SUPERIOR — To the list of day-hike essential gear, Mineral County’s Hospital Hikers has an unusual addition: Lauri Fillo’s bus.
“When we were getting this going we thought, ‘What if we shuttle those hikers?’” hospital hiking group organizer Monte Turner said. “If they have dogs, that’s fine. We just hose out the back.”
The addition of a shuttle bus to the bi-weekly hiking program proved a huge hit for folks far beyond the Superior area. Participants from Missoula, Hamilton and Thompson Falls joined in, encouraged by the camaraderie and convenience of a lift to the trailhead and back.
“This is my first hike this summer,” said Terry Zylawy, who came from Alberton for the excursion to Copper Lake near Lookout Pass. “I want to do more of the ones in the Bitterroots and Mineral County.”
Hiking groups exist throughout Montana and sport a variety of distinctions. The Hospital Hikers sprouted out of Mineral County Hospital’s community health awareness program as a way to encourage people to exercise. Bozeman’s long-standing B.W.A.G.s (Bozeman Women’s Activity Group), Missoula’s Montana Dirt Girls and Great Falls’ Girls in Glacier focus on female companionship as well as outdoor adventure. Organizations like the Glacier Mountaineering Society attract international participation with strenuous peak-bagging expeditions in and around Glacier National Park.
Some groups need little more than a bulletin board and a webpage providing scheduled departures for anyone interested in showing up. Others like GMS prefer participants join the group officially before signing on to an event. The Hospital Hikers have no organizing structure, but request a $10 contribution to defray the shuttle bus cost for anyone who wants a ride to the trailhead.
The common denominator for successful hiking groups tends to be a source of local knowledge. For the Hospital Hikers it was Jim Cyr.
“Last year was our first year, and it really took off,” Turner said. “Then I got a call from Jim, who said, ‘I read about this in the paper and I’ve hiked every one of these mountains. He agreed to lead several of the hikes.”
The U.S. Forest Service’s Superior Ranger District also stepped up with advice about trail accessibility and recommendations of local experts in geology and botany to invite along. A woman in Hamilton offered to lead some trips into the Bitterroot Mountains, which lose their snow sooner than many of the trails along the Idaho-Montana stateline region. The Montana Wilderness Society and the Great Burn Study Group contributed ideas and helped publicize the schedules.
“A lot of the old-timers used to go out a lot, but not many younger people do,” Turner said. “They don’t know where to go. Jim told me there’s 52 lakes in Mineral County, and all but four have fish. But nobody gets to them much anymore.”
The Hospital Hikers’ most popular trips depart on Saturdays, but a significant number turn out for the Thursday jaunts. A dozen joined Cyr to the relatively mild mile up to Copper Lake, hidden in the bustle of Lookout Pass Ski Area and the Interstate 90 corridor.
Cyr and fellow hiker Tom Castles packed a day’s worth of history into that short stretch of trail, pointing out the remains of old gold-mining operations, finding bits of broken china plates and big iron valves from vanished diversion dams on Copper Creek. A retired Montana Department of Transportation engineer, Cyr marveled at the tangle of old railroad grades, Native American trails, mining tracks, wagon routes and automobile roads that competed to find the best way through the mountains.
“The Yellowstone Trail and the Mullan Road went through here,” Cyr said. “They couldn’t keep the pass open during the winters until the 1950s, so the railroad would put automobiles on a flatbed and add a passenger car for people who needed to get over the pass. Now the only thing left after 100 year is Interstate 90.”
Comments like that made the hike worth every drop of sweat for Doug Austin of Tarkio.
“Go with somebody like Jim,” Austin said, “who knows where they’re going and knows the history.”