Megan Harrison: A Journey through the Prairie

img_1145The Great Plains for the last 10,000 years has remained an arid grassland receiving less than 24 inches of rain annually. This makes one wonder how can one of America’s longest river be located in such an dry environment. The Missouri river begins its journey in the headwaters in East Glacier N.P., continues through central Montana to North Dakota, and eventually joins the Mississippi in St. Louis, MO. The Missouri river valley is comprised of unimaginable Virgelle white sandstone cliffs, carved out coulees, and a surprisingly diverse plant community. Prior to the dams in the upper Missouri river, spring floods would help establish new river channels, transforming riparian vegetation for cottonwood seedlings. The seedlings would then be placed high on the river banks to avoid being torn out by winter ice. Over many years, the meandering water of the Missouri has laid down inches of sediment like pages in a novel. While kayaking down the Missouri, the geological features that remain redirects my focus and I become deeply observant of my surroundings.

The beginning of my own journey to the prairie began in mid-September. It had been my first kayak down a major river. It reminded me of a three lane highway: cottonwoods, grassland and sandstone cliffs. Early into the Missouri trip,  our group rested the boats on the muddy banks of Eagle Creek BLM campground. When we awoke the next morning, we hiked  from the south end of the campground heading east into Neat Coulee. As the trail enters the canyon, I am soon restricted by the sandstone walls. The sandstone is a yellow tan, but look closer and one will be able to see white Alkali present in horizontal layers. Within the wall that white Alkali has percolated downward by groundwater and precipitated out when it has reached a less permeable layer of shale. Dragging my fingers across these tan and white walls particles of sand fall from my touch. How old and fragile this landscape seems, weathering before my eyes.

Landforms on the upper Missouri are unlike anywhere I have seen in the state of Montana; a sense that I am unaccustomed to in the western Rocky Mountains. The Great Plains are a complex system of large and small rivers. I have come to learn the history water has left behind over the years.  I will remember my kayaking trip as a trip through time, and I will be curious to see how the future landscape will be affected by the Missouri’s hydraulic processes.

Ruth Howe: Water is the Lifeblood of the Earth


Ruth Howe (far right) and fellow classmates on the Mighty Missouri

Humans are 50% water and all plants pull it from the ground – from crops to trees to the scraggliest patch of rock star moss.

We started our journey in the Scapegoat Wilderness. In the mountains water is plentiful and clean. It comes from snow-melt, and from ground wells which are replenished by snow. We purified our water with filters and dissolved chlorine tablets to protect against giardia, but I’m sure we were in some places we could drink it straight. The cool, clear water is the reason we could be in the Scapegoat. Besides being too rugged for settlement, a major reason the national forests were set aside was to protect the source of water for the Great Plains, because it is THE source of water. The Northern Great Plains get 9-14 inches of rain annually, which is nearly a desert.

As soon as we leave the mountains, where the mountains are still in view, people are fighting over the water. Landowners have water rights on a first-come, first-serve basis, and until recently when in-stream flow was added to ‘beneficial use’ they had to divert their allotment for agriculture, mining, or residential use. Some neighbors have serious conflicts over water.

So that takes us (from the rivers that make it) into the Missouri River. Specifically, the Wild and Scenic section between Coal Banks Landing and Kipp Landing where we camped at the same sites Lewis and Clarke camped at 200 years ago, and the view is relatively unchanged. We even met a group of “fur trappers” in a keel boat, wearing all leather, eating form wooden bowls and acting like the world stopped changing in 1820.

But a few things have changed. They’ve changed a few times, evidenced by the abandoned homesteads along the river. The most common “wildlife” is cattle, most hunters are whizzing up and down the river in motor boats, and most importantly the river is tamed by five upriver dams which divert what would be spring floods to crops of wheat, barley and alfalfa. So while the river looks the same, and we camped under beautiful shady stands of cottonwoods and watched bighorn sheep, the changes are there. Many stands of cottonwoods are older than the dams, and the pallid sturgeon haven’t been able to spawn in more than 40 years because never mind getting over the dams, there’s not enough weather for them to get to the dams. The river ecosystem evolved when the river flooded every year, and every 5-20 years there’d be a flood big enough to create new sand bars for the cottonwoods. Now the BLM drills eight foot deep holes and waters every week to get cottonwoods to grow, and scientists have been trying to breed sturgeon with little success.

