The Chinese Wall lies about 42 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a huge limestone cliff at the end of a trail that can only be traveled by foot or on horseback, alongside sparkling mountain lakes and streams, through huckleberry patches … and then you look down off a narrow switchback, see your horse’s hooves inches from a 200-foot drop and realize your life depends on the sanity and skill of your horse.
“Worth it?” asks Hap Cheff, one member of the storied family of Western Montana outfitters that brought us here. I nod, “yes,” almost too overwhelmed to speak.
The view from the top of the Wall is glorious and terrifying. Three hundred sixty degrees around us, the sky holds row after row of blue and purple Rocky Mountain ranges; a glacier curls up the mountain next to us, and under our feet lies a 1,500-foot 16-mile Wall, one of the most dramatic features of the Continental Divide. I seem to feel the massive violence of the tectonic plates colliding, one plate thrusting over the other.
Our group of nine adventurers scatters, taking dozens of pictures. Only a few thousand people make it all the way here each year, deep in the 2-million-acre Wilderness , where no roads, vehicles or mechanized tools of any kind are allowed. A few hundred feet below us, Hap’s cousin, Mark Cheff and his wife, Claire, are setting up the tents and the dinner at their Gladiator camp.
I signed up for this trip with my two daughters, 11 and 15, after I wrote a story in the spring about Mick and Karen Cheff, Mark’s parents. Ranchers and outfitters are a dime a dozen in Western Montana, where the outdoors is a way of a life and a vital part of the economy. But the Cheffs are different. The family has been hunting and guiding in the wilderness since 1932 ; last year, Mark and Claire purchased one of the family’s three licenses from his parents; his brother and a nephew purchased the other two.
A Rare Pursuit And Rarer Business
Today, they are three of only about 55 outfitters licensed for the “Bob,” as it’s known, after an early conservationist.
Outfitting is neither an inexpensive trip nor a particularly lucrative line of work. Trips cost $375 a night per person; the Cheffs take a few dozen trips a year, typically guiding about 10 sightseers, like us, or hunters, who come in the fall to stay in walled tents near the White River and pay more than $525 a night. They also drop fishermen and women at prime locations for an average of $4,000 per trip, to catch the legendary cutthroat trout. Everything has to be packed in on mules, except for the guests, who are guided in on horseback, usually for five- or seven-day stays.
Going into the wilderness is a labor of love, for people who go and the outfitters who guide them. There is no WiFi in the Bob. There are no phones. There is no sewage or running water, except for the rivers and springs. There are likely hundreds of grizzlies, and some number of elk and moose, which can be dangerous, too. In an emergency, someone uses a satellite phone or rides to Big Prairie, the Forest Service base about six miles from base camp.
In the weeks before we went, I nervously asked one of my friends who works on land preservation issues out West, whether she thought outfitting in the Bob might be kind of like, you know, glamping.
Once in the wilderness, we mostly bathe in the icy crick nearby, though twice, desperate, I take a shower with water from a solar heated bag hung from a pole inside the shower tent. My kids mock my weakness.
The crick also keeps a cooler of beer and wine; they are served with appetizers around 6 in the evenings, with impressive dinners, from spaghetti to peach cobbler cooked over the fire, at 8. The staff includes young hired hands, Philip (who took the photos that accompany this story) and Nick, and young people in the Cheff family – Noah, Caleb, Juliet, Olivia and Luc — many of whom have been riding since they were preschoolers.
Why Not Pick An Easier Livelihood?
After the grueling 30-mile ride to get to base camp on the first day, we take day trips through the Bob, to Big Prairie, Needle Falls, which my daughters reach by climbing a nearly sheer cliff (I stay up top, writing), and Big Salmon Lake. Everything is big in the Bob. To reach the Chinese Wall, the whole operation moves deeper into the wilderness for one night.
Back at base camp, I ask Mark Cheff why he does this work, which is hard, dirty, and sometimes dangerous.
“The question is not so much why I do it,” he cracks. “It’s how I get out of it.”
After the laughter dies down he pauses. “I could be driving to an office sitting on the southbound 101 in Los Angeles. But at sunrise or sunset or whenever, when I’m crossing a stream, I think, this is not a bad commute.”
Later, while we wash dishes in tubs of heated water with Hap’s wife, Jen, dipping them in bleach and then hand-drying them, I talk with Claire, who teaches high school English in nearby Ronan.
Everything has to be packed into the Bob.
It means a lot to her family to watch their guests relax. “You see them start to laugh. The kids start playing,” sheays. “It’s a calling. You wouldn’t do it, otherwise.”
I watch as, day by day, with every mile on horseback, and every hike up a cliff or mountainside, the veneers of sophistication slip off my own kids. I hadn’t even realized those layers were there. The wilderness seems to confer power people didn’t know they had.
