Following in the Footsteps of Bob Marshall - Using the Past to Manage for the Future

It didn’t take long for me to realize we can’t all be like Bob Marshall.

Robert Marshall, known as Bob, was a forester and writer whose love for wild places manifested itself in his work and recreation. He was known to travel upwards of 40 miles per day on his impressive backpacking trips throughout the country. The idea of “wilderness” was in its infancy in the early 20th century, and in many ways, Bob Marshall and his ideas were decades ahead of their time.

In 1939, Marshall died suddenly at the age of 38. A year later, three primitive areas in the Flathead and Lewis & Clark National Forests of northwestern Montana were combined to create the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The wilderness designation, occurring well before the 1964 Wilderness Act, has allowed for a landscape that has largely remained untrammeled. The large-scale ideas and forestry practices of Bob Marshall himself have left a significant legacy on the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (the Bob Marshall plus its adjacent neighbors, the Scapegoat and Great Bear Wildernesses) and wilderness areas throughout the country.

In 1928, Marshall backpacked an astounding 182 miles over five days in the area that would come to bear his name. One leg of this trip extended from Spotted Bear Ranger Station to Black Bear Cabin, a beautiful hike along the South Fork of the Flathead River. Marshall himself took detours along this route, but my own trip from Spotted Bear to Black Bear Cabin was more direct. My final destination was to be Big Prairie Work Center, a two-day excursion into the wilderness. The objective was to learn as much as I could about the Wilderness hub of trail and ranger work. To many smaller wilderness areas, the idea of a seasonal residence within wilderness is incongruous with wilderness values, but to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Big Prairie is a necessary component to effective wilderness management.

As I traveled on my twelve-mile route to the stopover point, I couldn’t help but think of Bob Marshall, and how my work is in some ways directly linked to his work as a forester and wilderness advocate. In a way, I hoped to feel like I was like Marshall himself, using my experience traveling through the wilderness to inform and fuel the work I am conducting on the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. But I quickly realized that being Bob Marshall isn’t easy. My knee began to stiffen and hurt around mile eight, and by the time I reached my destination, it was screaming at me non-stop. Bob Marshall averaged over 36 miles per day in his excursion, but due to terrible injury timing, I could barely complete a third of that number.

The next day was spent laboriously removing myself from the wilderness, retracing my steps to the trailhead. I felt lucky that I could painstakingly walk back, without calling for the metaphorical cavalry- either a spare horse or mule or else the panic button of calling a rescue helicopter. I had hoped to channel the spirit of Bob Marshall in my journey, but it turns out that being like Bob isn’t simple or easy. The man had boundless energy, but died early, perhaps due to overexertion of his heart.

As I emerged from the wilderness at a snail’s pace, I reflected on the impressions I had gained of the South Fork of the Flathead, and the office work to which I was bound for the foreseeable future. Bob Marshall style trips are invaluable for personal knowledge of wilderness character, but the understanding of wilderness is also achieved through archival research and interviews with people who have known the wilderness far longer than I’ve been alive.

There’s a certain intangible aura surrounding the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and understanding how the area influenced Marshall’s writings and work has helped me gain a better knowledge of the history of the wilderness movement and how to approach studying this particular area. We can’t all be Bob Marshall, but we can appreciate his importance in the history of wilderness. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming to be researching an area as storied and revered as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, but it’s also been an exciting and rewarding challenge.


Noah Campbell is a Wilderness Fellow in USFS Region 1 working on the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which includes the Bob Marshall, Great Bear, and the Scapegoat Wildernesses.

Noah is a 2018 graduate of Colgate University, where he double majored in Environmental Studies and Mathematics. Since graduation, he has worked as a Wilderness Technician Intern in southern Colorado and a GIS Technician in Silicon Valley. He is excited to return to working in public land and wilderness management, particularly to continue using geospatial information, social sciences, and quantitative data to help solve environmental problems. Noah grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York State, a minute's walk from the Appalachian Trail. From a very young age he has loved hiking and being in natural places, alone or with others. He hopes to share his passion by helping to make natural experiences accessible and equitable. In his free time, Noah enjoys summiting mountains, trivia, reading (particularly fantasy), and playing the bagpipes. 
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