The best jobs in town 

This week, more than 3,500 students from the University of Montana will graduate—and wish they were stepping into one of these perfect gigs

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Bengston, a 34-year-old wilderness ranger, is charged with protecting that massive hunk of land for eight months of the year. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig, but certainly for the right type of person. "It's a lot of solitude," Bengston says. "I've gotten to be pretty comfortable working and spending a lot of time alone in the woods, but it took me a while to get there."

The job also demands a solid knowledge of primitive skills. Bengston needs to know how to pull a saw, swing an axe, ride a horse and read a map, among other things. "Learning how to be proficient with horses and mules, to be able to pack them, I think that has been really neat," she says. "There is always something more to learn."

A wilderness ranger is a jack-of-all-trades, and Bengston puts her skills to work in many ways. She surveys and maintains trails, monitors campsites, advises fire crews, manages volunteer trail workers, enforces Forest Service regulations and keeps the ranger station ship-shape. It's not all old-time adventure and backcountry bliss, however. When stationed way back in the woods, things can go wrong in a big way.

Bengston's most fearsome experience took place in summer 2012 when she responded to a fatal plane crash on the Moose Creek airstrip. A bad gust of wind brought down a departing plane, which burst into flames and left the pilot dead and his passenger bleeding and traumatized. Bengston, with the help of a volunteer trail crew stationed at Moose Creek, tended to the survivor.

"The plane crash was a stark reminder that accidents and emergencies can happen at any time, and there is a big difference when you're 25 miles into the backcountry," she says. "Outside the wilderness it's not unlikely to have highly-trained first responders and ambulances on scene within minutes. For us, it was myself and a Montana Conservation Corps trail crew and some members of the public who were first on scene ..."

Bengston called in an emergency helicopter and helped the survivor recuperate in the ranger station until he could be flown out. Bengston says it took her some time to come to terms with the tragedy.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

All in all, however, the wilderness lifestyle involves benefits that can't be quantified. In addition to the sunrises and sunsets, the beautiful views, the clean water, the good work and the adventure, Bengston gets nearly four months off each winter to rest, reconnect with her family and travel. She spends a good deal of time in Missoula, which is one of her main stopovers between field seasons. When spring rolls around, she heads back to the woods and carries on a proud tradition of watching over the wilderness.

"Moose Creek Ranger Station was built in 1920, and since then there have been wilderness rangers doing similar work to what I am doing, helping take care of the wilderness and the station," she says. "I feel like it is an honor to be able to be in that line of wilderness rangers. It is an honor to be part of that."

Jimmy Tobias

Mickey Smith

Age: 26

Occupation: River Guide

Place of work: Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures

Salary: $100/day plus tips, "which can be sizable"

The banks of the upper Missouri River are lined with towering white sandstone cliffs, teepee rings and petroglyphs. The Missouri's rich cultural and ecological history makes the waterway among Mickey Smith's favorite boating trips—and he has a lot to choose from.

For the past seven years, Smith has guided vacationing tourists and adventurous locals on Colorado, Idaho and Montana waterways, tackling rivers as diverse as the Lochsa, the Arkansas and the Blackfoot. This summer will mark Smith's fourth working for the Missoula-based Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures. He loves the job because, among other things, he gets to always have fun. "You get to be with people on their vacation," he says.

Smith, who holds a master's degree in math from the University of Montana and teaches during the off-season at Missoula College, describes his guiding approach as more intellectual than daredevil. That's among the reasons he favors the Missouri. His love of maps is well suited to the waterway, which explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark charted more than 200 years ago. Lewis took particular note of the sandstone cliffs, which, as he wrote in 1805, "exhibit a most romantic appearance." Smith enjoys sharing historical tidbits like that during Missouri River canoe trips that can last as long as six days.

Being a river guide satisfies more than just Smith's historical curiosity. Originally from Texas, he's an outdoorsy guy who first envisioned his current job during childhood raft excursions with his father in Idaho. "I guess on one of those trips it was always in the back of my head, 'Maybe I could do this,'" he says.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

He didn't seriously contemplate the profession, however, until a guide friend from college inspired him to try it as a summer job. Smith took a three-week training course and passed a test run on the Arkansas River. "I was a guide," he says. "And I was hooked."

For the first three years that Smith worked on the water, he lived out of his car in a tent community with other guides. He made instant friends with those who, like him, wanted to be outside all summer long.

"We would always joke, 'What do river guides do on their day off?' We go rafting," he says.

There are a couple of significant differences between boating for fun and guiding professionally, however. One of them is cash. Smith says he earns between $60 and $100 per day before gratuities, which can be lucrative, especially on the Lochsa. "People love that trip," he says.

Rated a Class IV rapid, the Lochsa's fast water and technical challenges far surpass the Missouri's. The pace is thrilling for most customers, but it can be scary for others. That's the other main difference between boating for fun and guiding professionally: responsibility. Successfully captaining a boat requires a combination of skill, leadership, patience and a calm demeanor when dealing with nervous customers. (One trick: Smith says he tries to alleviate anxieties by getting crews to focus on paddle commands during the initial leg of a journey.) In the end, the most important lesson he teaches his charges is to keep their oars in the water.

"Paddling keeps you in the boat," he says. "You tell people that. They don't really believe you. But throwing your hands up in the air and screaming is a really good way to fall out."

Jessica Mayrer

Linda Muth and Lesley Washburn

Age: 61 and 34

Occupation: Costume designer and props master

Place of work: Missoula Children's Theatre

Salary: "very livable" for Missoula

Imagine this job description: Make fluffy clouds and lush gardens out of young children. Build a castle tower in just a few weeks. Recreate a famous painting. Collect vintage beer steins. Research facial hair. Make sure everyone who needs a hat has one.

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