Montana Conservation Corps Helps Maintain Sprunger-Whitney Nature Trail

Article, written by Sally Finneran, appeared in Bigfork Eagle.

The Sprunger-Whitney Nature trail got some much-needed care last week.

Located about seven miles south of Swan Lake, the Sprunger-Whitney Nature trail was built in 1995 by the Friends of the Wild Swan and named after Elmer Sprunger and Jack Whitney, long time residents of Bigfork who felt the area was very special.

Arlene Montgomery has been working on the trail since its inception. She walks it regularly, checking on the trail’s condition and enjoying the forest.

When the Friends of the Wild Swan began leasing the Montana state school trust lands for the trail Montgomery and fellow friends of the Wild Swan knew nothing about trail construction.

Through a grant they were able to partner with Montana Conservation Corps to build the trail. MCC continues to help maintain the trail, making for an almost 20 year partnership between the groups.

“I couldn’t keep this trail open without MCC,” Montgomery said. “From my perspective this has been great.”

Last week a seven-member crew continued this partnership, regrading overgrown parts of the trail, installing water bars, turning fallen trees into benches and rebuilding a 15-year-old structure that helps shape the trail.

“We’re out here to make a nice leisurely trail that all ages can walk and enjoy,” crew leader Dan Schillo said. “To be part of the MCC legacy on this trail is a really special privilege.”

Working on the Sprunger-Whitney trail was the first “hitch” of the season for Schillo’s crew. It’s a great way for them to start the season and train new members, he said, as they get to do a little bit of everything on the Sprunger-Whitney trail, that they’ll be doing the rest of the season. It also ties in well to the educational portion of the MCC program, which aims to educate members about public lands, the environment and civic engagement.

“That’s almost as important,” he said.

In turn Montgomery brought snacks, shared the story of the Sprunger-Whitney Nature trail and taught the crew about indentifying plants.

“I think the educational component is a really important part of MCC,” Montgomery said.

The 2.1-mile loop starts on the roadbed of the old Swan highway, which is said to have been the Pend d’Oreille and Bitteroot Salish trail through the area. It goes on to wander through a diverse old-growth forest. Signs appear along the trail identifying plants and trees.

“There’s always something to see,” Montgomery said. “This part of the Swan Valley is pretty unique in diversity.”

At a lower elevation not only is the Sprunger-Whitney trail one of the first to be free of snow, but combine that with it’s short length and it’s a great hike for people who just want to get a feel for the area.

“It’s a gorgeous trail,” Schillo said. “We’ve just been in awe of all the old growth.”

Periodically the Friends of the Swan River Valley sponsor guided naturalist hikes along the trail. Anne Morley will lead the next one on July 22.