Ron Kopitze and Brian Rogers float the Spruce Park section of the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River recently. - Dave Reese photo
By DAVE REESE
The clang of the mule’s bell sounds constantly in the pasture at Schafer Ranger Station. Clothes hang to dry on the line, and steaks sizzle on a wood-fired grill.
It’s an idyllic place, set deep in the Great Bear Wilderness more than 30 miles from the nearest road. There is no electricity and most power available is the oldest kind: manpower.
Crosscut saws and axes are used to cut firewood or blowdown. Wheeled and mechanical devices are not allowed in the wilderness. In fact, the one wheelbarrow left at this wilderness facility has seen better days, and it’s rumored that when it “dies,” it won’t be replaced.
Then there are the airplanes.
Next to Schafer Ranger Station is a long, grass airstrip. On a busy June day you hear the drone of the planes approaching the airstrip from the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Their engines cut to a dull roar as they slowly approach the strip, banking steeply over tall lodgepole pine trees.
Most of the planes that fly into Schafer in May and June are hauling people and gear to float the upper Middle Fork, a nationally designated “Wild and Scenic” river.
Back in the day, you rarely saw more than a couple planes a day flying into Schafer. Now, with more people wanting access to the popular whitewater and fishing sections of the upper Middle Fork, the airstrip is busier. This is somewhat of a dichotomy, since the wilderness concept forbids wheeled or motorized vehicles. But the airstrip was grandfathered in to the Great Bear Wilderness and flights are unregulated to come and go.
On a hot June day, while the airstrip is temporarily quiet, Richard Owens walks down the runway and appears like an apparition out of the haze. He shoulders a long crosscut saw that shines in the late afternoon sun. He’s just finished a long stint of removing blowdown from the trail that parallels the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
For Owens, the head ranger at Schafer Station, life here is “like a dream come true. It’s quite a privilege to be able to work here.”
While airplanes haul tents, coolers and rafts into Schafer for use by private parties, all U.S. Forest Service work is done by hand. The mule train is used to bring materials and supplies to the remote station, which is one of only two manned remote wilderness outposts in the United States.
Schafer airstrip was originally built as a trailhead that provided access to the Bob Marshall and Great Bear wilderness trail system. Now, the Schafer airstrip is often used as a pilot tourist attraction.
“Lately it seems like a lot of people fly in and take pictures and in 15 minutes they’re gone,” says Owens. “It’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the wilderness.”
Pilots are discouraged to use the airstrip if it’s not to be used as a gateway for the wilderness — like floating, hiking or hunting.
In the busy floating seasons of May and June, Schafer sees about 12 flights a day. Then they taper off until fall, when deer, elk and black bear hunters use the airstrip for access to the wilderness.
Dick Brady, a seasoned aviator, has flown into Schafer and other remote Montana airstrips for 32 years.
He’s seen changes at Schafer, and not just the increase in planes. Now, landing at Schafer means dealing with the locals: wildlife.
“You fly in here after six at night, you have to buzz the whitetail deer to get them off the airstrip,” Brady said, standing next to Red Eagle Aviation’s Cessna 206 after bringing a load of rafters into Schafer. “It used to be just the elk and moose we had to worry about. Now it’s the deer.”
Wes Martin and friend Dale Tennison had tethered their planes at the airstrip’s campground and watched from a split-rail fence as Brady’s flight touched down on the dirt strip. Martin, who has an airstrip at his house in Columbia Falls, says Schafer provides a quick, remote place to land his bright yellow plane for weekend camping trips. This was the first trip into Schafer for Tennison, a seasoned mountain flier who flew in from Spokane via Libby in his 1946 Cessna 140.
“This is gorgeous,” Tennison says while wiping bugs off his aluminum aircraft. “What a pretty place.”