So, as we leave the breaks, it’s easy to wonder what’s the best use of the water? Is it for bread, beer and beef, which we all consume, or should we restore the system of flood and droughts that the plants and animals adapted to? It’s not an easy question and it doesn’t have easy answers. What would people do without farming or ranching? What will happen when the last stands of cottonwoods on the Missouri breaks die? Could there be a compromise with man-made floods that sustains both? In the 30’s when they started building dams, they didn’t understand that the river needs to flood. Now, as people learn more about the life that a free-flowing river supplies, maybe it’s time for a new system.

Rachel Bowanko: Unexpected Discoveries

rachelWhen I was first instructed to find a plant that I did not know the name of, observe it for an hour, and then identify it, I assumed that the assignment was going to be the longest hour of my life. I walked around for a while in search of a plant, realizing that I knew the names of very few of them. I looked at the plants around me and decided to perch my chair in an equally shady and sunny location. I sat down with my snack, water bottle, and notebook and stared out at the vibrant tree standing before me.

I watched a chipmunk scurry around on the branches and watched the needles on the tree stretch upwards towards the sun. I noticed the bright red hue of the cones and smelled a welcoming pine fragrance as I crushed the needles between my fingers and palm. I grazed my fingers over the rough bark and traced them along the trunk to where the tree came into contact with the ground. Before I knew it, I had spent well over an hour with this tree and could easily recognize its bark, trunk, branches, needles, and cones. This tree became familiar to me, and I felt that I had known it for much longer. Suddenly a task that seemed to be so arduous was something I never wanted to stop doing.

With excitement, I went down to the plant guide to identify my tree. I found it immediately, matching the description up with my notes. I read about it and learned that it was an Engelmann spruce, a member of the Pine family. I read about its cones and needles and the animals and plants that rely on it. I began reading about the uses of this tree and found my connection with it to grow even deeper. The Engelmann spruce is the common Christmas tree- a holiday that is central to my family where endless traditions and games make the season one of my most cherished times of the year. This tree is also used to make violins, an instrument that I grew up playing- an instrument that helped instill a love for music in me and helped to shape the path that my life would take. Perhaps even most relevant to my current passions and educational path, the bark of the Engelmann Spruce is used to make canoes. Ever since I was young, my earliest memories of the outdoors have centered about canoe trips full of wildlife sightings and watching the changing of the seasons around me. Canoeing helped foster the love I have for being outside today as well as my passion of conserving our planet. It has led me on several new adventures throughout my life and will lead me on countless more adventures to come.

Since that warm afternoon where I sat down with my tree, I have thought daily about all the lessons it taught me. Watching the tree provide shade for smaller plants, and shelter for animals such as the chipmunk, taught me about the importance of living at peace in a mutually beneficial relationship with your surroundings. Sitting above the vast and deep root system, this tree showed me the importance of being grounded. While only one species, this tree is connected so intricately with the environment around it forming a larger system. This larger system included both the living and non-living aspects of the environment and all the relationships encompassed within these. This bigger system was comprised over many relationships, only some of which included humans.

Even more striking than these lessons was how connected I was to a single species, and in turn to an entire ecosystem. Without this assignment, I may never have discovered its fundamental importance in my life and the life of thousands of other people.

While studying human land relations we read Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” and a piece by Noss entitled, “Biodiversity and Its Value.” In Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” I was particularly drawn to the “community concept.” In this section, Leopold explains that as a member of a community we are drawn to both compete but also cooperate with others. He goes on to expand what is typically defined as a community to include soil, water, plants, animals, and the land. As part of a community with all the biotic and abiotic factors included, we as humans shift from a role as a “conqueror or the land” to a citizen of it where there is mutual respect and love between all organisms and the land on which we thrive and survive.