One night I hear the story about Mark’s and Hap’s grandmother, Adele. Challenged by a hunter on horseback, who said something like “you wouldn’t make it a ½ mile before we catch you,” she hiked 30 miles out of the wilderness in one day, wearing a skirt. “They never caught up to her,” Mark says. “She was tuckered out by the end, but she did it.”
Stories Of The Bob
Tall tales abound in the Bob. “I caught a 20-inch trout,” says Sara Stonehocker one evening, holding her hands this far apart, as I sit wide-eyed, nursing a glass of boxed wine. A Montana nurse who along with her mother and two daughters was part of our group, she spends much of the trip riverside engaged in that beautiful sport, flyfishing. Her mother, Mitzi Stonehocker, makes the world’s best donuts one morning, which last about as a long as it takes for a fly fisherwoman to cast her line.
“My parents strapped me on to a horse when I was 18 months old,” she tells me one day as we are riding. “Really?” I say. I struggle not to scream “whoa,” every time my horse breaks into a trot.
One night, Mark Cheff tells the story of Butter Bear. Awoken in the middle of the night by a strange sound in the cook tent, he grabbed a flashlight from the shelf above his bed and looked toward the dining table. The grizzly licking the butter bar lifted its head and looked at Cheff straight in the eye.
“I grabbed my 45,” Cheff says. He ran out the back and headed round toward the front; the grizzly ran out the front and headed round the side toward the back. Man and bear met again. Cheff shot into the air, and the grizzly disappeared for good.
That’s when I realize that the entire time we’ve been in camp, I haven’t seen a gun. We know the animals are there. We’ve seen two giant grizzly tracks, as big as dinner plates, and two of the hands saw a wolverine near the Chinese Wall. We heard an early elk bugle out by Big Salmon Lake.
I’d expected to see guns; surely, experienced outfitters wouldn’t go into the wilderness without guns, even on a packing trip. Schooled in Western stereotypes of gunslingers, I thought guns of all kinds, handguns, rifles and shotguns, were part of the basic equipment.
Cheff uses a rifle for hunting. But a sidearm for protection is a different story. He doesn’t carry one, nor did his father or grandfather – a curious fact, I think.
I press Claire Cheff to explain. She sends me this email.
Why You Don’t Carry A Gun
Mark’s grandfather’s relationship to the wilderness and his perspective has really influenced their approach. Bud learned many of his wilderness skills and his ability to travel through the Mission Mountain Wilderness from the Salish Indians and was taught how to hunt, gather and prepare foods on the hunting trips he went on with the Salish as a child. In his book, The Woodsman and his Hatchet, he talks about the importance of wilderness survival skills and focuses mainly on learning how to carry and use a hatchet, a knife, light a fire, build a shelter, etc. A gun is not on the list of items for wilderness survival. He has a section on wild animals and says that in his 81 years in the wilderness, he has never felt any real danger from wild animals. He writes about coexisting with the grizzlies and being mindful of sow bears and not running from mountain lions, and he says that in his experience, wild animals try their best to stay away from him.
Mark has always held similar attitudes about his place in the wilderness. He never carries bear spray or a gun (he does have bear spray for guests to use in camp if they want), and has the belief that if you respect the animal and its behavior and use a level head/common sense that there is no need for a firearm. In all the years that the Cheff’s have been hunting, riding and hiking in the Mission Mountain Wilderness and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, there has never been a violent encounter with a bear. Mark has been charged by bears before, but it was always just posturing and intimidation and not a real threat.
Mark does think that a carrying a sidearm is a personal choice, but that it is not necessary and sways the balance of power in a way he isn’t totally comfortable with. He likes to feel he is an equal participant in the wilderness. Not fearing, but respecting, the top predators is the better approach.
Guns in the Cheff family are used for hunting, not personal safety. That is antithetical to their way of thinking about their place in the wilderness.
Hearing this, I understood why my children and I felt transformed by the wilderness. The East Coast world we live in is full of conveniences designed to make us feel that we are in control. The past few decades of technology have only heightened the illusion. Being in the wilderness is a reminder that life is both fragile and sturdy. You can climb to the top of the mountain. You also cannot escape the reality that, unlikely as it might be, you could die on a mountainside. Paradoxically, it’s in embracing the risk of the wilderness that you increase your chances of survival. Put another simpler way: A gun might make you overconfident, which is deadly in the wilderness, and it would undermine the more important part of the experience.
When you make yourself vulnerable in the wildness, emotionally and physically, testing your limits, you feel your place: The world is in balance around you, and you are part of the balance.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness includes about 2 million acres.
We ride out on Saturday, another 30-mile trip, arriving at the trailhead incredibly filthy, sore and exhausted again.
“How was it?” asks Mark Cheff, pausing in the act of unloading a mule.
“Great,” I say.
“You never got your ass kicked in such a good way,” he says with a laugh.
“Yup,” I say.
This story was originally published on Forbes.com in August 2018. Sign up for Times of E’s free weekly news briefs at www.timesofe.com/introducation.