The historic Monte Wolfe cabin, deep in the wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, seemed destined until recently to become a mere object of local lore. The cabin is the former dwelling site of a legendary hermit and trapper who survived in the wild for more than seven years during the 1930s. He mysteriously disappeared one day in the backcountry, never to be found. But in late 2009, his cabin was propelled into the national spotlight after a team of U.S. Forest Service volunteers decided that it must be destroyed. They removed its door and opened the roof, leaving it exposed to the elements for the winter. Following their actions a tempest ensued and the Forest Service took steps to temporarily repair the damage. Now the agency is being forced to make very consequential management decisions about the future of the Monte Wolfe cabin, and other historic sites in the nation’s more than 106 million acres of wilderness.
And so, the fate of the Monte Wolfe cabin has become the focal point in the debate about wilderness policy in America. Fundamentally, this debate concerns whether and how the nation’s public lands agencies should steward historic resources in the wilderness—the tangible evidence of human activity in places we often assume have been free of human influence. It questions why and how we should treat the contributions of those that survived in the wild through their own labor, from native peoples to frontiersmen.
During childhood family vacations in the high country, I heard stories of Monte Wolfe, the legendary hermit and mountain man. My brother Tom and I were determined to find the legendary Monte Wolfe cabin. We knew it was somewhere far up in the High Sierras and deep in the Mokelumne River Canyon. It took three trips into that canyon over a 15-year period to finally find Monte’s secret hideout. This is no day hike. Instead the route traversed 12 rugged miles of steep canyon with no established trail, and only an occasional deer path. Fortunately a few quiet pools spaced far between boiling cataracts provided fishing and respite. But where was that cabin? It’s not on any map, not even Google maps. But we found it. And to this day I cannot comprehend how Monte Wolfe built that log cabin, along with an outhouse, garden plot, and outdoor kitchen near a spring in a secluded draw far from the Mokelumne River. At more than 5,600 feet in elevation, the site is snowed in for much of the winter and is generally inaccessible to all but the most adventurous wilderness travelers.
Little is known about the life of Monte Wolfe prior to his arrival in the Sierra Nevada, but it is commonly accepted that his given name was Ed McGrath. It is said that his mother was the daughter of a Sioux chief who married a Scottish Indian agent. Monte was named after his father, but his mother called him “Wolf”—the name by which he is most commonly known. During his life, Wolfe claimed to have served under General Pershing in campaigns in Mexico and the Philippines, though no definitive records of his wartime service have ever been found. What is known, however, is that he was a celebrity in his own time.
Known to be among the last of a generation of frontiersmen who survived off the land, he was an object of fascination for Depression-era Californians.
What remains of his dwelling site is a testament to Wolfe’s remarkable strength and ability to forge a life from his immediate environment. Though he was said to have just a 4th grade education, and no formal engineering training, he devised a method to construct a 14' x 20' cabin in the backcountry, made from hand-felled logs. Using only a peavey (a tool to move logs), rope, and his own brute strength, he rolled a series of 600- to 800-pound logs on wooden rails, and fastened them ten logs high, dovetailed at the corners. The door was hand-built; the roof consisted of hand-split incense cedar shakes. Protruding metal spikes guarded the cabin from bears. Wolfe carried window sashes, an iron stove, wheelbarrow, and even a Victrola record player on the long trek to his cabin through heavy brush, always covering his tracks.
In 1940 Wolfe mysteriously disappeared and his body has never been found. Despite the harsh conditions of the Sierra Nevada, his cabin remains remarkably intact, and a testament to his skillful labor.
Protecting Wilderness Areas
The Wilderness Act of 1964 was a monumental accomplishment for the nation, permitting Congress to set aside wilderness lands for the “use and enjoyment of the American people.” In advocating for its passage, California author Wallace Stegner recognized the need for protected wild places as we entered “the Brave New World of a completely mancontrolled environment.” He warned that without such places:
“never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.”1
In the years following its passage, Congress would go on to set aside more than 106 million acres of land in 44 states. As we move into a technological age where the lives of human beings are perhaps as distant from nature as they have ever been, our society may be quick to forget that keeping places “wild” is a part of us, and nature’s continued existence sustains us. It is critical that we not fantasize that wilderness is something apart from us.
Monte Wolfe may not have contributed great writings to the world like Muir or Thoreau, but he left an equally important legacy. His tremendous skill and craftsmanship is reflected in a cabin that could stand on its own for generations— if protected.
There are some who believe that all evidence of human activity must be removed from wilderness areas. But that makes no sense. Native American presence can be seen in most wilderness areas, and many have been touched by more recent human activity. In cases like the Monte Wolfe cabin, the legacy of human activity in a lonely and sometimes harsh environment tells us about our own potential to live quietly and successfully with the natural world. This is but one special place in the mosaic of America’s great wilderness. This one is special to me. For that reason, I am working with stakeholders in the natural resources and preservation community and with other members of Congress to develop a lasting solution to the problems that face the cabin.
I have been lucky to experience the Monte Wolfe cabin, and it is my desire that this unique part of America history is available for generations yet to come.
1Stegner, Wallace. (1960). Wilderness Letter. wilderness.org/content/wilderness-letter