In Noss’ discussion on biodiversity, I was most captivated by the concept of the intrinsic values that nature has – values beyond the ones that are obvious to humans (such as food and fuel). Noss defines intrinsic values as “the spiritual and ethical appreciation of nature for its own sake” (Noss, 22). Both authors wrote about the innate value found in nature and the importance of all organisms. As I spent time with my Engelmann Spruce and the species surrounding it I fostered a deep level of respect in myself for not only this marvelous tree but all other living organisms. I was not only able to see the value of the tree through its connection to me and its connection with the other living organisms surrounding it, but I also was able to see its innate value and the necessary role it plays in the ecosystem.

If one species of tree could have such a profound impact on my life, who knows how many other species I could be just as connected to. If spending some time by one tree can grow my respect for nature and an urge for preservation so much, imagine where we would be as a society if people watched the land, spent time in nature, learned from the land, and learned to experience the land on new levels based out of respect and love. When our value of nature extends beyond human use, but instead is anchored on the intrinsic value of nature we will be able to live in harmony with the environment, protecting it and allowing it to flourish.

As I watched my tree stretch out towards the warm afternoon sun, I felt a desire to protect my tree. I wanted to wrap my arms around its gray trunk and never let go. However, I quickly came to the realization that in order to protect my Engelmann Spruce, I would need to protect the plants living below it. I would need to protect the fungus that provides nutrients to the soil that houses the roots of my tree. The soil giving it life and all the plants keeping the soil from eroding deserve respect and protection. The animals amongst the branches that helped to spread the seed of this tree need to be protected. This is where the concept of community that Leopold spoke about really hit home to me- to protect this tree I need to protect its surroundings. To live in a community with this tree I need to recognize its value beyond the one it provides humans (such as its use in violins and canoes). Living with the land in one community can be found where the value of human use and ecological use is equally appreciated and respected. Living with the land in ways that protect the resources for both human and ecological use; a way of living with the entire system.

Shannon Quinn: The Spiritual Journey Manifests Itself in the Physical Journey: A Story About Floating the Missouri River

“There are two kinds of suffering; the kind that causes more suffering and the kind that puts an end to suffering.” -Buddha


I am a believer in the interconnectedness of the spiritual journey and the physical journey.  The movement from place to place allows for our minds to open up, and for our hearts and bodies to grow.  I often think of a spiritual journey as a mountain.  There’s beginnings, bases.  The upward climb.  The summit.  This is followed by a decent.  Once we work through a struggle, or time of intense change and decision making, we eventually become enlightened with an epiphany, a strong feeling, a realization, it becomes a downhill ride until we reach our next peak that we must conquer.  When I climb mountains in real life, I connect the physical ascent I’m making to my mentality.  I face the duality of the climb, the difficulty and the ease; the changes in the landscape.  The challenge of reaching the summit is what pushes me onward.  The summit is the reward; the realization.  The opportunity to grow and become stronger.  In nature, the reward is a view, a time to relax and rejuvenate oneself before heading back down again.  In a spiritual journey, the reward is the realization of one’s strength and the ultimate mental growth gained from our mental struggles.  The satisfaction of understanding.

As we walk through this life, often times we limit ourselves to the spiritual journey that makes us feel comfortable.  Just like climbing a mountain, it can be hard and painful.  It can make us want to stop in our paths and turn back.  Some of us do turn back, and avoid the mountain all together.  Missing the summit.  Spiritual growth however requires us to weather the difficult and the painful.  That can be when we learn to see the most.

