Island in the Sky
Above the Waves of Mountains
Story and Photos by Tom Lopez
I first became aware of Grave Peak when I read, “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” by Norman Maclean, which was published in his famous 1976 book, A River Runs through It and Other Stories. Often referred to as semi-autobiographical, this book feels more like memoir than fiction. The story, which is set on Grave Peak, is both poetic and operatic as it tells of his experiences in 1919 working for the Forest Service, when he was seventeen years old. He begins, “I was young and I thought I was tough and I knew it was beautiful and I was a little bit crazy but hadn’t noticed it yet. Outside the ranger station there were more mountains in all directions than I was ever to see again—oceans of mountains…” Two sentences and I was hooked.
The specific setting is the Elk Summit Guard Station, which in 1919 was an exceedingly remote part of Idaho’s Clearwater Mountains. Unlike today, Elk Summit then was accessible only by a twenty-eight-mile-long, difficult trail from the opening of Blodgett Canyon near Hamilton, Montana. Like all good memoirs, this story not only includes interesting history but also puts us into Norman’s life, mind, and soul. We learn about those early days when the young man was older than the recently created Forest Service and when wild country was truly wild. His story sets a baseline against which we can measure both the present state of our environment and ourselves.
I never doubted that a hundred years ago life and people were much tougher, more resilient and capable than my generation. Times were certainly tougher than when I worked for the Forest Service at the end of the 1970s. Norman’s story provides glimpses of fighting forest fires, building trails, stringing telephone wire through dense forests to mountain tops with non-human power supplied only by skittish horses and cantankerous mules. More important from my perspective is that Norman’s story describes the remoteness and beauty of the pristine land in which it unfolds with a vividness that makes my life feel at once insignificant and full of possibilities.