Traveling into the woods and wilds with folks you have never met can be a gamble, so it’s always nice to stumble on to a guy like Stephen Ford.
Lean and tan from years of landscaping, with a lined face and graying hair, the 65-year-old Genesee, Idaho, man has the inquisitive, impulsive nature of a toddler seeing the world for the first time. He runs ahead to see what’s around the corner, lags behind while climbing a hill and constantly picks up and examines rocks for unusual features.
For 11 seasons Ford has volunteered for the University of Montana Wilderness Institute’s Citizen Science Program after seeing an advertisement for volunteers to explore Idaho’s Gospel Hump Wilderness, a short drive from his home.
“It was really great,” he said. “From that experience on I made the determination that I was going to come every year. I’ve been through three directors.”
His only regret is that he didn’t get to go on the first trip so that he could say he’s been involved since the program’s inception.
A Maryland native — still evident in his speech — Ford grew up on the outskirts of the nation’s capital at a time when there was still a lot of undeveloped land in the area. That link to Washington, D.C., would later prove to be helpful and humorous.
“It was a good time to grow up back East,” he said. “Believe it or not Washington, D.C., was surrounded by rural land.”
After graduating from college he had an itch to explore, so he set out for Alaska driving a Chevy van west. He then broke into song, recalling the lyrics to the 1970s song with the lyrics, “She's gonna love me in my Chevy van and that's all right with me.”
“When you come west you realize: These aren’t the Appalachian Mountains, they’re the Rocky Mountains!” he said. “It’s like, what is this place? The Big Sky Country was aptly named.”
He eventually arrived in Alaska where he took a job as a school custodian on Kodiak Island. He loved that the school had a gym where he could shoot baskets and an indoor swimming pool that he swam in as often as possible. He also spent time in the guidance counselor’s office thumbing through college catalogs.
Wanting to work with the Alaskan fish and game, one employee told him he’d need more than a bachelor’s degree unless he wanted to only count fish and sleep in a tent. So Ford sent out applications to Virginia Tech, Michigan State and Montana State University in Bozeman based on the photos of their campuses. Only MSU responded, so he set out on the road once again, this time to earn a master’s degree.
When he arrived in Bozeman to start classes the registrar sent him to see the dean, which he thought was a bit unusual but figured maybe MSU was just a friendly place. At the time, President Gerald Ford’s son, also named Steven Ford, was reportedly cowboying in Wyoming before going to college. Given Stephen Ford’s old Washington, D.C., credentials, MSU had mistaken Ford for the president’s son. He was given the royal treatment upon his arrival in Bozeman, even though he was “dressed knobby.” A local radio station even called for an interview.
“If I was debonair I could have pushed it and went a little farther with it,” Ford said and laughed, but obviously that’s not his shtick.
He’s more down-to-earth than debonair, and enjoys the Citizen Science Program not only for the wild places it has introduced him to, but also the companionship of like-minded individuals and the camaraderie he’s enjoyed on the outings.
From each trip he’s taken home souvenirs that he uses to decorate his yard — rocks, wire and bone — reminders of the unique and beautiful places he’s explored.
“Even though I love wilderness, I like to see the human print,” he said. “I don’t like to see trash, but an old cabin or hunting camp is pretty cool.”
You never know who you might meet on an outing in the wilds of Montana, so it’s always nice to bump into an interesting character who is mindful of the beauty and character of the nation’s public lands and also has an interesting tale or two to share.