For myself, hiking up mountains is very often difficult, but I love doing it.  During my trip to Montana, I was faced with a feat of wilderness travel I was unfamiliar with.  Learning to kayak was daunting at first.  I was afraid to be on the water, and was afraid of what I did not understand.  Our group had just finished an 8 day backpack through the Scapegoat Wilderness, and I was feeling up for the next challenge.  When actually faced with getting in the kayak for the first time, I felt intimidated.  I wouldn’t have pushed myself to do it if it wasn’t required of me.  It felt uncomfortably daunting to be swept away by the mighty Missouri River, and there were times when I found myself frustrated trying to navigate the boat in one direction when the wind wanted to take me in another.  The banks of the Missouri are made up of sludge that will steal a person’s boots like quicksand if one doesn’t persist against it.  There were times on the trip down the river that I felt like I was fighting against the river.  A few times I thought to myself “I’d enjoy this so much more if I were truly good at it.”  I thought this internal frustration was tainting my experience, but did my best to remain positive and calm throughout.  “Only 7 more days… only 6…”.

Then there was the utter beauty of the experience that I hadn’t expected to find in my wildest dreams.  The vastness of the desert landscapes, the ancient sandstone cliffs, the diversity of the flora and fauna.  We took a detour into the Neat Couley, and climbed some of the sandstone structures.  The way the sun collided with the water some mornings made it appear to be nothing short of pure gold.  I learned to ride the river instead of trying to fight against it.  Acceptance.  I saw my first wild bald eagle, and many more after that.  Despite having to paddle against the wind at times, we had the wind at our backs others.  One night a harvest moon rose above the prairie, and I recall crouching down to view the orange glow through the sagebrush.  I fell in love with that landscape right then and there.

Through all the difficulties of conquering the wild river and overcoming my fear of entering the water by kayak, the beauty of this journey down the Missouri was all worth it when we reached the end.  The summit.  I recognized that along the way, my fear of tainting my positive experience with thoughts of the opposite were part of my ultimate growth.  The difficult, the painful, the uncomfortable experiences in life are the ones that force us to broaden our horizons.  If we only limit ourselves to the spiritual growth that makes us feel comfortable, are we really growing?  Is anything changing?

We come to realizations all the time.  We resolves conflicts on a daily basis.  It is often when the river becomes wild, or the mountain seems impossible, that if we persist, we find the greatest strength within ourselves.  When one allows their body and minds to openly merge, for the mental journey to manifest itself in the physical form, I believe that we can find fantastic amounts of strength within ourselves.  Connecting the physical movement up a mountain or down a river is pleading to be metaphorical.  To manifest your spiritual journey in the movement of your feet creates a rhythm that grows to be new and more wonderful with every step.  Constant rebirth.

I implore you all, readers, to climb a mountain, float a river, or even go for a walk somewhere beautiful without any real destination at all.  Set an intention, ponder it with each step.  Dig deeply, open your hearts and minds. Challenge yourselves.  Sometimes the journeys we are most afraid to embark on are the most crucial.

Devon Calvin: Lessons from Munching Burnt Quinoa


There exists some sacred, indefinable core between people who you have munched burnt quinoa with, slept beneath shooting stars and howling coyotes, and shared alpenglow sunsets with. Between our group of students this core transgressed our contrary backgrounds, histories and interests. It caused each and every one of us at the end to be utterly nostalgic at the prospect of heading our separate ways with nothing left but sweet memories and phone numbers. Yet it also taught me to value relationships much more than I ever have before.

Throughout the turbulent years of late high school and early college, I lived by a “wilderness essence,” a vision of a lawless, untouched paradise that I could reach primarily through reckless exploration: commonly alone, running along some mountain ridge and without bear spray or cell phone. This perspective characterized my relationships with people and the outdoors. During college I became infatuated with planning out the places I would go, and only became friends with other climbers or skiers. The realization that I was spiraling into a routine and not having the new experiences I had hoped for in a college experience caused me to take a leave of absence for the following fall semester to find something more meaningful than just my personal athletic development.

