by Dan Egan

If you want to talk to Dennis Nicholls, you'll have to leave a message and have him get back to you, because chances are he's out hiking somewhere in his beloved Cabinet Mountains.

Nicholls is the author of a new hiking guidebook, Trails of the Wild Cabinets, published by Keokee Books of Sandpoint. He'll be at REI on Thursday, July 17, at 7 pm, when he'll give a talk and a slide show highlighting some of some of the 82 hikes detailed in his book. It is the first such guidebook devoted solely to that spectacular chunk of countryside standing between the Purcell Trench and the Continental Divide. Nicholls takes great delight in the double meaning of the area's geographic boundaries -- which stretch roughly 150 miles from Hope, Idaho, to Paradise, Mont. -- describing it as "that land between hope and paradise."

This is the first book penned by the 47-year-old Nicholls, who is founder and former publisher of The River Journal newspaper. He's spent more than 20 years roaming the Cabinets, both for fun and for work as a forestry technician and consultant. Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Nicholls came to Montana right after high school to attend college and has called the town of Troy home ever since. As an avid hiker, he's racked up thousands of trail miles exploring the backcountry and different ranges of western Montana and North Idaho -- but, as he writes in the book's introduction, "My stand-alone favorite is the Cabinets."

Though not as well known or as popular as ranges such as the Selkirks or the Bitterroots, the Cabinet Mountains remain a wild land, home to a handful of grizzly bears and one of the few places left in the West where woodland caribou still roam. To Nicholls, it's heaven. "Rain or shine," he writes in the book's introduction, "there was no place I'd rather be than on a trail in this paradise of peaks and valleys sculpted by glaciers, busting my way through some undergrowth to some secret enclave deep in the mountains. I would walk and walk and the miles would add up and the majesty of the country I discovered would, without fail, instill a new sense of delight in me."

Although he says he doesn't log as many hiking miles as he did when he was working for the Forest Service, Nicholls still puts in a lot of miles. "I wrote in the book that I cheat myself if I don't hike every week and push myself as far as I can go. For me, that's one of the greatest pleasures of life, the solitude of wilderness. I can get no clearer perception of my life than when I'm as far back in the mountains as I can go."

The book is organized geographically into three sections. The first section describes the trails within the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area. This is the heart of the Cabinet range, with a narrow line of craggy peaks, including Snowshoe Peak, which, at 8,738 feet, is the range's highest point. This area supports Montana's only rainforest, containing cedar groves with 500-year-old trees. The other two sections describe trails in the western and southern Cabinets.

The guide is very user-friendly, with detailed maps and directions. Along with all the necessary trail information -- distance, elevation gain, water availability -- Nicholls adds his own experience and knowledge to each hike, with useful categories like the sweat index (difficulty level) and the best feature of the hike. In conclusion, he gives you the bottom line with a "What's it like??" description. It reads like good advice from a well-informed friend who wants nothing more than for the reader to get out and experience Nicholls' own sense of discovery and wonder in hiking the Cabinets. The book also contains four personal essays as well as a features chart -- a handy reference for those in search of waterfalls, fire lookouts, lakes, mountaintops, old-growth forests and locations of historical significance.

Even though Nicholls has been hiking the Cabinets extensively for years, there are always new discoveries waiting there for him. While researching the book, there was one feature about the range that he found particularly fascinating. "What I realized is the incredible diversity in the Cabinet Mountains," he says. "From cactus growing in the southeast section to a rainforest of ancient cedars, it's an incredible place."

Publication date: 07/10/03

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