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Apr 10

In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean

It sounds like one of those Paul Bunyan tales: Literary giant Norman Maclean would walk from Missoula to Seeley Lake in a single, overnight hike.

Famous for relentlessly cutting his prose in half, and then in half again, Maclean’s legend still sounds a step too far. Hoofing 50-odd miles from the Missoula train station in the afternoon to the family lakeshore cabin by next-day lunch sounds like it was measured with the extra-long trout he caught on the way.

But don’t tell that to Paul Schultz.

Although he’d never heard of the Maclean claim, he has his own family history to tout. The former Missoula resident and his father, John Schultz, did it twice in the 1970s when their Boy Scout troop considered the Rattlesnake Wilderness their personal training ground.

“We’d get dropped off at the lower bridge and start hiking from there,” Schultz said of the main Rattlesnake National Recreation Area trailhead. “Our target was Lake Inez (six miles farther than Seeley Lake). I think our route was about 45 miles total. We’d start about 6 p.m. Friday and be there by 9:30 p.m. Saturday.”

Maclean never wrote about the trip. But the rumor has persisted long enough to inspire Seeley Lake and Missoula hikers to envision a Norman Maclean Trail that could appear on a map. Whether any trace of it shows up on the ground, well, we may never catch that fish.

You can reach the edge of the Rattlesnake backcountry by Missoula’s Mountain Line city bus. In Maclean’s day, homesteaders drove along the creek at least eight miles up the drainage to Franklin Bridge, and occasionally farther. It’s possible Norman and his brother Paul thumbed a ride from the train station deep into the woods before they had to apply boot leather.

After about 15 miles of vigorous hiking, they’d strike the Jocko Lakes Road that runs between Arlee and Seeley Lake. In the 1930s, chances were just as good they’d catch a ride there as they might hitchhiking along the dirt roads in the Blackfoot River drainage, where Highway 200 runs now.

“Back in the ’20s and ’30s, two-day trips from here to Missoula were normal,” said Ron Cox, a retired Forest Service resource officer and Seeley Lake resident. “On those old, rough roads, however fast they went, it probably wasn’t more than 30 mph.”

Cox met Norman Maclean a few times at Seeley Lake, and is friends with Maclean’s son John, who still frequents the family cabin.

“I think I’m the one who picked up on the tidbit that he and Paul had walked from their cabin to their home in Missoula,” Cox said. “John Maclean says his dad mentioned it once or twice, although now he thinks they didn’t go from Missoula to here, but from here to Missoula.”

Either way, the route has changed a lot in the intervening decades. The Maclean brothers might have benefited from bunking at one of several Forest Service cabins that used to dot the landscape by Placid Lake, Gold Creek and Franklin Bridge. Logging around Placid and Gold Creek could add roads and remove landmarks from year to year.

Congress designated the Rattlesnake Wilderness in 1980. Although a “cherry stem” corridor along Rattlesnake Creek remains open to wheeled traffic, wilderness management rules prohibit bikes from taking Trail 52, which Schultz and his father used to reach Gold Creek.

The Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness was established in 1982 and included a tribal-members-only zone bordering the Rattlesnake Wilderness. That may have closed another potential part of the Maclean route, if he sought the headwaters of Rattlesnake Creek to reach the Jocko Road.

Cox suspects the brothers may have followed an old telephone line that used to connect the ranger cabins. He’s found bits and pieces of it, but it doesn’t show on most maps.

Another complication lies in the Gold Creek drainage. Plum Creek Timber Co. owns much of that ground, and is currently trying to sell it to private buyers. The company has remained noncommittal about allowing public use of its roads and paths there, as well as some of the country it still has around Placid Lake.

And then there’s the Forest Service, which has its own management concerns. Lolo National Forest spokesman Boyd Hartwig said he’s had conversations with the Maclean Trail planners, but hasn’t offered any commitments.

“We support an effort to honor the history and culture there,” Hartwig said. “But we don’t know exactly what they’re proposing. We’re not willing to add new miles of trails.”

maclean-mapSeeley Lake Community Foundation board member Lee Boman has anticipated that setback. He said part of the solution is to keep the Maclean Trail imaginary.

