Nitcher enjoyed Montana stay
Voodoo cow skulls, grizzly bears and charging bull elk.
Sounds dangerous? Well, they were all part of the job for Walt Nitcher, 2006 Baldwin High School graduate.
Nitcher worked in Montana conservation Corps for more than five months, doing many tasks and avoiding wild animals.
"I had a lot of fun," Nitcher said. "It was tedious, but it was a lot of fun. I would do it again if I could. I really liked just hiking around and traveling around the west for free. I enjoyed working out in the wilderness."
Jan Nitcher, Walt's mother, said she had some concerns about her son being gone for so long, but she always kept in touch with him.
"We talked to him after each of his hitches," J. Nitcher said. "We sent him letters and care packages from many family members. We're just glad he returned home safely."
Nitcher left the day after his commencement ceremony and returned home in November. The majority of his work was building trails, but he did many other tasks during his time in Montana.
"We did a lot of trail work, like building trails in the national parks," Nitcher said. "We had a couple of projects where we built weatherized homes for low-income families.
"We had a project where we restored old dams up in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area outside of Missoula," he said. "That was a pretty cool project. Mostly, we built new trails and restored old trails."
Nitcher and his group of workers would be gone for several days at a time. Hotels were no luxury for them; instead sleeping bags and tents did the job.
"We did a lot of camping," he said. "Whenever we went on a hitch, which was going out, we would have to sleep in our own tents. I spent 20 days out at one time. We had to hang our food in bear hangs."
Since the trips were in wilderness areas, wild animals were always seen, but rarely encountered. Nitcher did have a few run-ins with animals.
One of those experiences involved a large bear directly in the path of the workers.
"When we were working in Yellowstone, we were in one of the most-heavily grizzly bear populated areas in the lower 48 (states)," Nitcher said. "We probably saw about 15 grizzly bears that week. One time I was in front of everybody hiking around this corner and there was a grizzly sitting about 20 feet in front of me in the trail.
"It looked right at me, so I started talking to it in a deep voice," he said. "It ran off to a field and watched us work all day. It was keeping an eye on us. It was pretty intense."
The grizzly bear encounter wasn't the closest he came to a wild animal. One night, Nitcher put his tent a bit too close to a game trail. When he looked outside to see what the noise was, the answered surprised him.
"I was in my tent one night and I heard this grunting sound," Nitcher said. "I thought it was one of the guys on my crew. Then I look out of my tent and there is this bull elk running straight for my tent. It had a huge rack and had a full head of steam. It turned at the last second and ran right by my tent. It was so scary."
Although the elk frightened him, that wasn't the strangest encounter Nitcher had with an animal. The animal involved in that story wasn't even alive.
The workers were building an artificial stream near a ranch one day, when Nitcher found a cow skull. He placed it on top of their vehicle before they left for the night.
They were driving their sponsor back to his house during a rainstorm when bungee cords holding the tools snapped. The tools swung down and almost flew through a window. That's when the trouble began and the trouble was realized.
"The cow skull flew off of the top of the car and almost hit a car behind us," he said. "That car swerved and we thought we had killed them. I got out and put the tools back on but we didn't pick up skulls after that. We thought it was bad voodoo."
The three animal experiences were very memorable for Nitcher, but they were only a brief part of his five-month job.
Blazing the trail
Building or fixing trails was his main duty. The process was difficult but he said he picked it up quickly, despite having to learn several types.
"We did trails that you can walk on, motorcycle trails in Idaho and big-wide pack trails for mules," Nitcher said. "You have to build them all differently, but you're working against erosion. That's why you build trails."
Most of the time building the trail was fairly simple, but one day Nitcher and a co-worker took a leap back in time and used an old-fashioned tool.
"My favorite part was when I went on this cut-and-run," he said. "You take two people and you go ahead of everybody who's building the trail and you cut down trees that have been flagged on the trail.
"When we were in the wilderness area, we could only use cross-cut saws, which are the two-person ones," Nitcher said. "That was the most fun, just being out there cutting down a huge, tree because you can hear everything. That was so cool."
When asked if he yelled timber, Nitcher was quick to respond.
"I did, definitely," he said. "A lot of people yell tree falling or something, I just yell timber."
One thing everyone needs when camping for days at a time is food. Nitcher said he brought some non-perishable food along with him on each trip, but he took the opportunity to eat fish whenever possible.
"When I could, I fished and caught a lot of trout," Nitcher said. "I got pretty good at fly fishing. We had stuff that didn't go bad and a lot of dried food and canned chicken."
Another simple necessity of people is money. During his five-month stay in Montana, Nitcher didn't earn an hourly wage, but he was given enough money to get by.
"We weren't on salary," Nitcher said. "We got a stipend, which basically covered living expenses and food, barely. It was definitely rough to get used to, but it showed how little you can get by on. I am glad I had to live like that for a while."
The idea that her son was learning to live on minimal things and do conservation work made J. Nitcher proud.
"The experience helped him figure out what he wants to do," J. Nitcher said. "He learned to manage his money and food. He also learned he can live just fine without many things. It was a great experience for him."
Time for school
One reason Nitcher went to Montana was to give himself time to figure out what he wanted to do in life. He also wanted to take a break from school and not jump directly into college.
Since he has been home, Nitcher has been working on his parents' house and helping them add a new addition.
He will soon be taking classes at Johnson County Community College during the spring semester with the intention of transferring to the University of Kansas after he finishes his time at JCCC.
The MCC is helping pay for part of his schooling.
"They give us a $2,300 scholarship," Nitcher said. "It's an education award. We can use it in college for anything educational."
After college graduation, Nitcher is considering returning to Montana, but nothing is set in stone.
"I've been playing with the idea of going back and being a crew leader, maybe after I graduate," Nitcher said. "A lot of people do that."