They tried to stop us at the
door," he said. "Right. We just walked in and sat down at the table." As
far as he's concerned, "They've had a century to prove they can manage small-scale
logging and all they've proven is they can't. Two-thirds of the national forests are
roaded and developed. At what point do you say enough is enough?"
Dave Campbell is
district ranger of the West Fork office of the Bitterroot National Forest, which includes
a significant chunk of the Greater Salmon–Selway Ecosystem. He has often butted heads
with Wolke. Nevertheless, he says, "Howie Wolke is a top-notch professional
outfitter. When it comes to things like client safety and minimum-impact camping, he's as
good as it gets." Politics is another matter. As a rule, Forest Service personnel
won't comment on the sort of clashes they regularly have with Wolke, but Campbell does
allow that Wolke "feels that any time you have stumps or logs you've precluded the
possibility of that area gaining wilderness designation, and he tends to come in with all
As we worked our way
down into the basin our view encompassed thousands of square miles, but other than
ourselves there was no sign of people. Not, that is, until we broke for lunch. While the
rest of us watched a bald eagle gyre up and away from the lake, Wolke studied the trail
we'd carved from the ridge. Five very human bodies were hurrying toward us in a way that
might best be described as purposeful. It was the only time I saw Wolke get a look in his
eyes that could be called panic. A one-syllable expletive was his only comment, that and,
Double time, he led us
so deeply into the bush that no one could follow. We slushed along the lake and made camp
below it. "People," he groused after the fire was going and supper on. It had
the force of an epithet, and it set him off on a tirade that indicted politicians, Boy
Scouts ("Every experience I have had with them has been horrible"), the Forest
Service (of course), and pulp mills. "They should be built right in the middle of
cities. Let people live in the mess they make."
But wouldn't this force
them into the suburbs and beyond—into the very habitat, in fact, that he so values?
right," he said, without hesitation. Then he sighed, deeply. "But sometimes I
just have to say things like that."
Christopher and I caught five trout for dinner, the biggest of them about 16 inches. Wolke
grilled them expertly and we ate with gusto. "Best part of fishing," he said.
"I'm no purist. I'll use grubs, worms, bugs, flashing metal. Whatever it takes."
(He hunts as well, but he's no fan of the National Rifle Association: "They are
absolutely on the wrong side of every conservation issue.") In the morning we were
off early, following the creek, a tumbling, explosive cataract swollen by snowmelt. It was
a good couple of hours before we could find the actual trail, and Wolke got himself a
workout, nursing shaky clients over the creek on deadfall trunks, carrying their packs,
clearing a path. By midday, though, we were below the snow. We crossed the creek once
more, on a log that had been nicely flattened and notched with a chainsaw.
bridge," Wolke said. I pointed out that it was a Forest Service bridge. "Yes,
and a fine duplication of effort it is," he said, indicating various logs that had
fallen into the creek above and below it. "Nature has already done a pretty good
job." Never give an inch.
We worked our way into
a dense old-growth forest of spruce and Douglas fir, its floor thick with moose and elk
tracks. "They're watching us," Wolke said. I dismissed this as sentimental, but
as we set up camp everyone spoke in low tones and whispers, and before dinner Wolke
glassed an elk a few hundred yards up an avalanche gully, still as stone, indeed watching
us. Later, I heard a loud splashing in the creek—a bull moose. "Some of the biggest
paddles I've ever seen," Wolke said. Then he exploded in laughter, very much like a
kid who can't believe what he found under the Christmas tree. In the morning the moose
walked right through camp. Wolke was beaming. "Good trip," he said, reeling off
the list of big-track-makers we'd seen: moose, elk, mule deer, marten, coyote. "Good
At breakfast, Olsen
described her dream vacation: bicycling in Italy, eating and drinking well every night.
Wolke's eyes glazed over. "I'm sorry," he said, "but all I hear is, 'No
wilderness.' " Then we were on the trail. It was our last morning, and we had a long
hike out, at least ten miles. Wolke set a strong pace, but the nearer we drew to
civilization the more tired he appeared, and at a rest break he confessed to feeling the
200-odd trips he's led over the past 20 years: chronic tendinitis in the hips, some knee
and back damage, some broken bones. The aches and pains are a little harder to get over,
the paperwork unbearable. "Maybe it's time to cut back," he said.
I took him at his word
until we picked up the unmistakable sign of a pileated woodpecker—fist-size chunks of
wood blasted off a Doug fir snag by what has to be the Sawzall of birds—and he was fired
up again: "Sixty percent of the life in these forests depends on dead trees! But the
Forest Service has sold the public on the need to 'salvage' them because, you know,
they're infested with insects, or they're a fire hazard. What crap. Their only goal is to
grow healthy trees to full maturity so they can sell them. That's treating a forest like a
crop. What about the cycle of life? Pardon me, but I don't think I'm standing in a
Six miles from the
trailhead we joined the main trail, a wide, smooth, well-maintained runway, and met four
young backpackers on their way in. They asked where we'd been. Wolke told them the name of
the lake and added, "Lots of deadfall. Snow everywhere. Had to bushwhack. No trail to
speak of." Then he eased away from them -- they looked bewildered, to say the
least -- walked over to me, and stuck his face six inches in front of mine. "I hate
this sort of exchange," he whispered. "Discover it for yourself and it will mean
so much more to you. And then we'll talk about it back in town, over a beer."
he had a look of wild merriment in his eye, heightened by what is, perhaps, a soupcon
of inspired madness, and he went on to describe his itinerary over the next two months: a
family vacation canoeing the Boundary Waters; guide trips into Yellowstone, the Absarokas,
the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument; a rafting exploration of an unrun river
in Africa. "Lots of big tracks!" he called over his shoulder as he hurried down
the trail. By all appearances he was enjoying himself immensely.
JOE KANE is the author of Running the Amazon (Vintage Books, 1990) and Savages (Vintage Books, 1996).