August 31st, 2012 was the second day of our backpacking expedition in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area; little did we know, it would also be the most grueling and difficult. By the time we set out, I was already in poor spirits: I had woken up uncomfortable and exhausted, due to a deflated sleeping pad. Our ultimate goal was the pass between the Bruce Creek and Nanny Creek headwaters. A jumbled mess of topo lines told us we had a very long uphill climb—about 2,000 feet. Soon enough, our hike soon turned steeply uphill, zigzagging back and forth across mountainsides. None of us were quite used to our packs yet, so we took frequent water breaks.
We continued on. By now everyone was silent, breathing heavily, and pausing frequently as we lumbered up slopes that seemed to have no end. Though I was far behind those in front of me, when I looked behind me the rest of the group lagged even further, until I could see no one at all. I began to feel apprehensive about my decision to take this course. Was it too physically demanding for me? Would I even survive this day, or would I collapse from weakness? (It was only about 1:30 at this point, and my pack was probably 35 pounds. I was definitely being more than a little dramatic.)
I tried to push these negative thoughts out of my head; instead, I began to muse about Jim Stone, a Blackfoot Valley rancher we had met two days prior. He started the Blackfoot Challenge, which is a collaboration effort between other local ranchers, conservationists, and government agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service to help maintain the health of the Blackfoot River. It amazed me that such cooperation could come from such a diverse group of people, when I had typically only heard of ranchers and locals in major conflicts with government agencies and environmental activists. Jim was such a humble man; he did not want to take credit for this amazingly successful program. His method of sitting down face-to-face with all interest groups and discussing these issues and possible solutions seemed so simple, but was so much more effective than trying to lobby or throw money around in order to advance agendas. I thought about how I had just met all of my classmates three days prior, and how we all came from such different backgrounds. I had been even more apprehensive about how our group might mesh together than I had been about the physical demand of the course; but already, we were becoming a tight-knit group. I knew that as long as I had people like my classmates and instructors supporting me, I could overcome any mountain—literally or, like Jim Stone, metaphorically.
I trudged on, trying to think of nothing but continuing to move my feet. Sure enough, before long I could see my fellow classmates sitting, packs and boots off, greedily sucking down water. I quickly joined, removing my boots and socks and wiggling my toes in the warm breeze.
We remained for around an hour while Dave scoped the area for a good campsite. He gave a hoot, and we scrambled to look down the other side of the pass. He was standing at the bottom of a valley, and we could see a snowpack on an adjacent hill. The snowpack fed tiny, meandering streams that burbled down the mountainsides. We saw that all of the appropriately-named fireweed was already a deep red, and some of the flowers had gone to seed and wilted; others were still in full bloom, reaching their leaves up to the afternoon sun. This was a place that summer seemed to have skipped entirely: half the valley was still in spring, the other already had the feelings of autumn.
After setting up camp in this pastoral valley, we had our class discussion and made dinner: a satisfying thick bean soup with tortillas. It still seemed a little odd to me to be sharing a tent with people I had only known for a few days, but I hoped that, with time, we would be able to create close relationships and have a common understanding of this wild Montana land, like Jim Stone and the members of the Blackfoot Challenge. It began to rain lightly. As we drifted off to sleep, the rain seemed to wash the last remnants of the smoky Montana summer away, welcoming in the crisp autumn— along with new physical and academic challenges that September would bring.