When it comes to social distancing, Jack Ader is an expert.
It comes with his job.
Throughout spring, summer and fall, the West Fork District wilderness ranger will travel upward of 400 miles on foot and horseback deep into the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48 states.
On many occasions, he’ll go days without seeing another soul.
“I have lots of opportunities for solitude,” Ader says as he watches a crescent moon’s descent toward the rock-laced ridge that ends at the top of Trapper Peak.
Sitting on a slab of granite at the edge of Baker Lake, Ader takes a moment to let the silence wash over him.
Missoula’s famous wilderness packer, Smoke Elser, calls the quiet you find in the wilderness “the hush of the land,” Ader says as he watches a small trout glide past in the crystal water. “Some of the best sleep that I’ve ever had has been out here in a tent. It’s as quiet as quiet can be.”
“It takes about three days for my mind to quiet down and all that chatter to stop,” he says. “From there, you kind of mesh with your surroundings. You become present. You no longer think about all the cares and worries that were there when you left trail head. You’re just there in that moment.”
That’s a feeling that Ader hopes he can help others experience while providing them the skills to ensure they do so without leaving any trace of their passing.
Those are skills that Ader has been perfecting since the end of his service as a U.S. Marine who spent two years in Iraq, including time spent in war-torn Fallujah.
“When I got out of the Marines, I was able to find work with the National Park Service in Grand Teton National Park,” he said. “It was a godsend for me coming out of the war. There was something about the healing nature of wilderness that really called to me and helped me.”
“It’s that same old story — that old trope — of a war vet walking it off in the wilderness,” Ader said.
He started as a member of a trail crew and found his way to Idaho’s Sawtooth and Alaska’s Denali before spending a summer as an intern with the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation.
“They like to hold me up now as a poster child,” he said. “I’m the intern who became a wilderness ranger.”
His first stint as a wilderness ranger was at Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area. And then he worked on the Salmon-Challis Forest in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In 2016, he took his current job with the Bitterroot National Forest.
There are two wilderness rangers on the forest. Ader’s focus is on the West Fork District that includes portions of the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church-River of No Return wildernesses. Adam Washebek covers the more popular north end of the forest.
“As wilderness managers, our duty is to preserve wilderness character,” Ader said.
They accomplish that through education about leave no trace expectations, monitoring use, working with outfitters and clearing trails.
The 1964 Wilderness Act serves as Ader’s guide, which includes the word “untrammeled.”
“It means uncontrolled, unhindered,” Ader said. “A trammel is an old word that’s similar to yoke or hobble. It’s a word that those who wrote the Wilderness Act chose deliberately. Wilderness is untrammeled. It means we try not to affect the biophysical environment.”
Wilderness is a place where there are no roads, buildings or permanent structures. It’s a place where natural processes can play out without the influence of humans. And it’s a place that offers people a chance to find solitude through primitive and unconfined types of recreation that include hiking, horseback riding, fishing and hunting.
“Fortunately these wilderness areas that I get to manage don’t require anyone to get a permit or follow a quota,” Ader said. “You can come and show up anytime you want and go out and get lost for however long you want.”
All that’s asked is that you leave it as you found it. But not everyone does that.
“I tell people that wilderness rangers are backcountry janitors,” Ader said. “We clean up the garbage that people leave behind. We clean up the fire rings that don’t belong there. We bury the poop that hasn’t been buried.”
“We do what we can to provide people with the illusion that no has been there before,” he said.
On Wednesday, Ader took the short but steep hike into the popular Baker Lake at the base of Trapper Peak and on the edge of the wilderness. In 2016, the Bitterroot National Forest banned campfires at two small lakes further up the mountain after people began cutting down old-growth Whitebark pine snags and green trees to feed their fires.
At Baker Lake, Ader is seeing the same kind of damage.
“People like to have their campfires, but when you start losing the old snags that provide character to the lake and people start cutting down green trees and leaving lots of stuff in the fire rings, it becomes a problem,” Ader said. “We want people to come and enjoy Baker Lake. There’s easy access and it’s beautiful here, but they need to do their part to keep it that way.”
A couple of years ago, Ader cleaned out a fire pit near Gem Lake. He came away with five pounds of garbage that ran the gamut from old sardine cans to charred packages of freeze-dried foods.
“Who hikes up to a pretty place in the mountains to bury their garbage in a fire pit?” he said.
There are about 550 miles of wilderness trail on the West Fork District. Ader thinks he’s traveled about 85% of that.
“It’s some of the most rugged country that I’ve ever been in,” Ader said.
In the lower 49 states, there is only one place in Yellowstone National Park where you can get farther away from the nearest road.
“All of the other places are here,” he said. “There are places where you would have to travel 25 miles to get to the nearest road. Those are the places I like to get to … My goal is to walk every trail in the West Fork before I leave.”
The challenge that wilderness managers wrestle with is how to find ways to get people to embrace these wildlands without loving them to death.
“My job is to spread the knowledge that I’ve learned from being here so people can understand why it’s important to preserve wilderness qualities,” he said. “They need to know why it’s not a good idea to take a bicycle out there or a chainsaw. They need to understand that wilderness is both for them and for the generations to come.”
“There are a lot of people who don’t understand Wilderness with a capital W,” Ader said. “They don’t know why they should value it. We need them. As land managers, we’re not funded as well as we used to be. We rely on the public to help us.”
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.