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By Paul Conn 

Coming home to the Bob


While growing up in the Flathead valley on a “stump ranch” along the Whitefish River, I developed the passion to get out into the backcountry and experience the natural scene. However, due to the demands on my three brothers and me as junior partners in clearing more of the logged-over land for crops and in tending to the livestock, we were only able to explore some of the edges of the wild country. The remote upper reaches of the South Fork and Middle Fork drainages of the Flathead were the biggest attraction since we heard unending stories of the amazing wildlife and scenery.

As we each finished high school, all four of us went on to college through the encouragement of our parents and with the hope of finding careers that didn’t involve the constraints of farm life. My turn was in 1958. I found life as a research scientist working on problems in various parts of the US and Europe very challenging but I continually felt the need to get back to Montana and, especially, to get into the Bob Marshall country that had become a wilderness in 1964.

My first opportunity to explore the Bob Marshall finally came in 1986 when my wife, Dorothy, and I decided to spend the summer helping my elderly folks cope with problems on the “ranch”. We also spent three weeks of the time backpacking in “The Bob”. My folks dropped us off on Soup Creek on the Swan River drainage and we climbed over the Swans through Inspiration Pass into the northwest corner of the Wilderness. That first night was spent camped under a large spruce tree that provided shelter from the rain that started as soon as we crossed through the pass. It became the routine for the trip.

We continued down and across Picture Ridge to the South Fork at Black Bear, up the river and forded to head for the continental divide along White River. After much more rain but with some success catching trout for supper and being warmed a by good campfire just outside the overhang of our spruce tree retreat, we managed to dry out each day before continuing. On the fourth of July we headed up the muddy trail to White River Pass in the midst of a snow storm which turned to more rain as we headed north along the base of the Chinese Wall. The weather cleared and we explored the area as we dried out all of our camping gear for the first time in days. Passing horse people asked if we had seen the grizzly on the cliffs above our camp but no, we were too busy sunning ourselves on the warm dry rocks.

Continuing North, we crossed back over the divide using Larch Pass and down into the Spotted Bear drainage using a little-used route along the base of the Wall Creek Cliffs and down Silver Tip Creek to the river where we restocked our supplies from our cache. By heading up the Spotted Bear we managed to cross over into the Middle Fork along Dolly Varden Creek to Shafer Meadows. We then tried to head north along to Marias Pass using a series of trails through a well named area known as the Puzzle Hills. After a few false starts using paths that ended at hunter camps, we finally headed downhill on the best trail around and followed Skyland Creek road and out to Highway 2. With the heaviest rainfall of the trip, we decided not to hike up Highway 2 the mile or so to the summit for an official end to the trip. Instead, we hitched a ride in the back of a pickup to West Glacier where we had a nice warm meal as we called the folks to come pick us up.

Dad was eager to learn about the country he had heard about all of his life in the Flathead Valley. As we hiked, he had been plotting our route each day and recalled hearing stories about every location. He had been offered a job with an outfitter who led trips into the area and turned it down because he could get more money in the timber industry hand-sawing, horse-skidding, and driving logs down the rivers. He said it was his biggest regret that he turned it down since the money couldn’t substitute for seeing that wild country. One of my biggest regrets was not going on horseback 20 years earlier so we could take him along. He was at a stage where he could barely walk and blamed it on the effects of wading in the icy rivers driving logs and breaking up log jams.

Despite the rain two days out of 3 and the poor visibility to see wildlife and scenery, we both found that trip the most rewarding back country trip we have ever taken and it led us to move to Montana permanently and to return to the Bob many times.

Paul and his wife Dorothy Boulton now reside in Thompson Falls.


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