To avoid making the project trigger National Environmental Policy Act review, the trail must remain more conceptual than physical. That means it can’t have new campgrounds (although it can pass existing ones) and probably won’t have interpretative displays and signs (although it would have maps and guidebooks printed explaining its location and significance).

Building one mile of new trail costs about $15,000, plus another $1,000 a year in maintenance. To keep those expenses down, the scouts want to find as many existing trails and roads that stay true to the idea, if not the actual footsteps of the Maclean brothers.

Last summer, volunteer crews scouted lots of potential links through the Gold Creek area east of the Rattlesnake Wilderness that might eventually connect to logging roads and trails west of Placid and Seeley lakes. At least one proposal needs a bridge replacement. Others have some complicated land-use rules to navigate. All have downed trees or washouts or other hazards to clear.

“We’re really close, but not quite there,” Boman said. “We’re probably one or two or three months away from saying, ‘This is where the main route is going to go.’ There’s a lot of land that’s Forest Service or private or Plum Creek (Timber Co.) that everybody’s got to agree on using.”

Nevertheless, the project has earned $1,000 grants from both the Seeley Lake and Missoula Community Foundations, as well as a $5,000 grant from the Montana Community Foundation. The money helps pay for map printing, organization, survey work and other nuts and bolts of trail design.

At some point, the route could become the heart of a literary pilgrimage, a cultural history adventure, a mountain bike circuit or other, yet-unthought-of events. Missoula Community Foundation director Meredith Printz outlined how last summer’s scouting may resolve into this year’s reality.

“It’s being able to honor and celebrate a really important Western author who brought respect to Western writers,” Printz said of Norman Maclean, whose “A River Runs Through It” novella and the Robert Redford-directed movie it inspired helped move Montana to a new level of international tourism interest. “But it’s a lot bigger than just a trail. It’s a good place to bring people to an area that has lots of natural and cultural history. There’s the logging and commerce, and we want to educate people about all of it.”

maclean-trail2So what might one find along the Maclean Trail?

The Rattlesnake Creek trail flits past several homesteads now hidden deep in the underbrush as it pushes toward Franklin Bridge. From there, the main route bends north into the cherry stem, climbing a steep talus slope before continuing through a narrow valley for another seven miles.

Bicyclists would have to skip over to the Mineral Peak trails that skirt the eastern edge of the Rattlesnake Wilderness boundary. From there, they must stitch together roads and routes through Gold Creek’s Forest Service and Plum Creek land to Boles Meadow, and eventually the Finley Creek Road. From there, it’s a few miles to the Jocko Lakes Road, Placid Lake, and then a spaghetti-tangle of possible routes to Seeley Lake.

Hikers have several more options. Schultz recalled climbing Trail 52 past Mud Lake. They’d follow ridgelines to shortcut a few miles off the road network in the Gold Creek drainage before dropping down to the Jocko Lakes Road.

“Dad always hiked with a frying pan – this tin, double-handled frying pan,” Schultz said. “It went everywhere with him, because you never knew what he would find. He’d drive you nuts. It would be getting dark, and you’re trying to get to camp, and he’d say, ‘Look boys – sego lilies!’ So we’d dig up the bulbs, barely bigger than your thumbnail, and boil them up.”

Those with stamina might reach the end of the cherry stem and find the Rattlesnake Creek Gorge, a beautiful slash through the bedrock ending in a waterfall-fed pool. That would require a backtrack to the Porcupine Creek trail leading to Boulder Lake, with its popular backcountry campsite.

“On another trip, in the vicinity of Beescove Creek, Jack in his Ewell Gibbons way, had his nose in the scar of an old ponderosa pine,” Schultz continued. “He called me over saying, ‘Smell that.’ A closer match to the smell of a pineapple sundae, I have never smelled. We spent the next 24 hours dreaming of the pineapple sundae waiting for us in Seeley Lake. Life being reality, they were out of pineapple. We had to settle for strawberry.”

Rob Chaney is a reporter for the Missoulian. He can be reached by email at  Michael Gallacher is a Missoulian photographer. He can be reached at (406) 523-5270 or by email at