Coming into the first day of WRFI my head was very much centered around managing a life back home in Central Oregon, and scrambling to find something meaningful to do in the gap semester after the course was over. I felt distant from my peers- and slightly confined by the group dynamics where conservative decision-making took higher precedent over the familiar pursuit of freedom. On our first front country camp at the Nature Conservancy’s Pine Butte Preserve I ran down winding trails at 5:30 AM to experience the area in the way I was used to: quickly, more solitary, and without a plan. The wild morning encounters with skunks, deer, grouse and winding rivers confirmed my belief in a wilderness essence and in a singular mode of experiencing wilderness.

On our second day of a 30 mile, 8 day hike through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I decided to wet a line on a small section of the South Fork River during a little free time before dinner. I moved downstream, and found myself a mile down the river casting into deep turquoise holes before I thought to check my watch. When the sense of urgency at returning in time for dinner finally hit, I scrambled up the steep creek bank and started running back. After a few minutes another realization hit me- I had left the borrowed fly box and rod case as well as my license down beside the river! I cursed myself, and took off again back to the fishing grounds. By the time I sheepishly ran back into camp, the group was circled, munching burnt quinoa. It was an illuminating moment. At that moment I recognized that my egocentric wild desires were self-inflicting, isolating, and were less valuable than the time spent with others.

Throughout the span of six weeks I learned that happiness cannot be found just in wilderness, alone. On our last night of WRFI as we munched on burnt quinoa, I looked at each and every fellow classmate, adventurer and friend with a newfound appreciation for giving me a sense of clarity about wilderness, relationships and myself. I learned that my happiness originates through friendships over a mutual enjoyment of experiences. I learned to slow down, and focus on the moments spent outside with others rather than the speed or mode of travel. Within six weeks I began to appreciate others not for their level of gnar, similar perspectives, or granola personalities, but for their enjoyment of life and indomitable spirits. As I forge new relationships and revisit old ones, I believe I will now see in people not only what qualities they possess, but rather the soulful fire that drives them to be such diverse, inspiring people. And as a friend, I will stoke it as best I can.


2016 Wild Rockies Summer Semester Students

Shane Randle: Ways of Knowing

shaneLeaves made of a single whorl of diverging leaf-parts, with barely visible netted veins.  Thin, wispy white hairs coat a leaf-stalk which fades in color from the bright green of the leaf down to a bright magenta where the basal leaf stems sprout from the top of the root.  Only four specimens are visible within this small square of habitat, hidden among the diverse montane undergrowth.

How long does it take to get to know someone?  How much individual time do you have to spend with them?  A day? A week?  A year?  A lifetime?

How about a native plant species?  In order to get to know an individual plant, I spent three hours with it despite the fact that it’s only a four-inch-tall piece of the world.  Over the course of this time, I examined everything I could about it—the leaves, the stem, the root.  I sat, I paid attention, I wrote down every detail I noticed, I drew pictures.  By the end of my time, I felt that I’d gotten to know the plant truly.

But I didn’t know its name.  I still don’t know its Latin species name.  I know this single specimen of this certain species with such intricate detail, but I don’t know its name.

Before our “Plant Study Assignment,” when I thought about “knowing” a plant I thought about naming.  To me, if I could identify and name a plant I saw in the wild, I “knew” it.  (If I really knew it well, I could also spout out some fun or medicinal facts about the plant.)  But now I’m not so sure that this form of naming is knowing or vice versa.

Through this class experience, my knowing became intimately structural.  I got to know my plant by how it is physically instead of how to communicate it to others.  I believe that the act of naming a plant inherently ties it to the human world, as names are a way for us to describe and explain our experiences.  This communication, however, only passes on a superficial form of what we’re talking about.  In terms of plants, if I start talking about a buttercup, you’ll understand the general concept but you won’t necessarily know the exact stem-and-leaf structure, or the habitat, or even what type of buttercup it is.  You would only understand what I’m talking about on a surface level.

When I spent three hours with my plant, I got to know it in a way which cannot simply be communicated through its name.  I could point to this plant and tell someone that it’s a buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) and they may remember and later identify it by name, yet that wouldn’t mean they “know” the plant.  Or, at least, they wouldn’t know it in the same way I do.

