Feature Photo: Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation volunteers Ty Walters and Britt Robertson work together on the crosscut saw on June 1. Photo by Laura Lundquist.
Bob Sims, 78,
Holds His Own
By Laura Lundquist
Updated June 6, 2019 at 11am.
Bob Sims spent the first day of June hiking 5 miles in to Heart Lake in the Scapegoat Wilderness, much as he has for the past several years. Readjusting his suspenders so they didn’t rub beneath his daypack, he trudged steadily behind seven other people headed to the lake.
At 78, he was about 20 years older than the oldest of the eight, but he was still able to hold his own. Maybe it’s because, for the past few decades, he hasn’t missed a season of volunteering to do trail work with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation.
“I’ve been out here as long as they’ve been around, longer even. But let me tell you, it doesn’t get any easier,” Sims said with a cockeyed grin.
Another reason Sims can keep going might be the health benefits of volunteering. Studies have shown that volunteering and helping others can reduce stress, combat depression, provide mental stimulation and provide a sense of purpose.
It connects strangers to one another, and that was certainly the case when Sims and 25 other Montanans showed up Saturday to help the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation celebrate the 27th annual National Trails Day and kick off the summer season.
As the volunteers introduced themselves, they revealed that they’d traveled from all parts of Montana: Missoula, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Helena, Great Falls and even one from Billings. Some were in their 20’s, some middle-aged and then there was Sims. Even so, as they split into four work groups, Sims chose the one that had the longest hike.
They were all there to give some time to Montana’s largest wilderness, but they all had slightly different reasons why they wanted to do it.
Some like the opportunity to get out in the mountains. Some have done trail work in the past and like keeping a hand in.
Some, like Britt Robertson, want to meet like-minded people. Robertson and her husband moved from Portland, Ore., just four weeks ago after her husband got a job in Missoula. So she thought the day would provide an opportunity to get to know the people and the area a little better.
It didn’t take long. On the way to Heart Lake, Robertson connected with Stephen Brown of Missoula after they found a common interest in trail running. And that’s part of why Brown volunteers.
Every July, Brown and several friends organize a run across the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Each year’s run has new start and end points and every runner gets to choose his own route. Since he uses the trails, Brown feels he should help maintain them, and clearing out the downfall makes for an easier run.
“It’s funny – one year, we ran the Chinese Wall. I had to laugh because what took us one day to run took four days when I backpacked it a few years before,” Brown said.
Brown and Robertson are a few of the 25 percent of Americans who volunteer for a wide range of causes every year. Montana does a little better with about 32 percent volunteering, according to a 2016 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. However, an October 2018 University of Maryland report found that while the amount of time volunteers give hasn’t decreased, the number of volunteers has dropped since a 2015 peak.
But that wasn’t evident Saturday. And it’s clear that other people appreciate the volunteers’ work.
Along the trail, the work party stopped to talk to a Great Falls backpacker, giving his knees a break while on his way into camp at Heart Lake. He and Sims, also from Great Falls, struck up a conversation, and he said he camps in the wilderness every weekend during the summer.
“I’m in here a lot and I’ve never run into you guys before. But I always see the work that you’ve done. Thanks for doing it and keep up the good work,” the man said.
Up at the lake, the crew spread out, some cleaning campsites, some clearing trail. Crew leader Ian Baitling watched Sims dart around the lake shore, picking up trash.
Sims didn’t look like a 78-year-old that had just hiked 5 miles, Baitling said. But Sims is a bit of a legend among the BMWF trail crews, and each May, the new crew members hear the stories.
“They said, ‘Yeah, there was this old guy on the trip and he kicks everyone’s ass,” Baitling said.
After a few hours work, the volunteers headed the 5 miles back, passing a new Scapegoat Wilderness sign that another crew had installed. At a cabin near the Indian Meadows trailhead, they gathered for some well-earned grub provided by the BMWF.
At the start of the day, most had been strangers. By the end, they sat chattering and laughing about the work they’d shared and telling stories of other adventures.
A few of the young crew leaders got excited when Sims said he was already signed up to be on two of their work trips this summer. He chose the ones that had car-camping.
“I have to avoid the long hikes anymore,” Sims said.
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