BITTERROOT NATIONAL FOREST, Idaho -- Tom Hearne, an administrator who spends his workday in Seattle, behind a desk, doing a job he loves, is talking about passion. Real passion. Like being outdoors, for long stretches, in beautiful settings, with great people.
Real passion. Like camping last month along the Salmon River's wild and scenic stretch, on land tamed by a hermit trapper, with a small band of volunteers searching for clues about people who lived there in ancient times.
Mr. Hearne, 52, was among five volunteers helping with a U.S. Forest Service archaeological dig.
The work of volunteers like Mr. Hearne is not meant to be pure entertainment, though the swift-running Salmon, tree-studded ridges and hiking trails that stretch for miles are tempting. Measured by their sweat, the volunteers' week in Idaho doesn't count as 100 percent vacation.
The volunteers are current, former and informal archaeologists who share a sense of adventure and -- through the U.S. Forest Service Passport in Time project -- manage to sate their passions on the cheap.
Passport in Time (or PIT for short) lets amateurs help with historic projects under the direction of professional archaeologists and historians. It also allows the federal agency to complete projects without high labor costs. In the program's five-year existence, the forest service figures PIT volunteers have chipped in $2.5 million worth of work.
Volunteers make their way to rural Idaho on their own dime. They receive a brief orientation and transportation down a rough and rutted river road to a launching area called Corn Creek.
To get from Corn Creek to Lantz Bar -- where volunteers camp and excavate for nearly a week -- you either haul a backpack 11 miles along a trail or you spend a bundle for boat transport. Volunteers don't have to do either; the forest service picks up the tab for the jet-boat ride along the River of No Return.
It takes hundreds of miles for the Salmon to earn that nickname. Born a small stream on a slope of the Smoky Mountain Range, the Salmon starts out so narrow that you can leap from one bank to the other. Hundreds of high alpine and glacial lakes in Idaho's snowcapped Sawtooth and White Cloud mountain ranges feed it.
Beyond Stanley, the river rolls with rapids, popular with day-tripping white-water rafters and kayakers. The river picks up speed, loses elevation and becomes white water as it heads toward the city of Salmon. There, it makes a big left turn, turning westward and becoming violent.
Indigenous people knew travel on the river's swift currents was a dangerous, one-way proposition. They told that to dubious white explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
"[T]he water runs with great violence from one rock to the other on each Side foaming & roreing thro rocks in every direction, So as to render the passage of anything impossible," Clark wrote, finally agreeing.
That was 1805. This is 1995.
A jet-boat operator ferries the volunteers, food and equipment to Lantz Bar. His boat cuts through the raging Salmon with a mind of its own, sucking in the angry waters and spitting them back out to propel the boat forward.
Once at the site, the volunteers rope off 1-meter by 1-meter pits, called units.
River hermit Frank Lantz tamed the site, clearing away seringa chokecherries, dogwood, mountain mahogany and ponderosa pines and dragging rocks he encountered to the margins. The hayfield Lantz created gave way to weeds -- cheat grass, nap weed and mustard.
Because they're working in a wilderness area, the volunteers have to be careful. They dig down at 10-centimeter increments, sifting the earth through mesh screens onto plastic tarps. That helps ensure the fine dust doesn't end up in the river and allows them to return the earth to the pits the same way it is excavated.
They dig through Lantz's handiwork, revealing the gravel bar below, and artifacts. Their work crawls along like a snail, with documentation on paper and by photographs at each step.
They've drawn diagrams of the three units, showing the layout of rocks and cobbles -- bigger than your fist and smaller than your head -- and boulders.
It is painstaking work, halted one day by incessant rain. Once the excavation is done, the holes are quickly refilled and camouflaged. Their leave-no-trace goal is "to take only photographs and leave only footprints."
"Archaeology is not something I could do full time. It's a lot more detail than I can handle," admits Nancy White, 60, a Sacramento, Calif., woman who retired from work that pays to try work that fulfills.
Ms. White and Ray Hintlian, 52, a Phoenix school teacher, have traveled from afar. Mr. Hearne and his wife, Carol, 35, journeyed from their Seattle home. The final volunteer, Lauran Kittle, 80, is from Idaho.
While they're from different home states, Mr. Hintlian says they share a common trait.