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Out on patrol: Gallatin National Forest cabins offer glimpse of old Montana

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A campfire keeps, from right, Sue Bogenschutz, Andrea DeNucci, Andrew Babcock, Nando Velez, Matt Stark, Dave French and Christine Marozick warm at the Porcupine Cabin in the Crazy Mountains on Jan. 7. Located 16 miles northeast of Wilsall, the cabin has eight bunks and a wood stove. Photo by Ben Pierce.

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By BEN PIERCE Chronicle Outdoors

GALLATIN NATIONAL FOREST – From the front door of the Porcupine Cabin, the expanse of the Shields Valley sweeps east across pallid grassland. On the western horizon, the broken crest of the Bridger Ridge fractures the sky. Below it, in the timber, lies the Battle Ridge Cabin.

For a Forest Service ranger setting out in the 1930s, the Porcupine and Battle Ridge cabins would have served as home base while on patrol. A ranger would have traveled on horseback watching for sign of smoke, monitoring livestock and making sure timber wasn’t being poached.

Today, the Porcupine and Battle Ridge cabins are open to the public for rent as part of the Gallatin National Forest’s Cabin Rental Program. A night’s stay at one of the forest’s 23 rustic cabins is to experience a unique part of Montana’s history in some of the state’s most engaging settings.

“In the 1980s, the Gallatin National Forest was among the first forests in the U.S. to outfit its cabins for use by the public,” said Jane Ruchman of the Gallatin National Forest. “It is a wonderful program that allows people to experience what it might be like to be a ranger back in the day.”

In the early 1900s, the Porcupine Cabin played home to a number of Forest Service employees, their families and crews. Rangers would have patrolled the forest between the Porcupine Cabin and nearby Ibex Cabin, perhaps traveling to the communities of Wilsall and Clyde Park for supplies.

The Porcupine Cabin burnt to the ground on March 5, 1914. The current cabin was rebuilt that same year with a bathroom added in April of 1921. In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps remodeled the station. A barn was built to shelter horses and firewood in 1937.

The most recent renovations to the Porcupine Cabin were completed in 2009 and 2010. The Forest Service reroofed and resided the cabin, and added a vault toilet. The cabin has eight bunk beds and an enclosed porch with views of the northern Crazies.

“The Forest Service has done a lot of work on the Porcupine Cabin because it is in such a beautiful location,” Ruchman said on Friday. “We have tried to make the experience as pleasant as possible for visitors.”

Construction of the Battle Ridge Cabin was completed by a crew from the Emergency Relief Administration in 1939. The buildings replaced the dilapidated Ross Creek Station, which was deemed too small for the growing needs of the district.

The Battle Ridge Cabin was “centrally located for grazing administration and game protection … for the administration of timber sales and excellently located for emergency patrolmen near the heaviest recreational use areas on the district,” L.E. Ewan, the district ranger at the time, said. The station “could serve as a general stopover station for forest officers and temporary employees.”

The three buildings at Battle Ridge Station are indicative of the log building architecture employed by the Forest Service in the 1930s and 1940s. The buildings feature scribed logs, ventral saddle notches and “chopper cut” end finishing.

Like many of the cabins in the rental program, the Porcupine and Battle Ridge units have wood stoves for cooking and heating. Firing up a wood stove, smoke billowing from the chimney, recalls the old days of the forest rangers.

For evening entertainment, fire rings near the cabins warm the night with the flicker of flames and the stories of friends.

“One can clearly see why Porcupine Cabin was built in such a majestic setting,” Andrew Babcock of Bozeman said after visiting the station recently. “Thankfully good-hearted people have maintained this cabin for decades so many more can experience this moment.”

While the Porcupine Cabin has benefited from recent renovations, other cabins on the Gallatin have not been as fortunate. Ruchman said some cabins in the system have been dropped from the rental program due to dwindling federal funds. The Kersey Lake and Round Lake cabins near Cooke City, which require considerable effort to reach, were eliminated from the program in the early 2000s.

“It is our goal to maintain and improve these cabins, but the reality is our budgets are declining and it is looking grimmer and grimmer,” Ruchman said. “It is money that the renters pay that helps us maintain these historic structures.”

Most cabins on the Gallatin can be rented for between $20-$45 a night. Renters are expected to follow “rules of occupancy” similar to those followed by Forest Service field crews in the 1920s. Responsibilities include sweeping and mopping the floors, filling the wood box and packing out all trash and personal belongings.

The most popular cabins on the Gallatin National Forest are those with the easiest access, Ruchman said. Weekends fill up quickly for the Battle Ridge Cabin through the summer months.

Reservations for Forest Service cabins can be made through the National Recreation Reservation System website (reserveamerica.com) up to three days before the night of stay, or inside of three days by visiting Gallatin National Forest offices in Bozeman, Big Timber or West Yellowstone.

“We are proud of our cabins,” Ruchman said. “We know the public likes to use them and they are a wonderful opportunity. We hope people will use them, love them and take care of them.”

Ben Pierce can be reached at bpierce@dailychronicle.com and 582-2625. Follow him online at chronicleoutdoors.com and on Twitter @BGPierce.

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About The Author

Ben Pierce lives, works and plays in Bozeman, Montana. He blogs about the outdoors for Chronicle Outdoors. Catch him on the river, in the mountains or at bpierce@dailychronicle.com.

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