How would it be possible to “know” an ecosystem if you can’t even know a plant species within it?  We use names to describe plants, plant communities, ecosystems and landscapes.  With the words we have, we attempt to learn about and explain the places which we care for.  It is with the same words that we write policies to protect these places.  But if we cannot truly know what these words describe, how can we create accurate conservation policies?  It is not until we truly know the land that we can do what is best for it.

Lauren O’Laughlin: Where the Heart Is


Flathead River. Photo Credit: Julien Rashid

When I was a kid, I thought the best thing to be was a poet.  I would write simple, horrible poems and ask my mom to edit them for me.  She was kind enough to point out maybe one in seven of my spelling and grammatical errors, always encouraging my reflections.  All of these poems were inspired by my adventures in my backyard or just beyond.  My world was small, but I knew all of it.  Gary Snyder describes these adventures, “The childhood landscape is learned on foot, and a map is inscribed in the mind going out wider and farther.” Though this landscape was inscribed inside me, I would argue it was etched not in my mind but in my heart.

It is strange that now, as I am paddling down the Flathead River, I have been doing these explorations outward over a decade later.  We passed my childhood home near Whitefish, drove through the town I inhabited as a teenager, and caught a glimpse of my first college as we drove through Kalispell.  This journey will end in Missoula; the place I now call home.

In many ways, I feel as much a child in this place now as when I grew up here.  I have spent care free summer afternoons laughing and playing Sharks and Minnows in river waters with my peers, I have knelt down in forest floors to peer under mushrooms, overcome with the same magic I felt as a child that inspired me to look for fairies.  In evening walks around our camps in the Jumbo valley, I have felt indescribably small in the face of great mountains.  Throughout this journey, I have been more present for each moment, I have been curious about and moved by the natural world around me, and I have rediscovered my childlike sense of wonder.

My experiences here have also reminded me of what I later thought was the best thing to be: an outdoors-woman.  And through WRFI a better outdoors-person I have become.  The trees, flowers, and shrubs are familiar to me, and in recognizing them I feel in on “the gossip of the place,” as Gary Snyder would say.  I am happy to see fields dotted with the bright scarlet paintbrush, and I feel greeted and welcomed by the waves of trembling aspen.  I now need no trail to find my way, only some mountains and a map.

It was not long before my outdoor pursuits led to environmental ones.  As I fumbled through my introductions to being an outdoor recreationalist, I bled many times into the mountains.  I found those mountains bled back into me, and I found wild places became essential to me in some way, and their protection even more so.  For years, I have been studying the methods of environmental protection at my university, been steeping myself in the sciences relating to natural resources.  Western science is analytical and without passion, ideology, or emotion.  Without realizing it, I have been seeking to find ways to justify my love for the wild through this language and in ways that fit nicely into these boxes.

This is where WRFI has taught me my greatest lesson.  This experience has been a demonstration and practice of a science that is passionate, emotional, and idealistic.  We have spoken to countless people whose lives are devoted to the protection of natural spaces because they feel within themselves that without them they are diminished.  John Fredrick, founder of the North Fork Preservation Association, spent years advocating for the protection of the Flathead Valley because he believed its beauty was worth more than any coal that could be harvested from its grounds.  Debbo Powers and other residents of the area now speak with reverence about this place they live in and love, and it is this bias that drives them.  With them, and with each of our speakers, they are driven by passion and their hearts are clearly in their work.

Every paddle stroke now takes me toward home.  Soon, I will unpack all the physical things I’ve carried these six weeks, but some of the insights I’ve picked up I’ll never put away.  I don’t know anymore what the best thing to be is, if I’m thinking about careers.  But I do know the best things I’ve been are present, passionate, and full of awe.  That the best place to read poetry is in a quiet forest, and if in being on a mountain top overwhelms me with a joy so immense it brings me to tears, then that is reason enough to protect it.

The best thing I can ever be is where my heart is.