Thoughts on Growing up Wild in the Swan

I grew up in the remote Swan Valley of Montana, sandwiched between the Mission Mountain Wilderness to the west and the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex to the east.  Although I didn’t fully appreciate it until much later in my life, from a very early age I was exposed to and spent a lot of time in nature.  And not just city parks and occasional trips to the woods – I grew up playing in the forest, learning about the complex interactions between humans, wildlife, and plants.  I spent countless hours walking the banks of seasonal streams and wandering beneath the dense canopies of lodgepole pine forests that were out my backdoor.  It wasn’t some tame forest environment either.  The place I grew up in is in the heart of the last remaining stronghold for grizzly bears in the lower 48, outside of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.  The house I grew up in is in a designated grizzly bear travel corridor, and it was common to see bears, grizzly and black, in the neighborhood.  Coyotes were abundant, and mountain lions roamed the area in search of deer and elk.

From a young age I learned how to interpret the signs in the forest, to see tracks and know what made them, to see scrapes on trees and brush as a signal that deer or elk frequented the area.  I learned to watch out for carcasses, for that was a sure sign that predators were in the area.  I learned what trees and shrubs grew in what places, and why.  Not a typical childhood, but one that I wouldn’t trade if I could.  As I grew older I gradually expanded my excursions, eventually working up to extended backpacking trips into the high country of the Mission Mountains with my family.  Eventually I ended up choosing a career where I could spend a fair amount of time in the wild places, and continue to expand my knowledge of how landscapes function.

It was wild and primitive in other ways too.  Growing up my family didn’t have television other than VHS movies and the one CBS station that was relayed in from Butte, MT.  Satellite TV was a rarity, and cable still hasn’t made its way into the Swan.  Power outages were frequent in the summer, as storms knocked trees over powerlines.  Most places had wood cook stoves, and a fair number of homes had outhouses.  Even to this day cell phones and internet are tricky to get working well in the valley.  The local grocery stores still don’t stock much other than necessities, and there’s not much for restaurants or cafes.  It’s a 40-minute drive from my parents house to Seeley Lake, and another hour past that to Missoula.

The community in which I grew up could be described as a bit bipolar in its views on wilderness.  On one hand, most people who lived and worked in the valley were there because they enjoyed the solitude, the wildness, the wildlife, and live-and-let-live attitude that comes from living in such a remote area.   But on the other hand, it was a community where most people made their living from the timber industry, either directly working as loggers or in the mill in Seeley Lake, or indirectly by operating a business that was supported by timber dollars.  Poverty was a constant for many people, and timber provided an income for many that was quite good for the time and the place.  So of course there was intense debate between the environmentalists and the timber folks.  Even to this day there is still animosity between certain groups, families, and individuals.

If the community was split between lovers of wilderness and those of a more practical mindset, it’s fair to say that the landscape was split as well.  The land use policies of the railroad era spilled over into the Swan in the form of checkerboard land ownership.  The Plum Creek Timber Company owned a large portion of the valley bottom, scattered section by section throughout the upper Swan.  The land had originally been granted to the Northern Pacific railroad in the 1860s, and eventually found its way into the hands of the timber companies.  That checkerboard ownership led to the landscape being very fragmented.  Clearcuts would butt up against wilderness areas, and over time there became very few continuous blocks of uncut timberland in the valley bottom and foothills.  All you have to do is look at Google Earth to see the legacy of not only Plum Creeks harvests, but the cutting done by the Forest Service, Montana DNRC, and other small private landowners.  Today the clearcuts are slowly growing back in mixed lodgepole pine and western larch stands, but it takes time grow an old-growth forest, and much of the age diversity has been lost.   Countless square miles of land are now converted from mixed-species stands to even-aged lodgepole pine.  Much of the land owned and cut by Plum Creek has now changed hands again.  A large portion of the land base has been placed back into public domain, but is still recovering from the harvests of decades past.  Other areas have been sold to private owners, and now million-dollar mansions compete with saplings for sunlight and mountain views.

The place where I grew up and I still love has changed greatly since I left.  Timber harvests have declined to a point where camp trailers and RVs have replaced logging trucks on the roads and highways.  Many of the working class families I knew growing up have left, taking the young people with them, and have been replaced by retirees and part-time residents.  Land prices have been driven up to the point where even if I wanted to I couldn’t afford to live there.  Schools have been reclassified, and the mill in Seeley Lake hangs on for dear life on government loans and small timber sales from miles away.  Part of it is just the nature of extractive industries.  I’ve seen small communities of a hundred residents where at one point tens of thousand people had lived, all supported by logging.  To some degree there’s not a lot that can be done to prevent change… it’s inevitable, and all we can hope to do is weather it

The Swan is still wild.  Wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions share space with llamas, horses, and a few cows.  The landscape has changed, and the people have changed, but the wild nature remains mostly intact.  I’ve changed as well, but if anything I’ve come to have a deeper appreciation of the unique character of the time and place I grew up in.  It was, and to a degree still is, a different place than most people of my generation have experienced.  I’ve had the opportunity to see my home community through the eyes of others, and it’s changed how I look at the area, and how I look at my formative years.  I’m glad I grew up in a wild place, and that I’m able to reflect on what I learned there.  It’s very much a part of who I am, even though I’ve moved on in my life.  May there always be places like the Swan that are unique, wild, and a little bit rough around the edges.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
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