Faren Worthington: Learning from People and Places

A WRFI summer semester entails full days of travel and academics divided between front country and backcountry in our investigation of ecology, conservation, and management in the Y2Y. By the time we got through section 2, that travel part was pretty straightforward. Are food bags are better proportioned and we pack our packs in half the time to cover twice the distance we did on our first backpack in the Madison Range. Frontcountry, we luxuriate in showers, tolerate campground crowds, and move through our days in and our of the van with relative ease. NOD entries are recorded, cooking and cleaning go off without a hitch, and two months into the whole process we are still getting along. So I say with confidence that we succeeded in the social and logistical learning awhile ago. On a course such as this, separating that from academics doesn’t really happen. If it has, it is only because the social and logistical curve became automatic.


Since the shift (which I mark chronologically as the beginning of section 3 and our entrance into Canada), I have been challenged to step up my game academically. The readings got longer and harder and expectations for writing were raised. As an academically engaged university student that challenge is usually ahead of me. But in my comfortable campus setting there is a lot more information at my keyboard fingertips, in the library, or a department office than can be contained in any WRFI reader of reasonable size or any WRFI instructor’s immediate knowledge (though I do have a deep respect for all of them and suspect superhuman capacities). Our here there is no internet, no calculators, no weather forecast or GPS, and we don’t even carry a dictionary. The amount of time it takes for me to read an article or write something like this blog entry is often dictated by inclement weather or the luminosity left in my headlamp battery rather than a lecture hall schedule or closing time at my favorite downtown study spot.

 

The physical challenges of backcountry travel (like when Banff whacked us with rain and clouds of mosquitos or crossing snowfields in the Purcells) are accompanied by a unique academic challenge. The landscape challenges us and we in turn ask questions of it. What are indicators of water quality? Are these plants invasive? Is a glacier a sentient being? Where’s north from here? How would a bear move through this valley? Whose scat is that? What impacts do we have to consider in our campsite? And so many more questions with immediate answers that are only as good as our own observations and skills with the few tools we chose to carry with us. Many of those answers are not even published and available to us when we get back to frontcountry. So this is where we seek that knowledge and ask the ecosystem:  What are you? What were you? What will you be? The next obvious question for each of us in the sun, drenched in rain, relaxing by a creek or dragging wet feet is as follows: I’m very sure that I am here, so where do I fit? What is the best way for me to touch this place?

Tomorrow we leave the backcountry, finishing this last backpack in the Purcells and returning to Invermere, BC. There we will meet a surge of culture and civilization like we haven’t seen for an entire week. Pavement, post offices, cell phones, and cash registers. And other people, another surprise after so many days in the backcountry. On frontcountry days we often meet with guest speakers who are socially and/or ecologically embedded in the Y2Y ecosystem and conservation challenges. In these past two sections we’ve invited speakers like James Tweedy, an environmental activist with the Castle Crown Coalition and accomplished bear biologist Mike Gibeau to join us in camp to discuss their work. We visited one of Shell Canada’s natural gas plants (whose expansive infrastructure we experienced hiking out of the Castle Crown Wilderness) for a surprisingly casual meeting with Environmental Coordinator Craig Halden and Community Affairs Coordinator Rod Sinclair. Barb Johnston, an ecosystem scientist for Parks Canada at Waterton Lakes National Park introduced us to the many trans-boundary challenges in parks management and Sarah Elmeligi, Senior Conservation Planner for the Southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, hiked with us for two days in Banff National Park. Most recently in Invermere, British Columbia, we met with conservation activist Meredith Hamstead (a former WRFI instructor) and Arnor Larson (who has a long history of climbing mountains and keeping track of wrongdoing here in the Purcells) as well as the pro-Jumbo Glacier Resort Development mayor of Radium, BC, Dee. Tomorrow night we will be returning for another stay at the Zehnder’s Ranch where Dave Zehnder spoke to us about his role as a private landowner grazing cattle on his family’s land and a research project aimed toward integrating ecosystem conservation into ranch management and finding economic incentives for conservation of natural resources. That is an already exhaustive list of those generous people and there are many more who shared their insights, fears, and hopes for reconciling people and the environment in their own place and the entire Y2Y.

During this entire summer semester and especially in recent weeks reaching the culminations of our final project in the Jumbo Valley, I have been moved many times by people and places alike. Using tools that I already had but maybe forgot about for getting the whole story or answering a burning question. When I get back to Vermont this fall I am going to make a point of going directly to the people and places I’m curious about and pressing them with my inquiries. It’s worth it to go directly to the source and I am struck over and over again by how much those sources have to offer. I accept that role as a seeker of knowledge and choose to approach those people and places with humility, gratitude, and respect

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