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Local residents eventually accepted the park, but tourists never arrived at Kishenehn due to its inaccessible location, lack of amenities and mountain-obscuring forest, and the rangers were removed. Except for rare visits by rangers or wildlife researchers, the cabin, woodshed, and log barn sat unused for decades, vestiges of a lost era.
But the modern-day threat of poachers lives on, and Ben now hikes here every fall. For each of the last five years I’ve come to visit, always on the cusp of winter when the air is bracing and larch needles turn to gold. I don’t come for the views, I come to recalibrate and feel the rhythms of the wilderness. I’m a sucker for knock-you-upside-the-head grandeur as much as the next guy, but over the years I’ve learned to prefer slightly less spectacular places with wilder character, where the animals don’t come for handouts, they come for prey. That’s Kishenehn.
In the farthest reaches of the North Fork Valley, 13 miles of ragged dirt road north of Polebridge, itself some 30 miles of rough road north of Columbia Falls, there is an unmarked trailhead. Beyond this entry point lies a land of primitive trails, towering forests and wildlife beyond counting. A literal blank spot on the map, here in a corner of one of America’s showpiece national parks is a place virtually nobody goes. When Ben and I are hiking in together, we invariably go quiet after the first mile or so as the Kishenehn acclimation begins. The call of ravens and the jackhammer of pileated woodpeckers replace our conversation. We share a love of tracking wild animals and there are always tracks upon tracks of elk, moose, wolf, lion, grizzly. Then maybe a tuft of hair. Then a hoof, the toes of a deer, lying on the ground like a discarded toy. Inevitably, the carcass parade begins. We gather around the tracks, prod and smell the scat, excitedly studying the kill sites like young boys at Christmas.
The trail here is more like a game trail than the park’s well-pounded expressways, and after five miles it disappears in the cobble along Kishenehn Creek. My first trip in, Ben showed me where to pick up the faint trail to the ranger cabin on the far side. Fording the creek—never deep, always cold—is like crossing a border into the wild heart of Kishenehn. The trees are bigger, the beaver ponds never-ending, and the trail paved with lion and wolf scat. Besides Ben and our friends, I’ve never seen another person here.
We always come with good boots, good books, and good wine. Sometimes we take a day in the cabin to drink tea and read, and Ben, who vows to someday write a book about this place, pens epic paeans in the station’s logbook, which is otherwise filled with taciturn ranger entries. But most often, like those early patrolling rangers, our days revolve around movement.
A hike we took one cold, cloudy November day perfectly illustrates the Kishenehn experience.
The howling of wolves woke us at sunrise. In less than an hour we were stepping out of the cabin’s grizzly-proof, metal-grate front door with a day’s provisions in our packs. Not more than 200 yards from the cabin were lion tracks, fresh on the morning’s dusting of snow (there’s nothing better here than a fresh dusting of snow). Ben and I high-fived. A lion—a lion!—had just been here. As we followed its tracks down the trail, wolves howled in the distance. We followed the old Kootenai Indian trail up Kishenehn Creek through a towering forest of old-growth larch and fir and aspen tattooed by bear claws.
At the antler- and skull-littered meadows near the Canadian border, we sat and ate in silence. But Kishenehn sang as chickadees filled the air with good cheer and wedges of geese flew overhead in jumbled, bicycle-horn symphonies. Later we saw the tracks of a wolf that had come to the meadow’s edge, seen or heard or smelled us, and turned away.