‘Grounded wisdom’ from courageous women

Samsara Duffey, a bit of a legend among habitués of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, is not famous. But she is inspiring.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Samsara Duffey walks along the ridge outside the Patrol Mountain lookout tower on July 10 in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Samsara Duffey’s view is rich and long. As I write this, she can see the smoke shelf above the 21,000-acre Elmo wildfire 70 miles from her Forest Service lookout cabin on Patrol Mountain in Montana.

But the “view” is more than geographic. It’s also her way of thinking, her quietly intense commitment to the land, and how that inspires others to see further and climb their own mountains.

A year ago on a hiking trip in Montana, I saw a short local newspaper article about Ms. Duffey, and it captured my curiosity: a woman alone (with her dog) for months at a time on a mountaintop in grizzly bear country witnessing and protecting nature – the nearest plumbing or vehicle miles away by single-track trail. I wanted to know more about how she thinks. 

The beauty of journalistic license is that, as a reporter – or as an editor assigning a reporter – I can get my burning questions answered.

Ms. Duffey, a bit of a legend among habitués of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, is not famous. But, as a woman, I feel sparks of borrowed light – even courage – from her profile, which we published here and in print as a recent cover story; it’s close to the thrill I get when I read about other brave and thoughtful women, like the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, the adventurer-diplomat Gertrude Bell, and primatologist Jane Goodall.

In fact, the writer I assigned to the profile – Noah Davis, a young, award-winning poet and hunter-fisher-forager – recognized the “greatness” parallel as soon as I mentioned it. He was moved by a lecture by Ms. Goodall this summer at the University of Montana and notes that she and Ms. Duffey are both “people of place.”

Ms. Goodall, he says, “knows the [African] continent; she knows the place, she knows the country that the chimpanzees live in. And Samsara knows the pika and the marmots and the wolverines. They understand these animals are more than probably what the most basic level of science sees them as.”

Ms. Duffey is known for “ground truthing” – she understands the lay of the land a fire might sweep through because she fearlessly bushwhacks across it. As useful and productive as it can be to follow the science and crunch the data, that grounded wisdom may be a surer guide to the health of the high-mountain forests where so many forms of life weave together.

Mr. Davis, who couldn’t squeeze Ms. Duffey’s baking sweet tooth into his profile of her, says he likes to imagine her at season’s end on a cold autumn day baking blueberry bread in her little propane oven at 8,000 feet.

And I, too, think wistfully: There but for the daily deadlines, a thousand miles, and a 3,000-vertical-foot hike, go I.

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