Beth Porter: The Coal We Burn

bethTwo things that have never failed me on our journey through Montana are the nightly series of lilac sky sunsets, encompassing fiery red and pink clouds and a lingering lightness, and an ever-changing landscape. As we rolled from Yellowstone County through Musselshell, Golden Valley, Wheatland, Meagher and currently Lewis and Clark County, I have witnessed the surrounding landscape evolve day by day. I have been mesmerized by the folded and slanted stratification of sandstone from ancient marine sediment and outcrops of archaic igneous dikes that have surpassed time and the rock that once overlaid it.

In the past weeks as we’ve pedaled toward the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve had the pleasure of passing several other mountain ranges including the Crazy Mountains — a marvelous sight and one of my personal favorites — and the Big and Little Belt ranges. The hills are getting steeper, meaning harder uphill climbs and more fun downhill spirals. But coming from Oregon, where mountains make more sense to me (due to a subducting oceanic plate and active volcanoes), I was curious as to how these mountains all came to be in the middle of a continent with no obvious tectonic motion.

Early in our journey, as we rode from Billings to Roundup and then Ryegate, we were surrounded by broad plains of grasses and wildflowers and rolling golden hills — perfect for cattle to graze and cyclists to build massive quads. This is also where we came across the Signal Peak coal mine, an underground operation where they said they had at least 20 years of mining left in that seam (layer of coal) alone. As we toured the mine, they explained that two thirds of their roughly 300 employees work underground at up to 800-foot under burden. This work is dangerous, but in this instance that depth illustrates just how long ago that coal was formed. The miners are literally carving out a layer of earth that first settled there about 300 million years ago and has since been compacted and covered with much more.

But why can we dig up this specific layer and burn it for energy? Hundreds of millions of years ago, when the fossil fuels we know of now were first being created, the landscape of the earth was very different than it is today. Instead of deserts and rolling ranchlands, the earth was covered in swampy forests and shallow seas that were densely populated with carbon rich plant life and peat — or layers of accumulated biomass and decayed vegetation. This was known as the Carboniferous period because a high density of carbon was being stored, along with energy from the sun via photosynthesis, in plants that sank to the bottoms of the swamps as they died. All of this stored carbon and energy was just sitting in the swamps, slowly condensing, and eventually being covered with layers of other sediment. As millions of years passed, the pressure and heat from compaction and increasing depth transformed the biomass from peat to lignite and eventually to the coal we see today. While the production of coal is a natural process, this time span makes it non-renewable and modern day earth rarely has the right conditions to again stimulate this type of production.

All in all, between the Rocky Mountains and the Bakken Formation, Montana is a geologic jackpot and it is for this reason that it is rapidly being excavated. As we toured the mine, there was a plethora of machinery, conveyer belts and crushing machines, rapidly pulling the coal from the earth and processing it for consumption. We witnessed it flying from underground and then stood atop the massive black piles, ready to be loaded into a train and shipped over seas. It was an incredible experience, but the difference in time spans still blows my mind. Something that takes millions of years to form was being processed within hours. From the mind of a student of geology, it is efficient, but slightly unsettling.


Mia Tompkins: A Different Kind of Success


I decided while on the Cycle the Rockies Course to try to quit coffee cold turkey despite being strongly dependent on the magic roasted beans each morning. Even though I just finished inhaling my second caramel late as I write this, I can at least say that I was successful in my goal for the first half of the course. I suffered through groggy mornings, shaky and light headed as I sipped on lukewarm, flavored water. Tea doesn’t provide the same creamy comfort as a foamy latte, but it did have little quotes on the tea bags as some consolation. It would say things like “friendship is like a shaded tree” or “be great, feel great, and act great.” These quotes proved to be a little underwhelming as Morgan whipped open her wrinkled brown bag of ground up coffee goodness right next to me. I watched out of the side of my eyes as the steaming water soaked the grounds and filtered into her mug a rich nutty brown color. Her drowsy eyes perked as she drank life back into her sleepy bones. Morgan glided around camp packing up her gear and leaving trails of coffee scent wafting in her path. I rolled my eyes at the pithy aphorism on the tea bag and hangrily marched around camp, waking up more delayed than everyone else.

One morning I dropped my ginger lemon tea bag into the steaming water and watched the pale brown leaves spread their faint flavor. A swirling mixture oozed out of the bag as I flipped the little paper over in my fingers. I squinted my bloodshot eyes and strained my heavy eyelids to take in my inspirational quote of the day. To my surprise, this one was a little more thought provoking. It read, “Never try to impress others, only try to impress yourself.” An idea not widely or openly encouraged within the demands and expectations of a University education. The pressure to achieve a distinguished kind of success is overwhelming; and it’s limiting.

My definition of success has morphed on this course. It’s easy to depend on the reassurance of others to feel confident in my decisions. As I’ve pedaled myself across the state this past month with some of my new favorite people along side me, I realized that this isn’t an experience I would have been open to in previous years. The only reassurance I got when I initially expressed interest in this course was from Bethany Applegate, the Outreach Manager at WRFI, who may or may not be a little biased. I enrolled because I listened to my instincts, and I have found myself overwhelmed by the feeling of a different kind of success. It’s not informed by the disapproving looks we’ve gotten along the way from people who don’t see the fun in hauling yourself and your gear alongside semi trucks and against headwinds for 700 plus miles on a vulnerable two-wheeled steel machine. And it hasn’t been informed by those who have expressed their concerns for the safety of our all female student group as they question our abilities. Instead, my sense of success has been informed by the satisfaction I feel from gaining competency in the outdoors, and from the feeling of gaining a more honest understanding of the world. I do my own bike maintenance, I push myself over mountain passes, I navigate my way through the world with the gratification that comes with knowledge and execution. Cycle the Rockies helped show me that there are many ways to be a student of the world. Exploring the state of Montana through the vulnerability and exposure of a bicycle demanded my entire presence, and sparked a new drive to understand my surroundings in a way that didn’t impress everyone. Thanks to Yogi Lemon Ginger tea, to my instructors, and my classmates for the encouragement to pursue and explore in a way that leaves room for self-growth and self-fulfillment.

Beth Porter: Moonlighting as a Cyclist

Beth PorterAs each member of our group clumsily hopped on their loaded bikes in Billings, eager and unprepared, and as we faced the many grueling miles we had ahead, the end goal of our adventure always felt like it was reaching Glacier National Park, the Crown of the Continent and a prime example of climate change and its effects on ecological systems. We talked about the meetings we would have in the park, how our last few days of the course would be spent camping near West Glacier, in Apgar by Lake McDonald, and how on one day we would have the privilege to ride up “Going to the Sun” road — apparently the thing to do while in the park. Some of the other girls from the group who had been there raved about its beauty and challenge and even from home my dad kept reminding me that he too had been up to Logan Pass and it was worth the traffic.

As the last few days of the course were winding down, afternoons had been spent drinking overpriced coffee and lounging by the cold, clear, turquoise-blue water of the Flathead river as raft tours passed by and guides, as practiced, slapped the water with their oars. On the day that we were supposed to go on our most challenging and looked-forward-to ride up Going to the Sun Road, this is exactly how the day had progressed until meeting at the campground to ride to our dinner. It was relaxed and welcome, and I was very much unaware of the length of the night to come.

Since the road is closed to cyclists between 11am and 4pm, our group decided to take advantage of the full moon and take part in the unofficial moonlight ride, leaving the north side of Lake McDonald around 9pm to begin our upward trek. Other than a glimpse of a map, a mile count, and general elevation profile, I had no idea what to expect as the gang pulled out onto the still busy road, jammed with other cyclists and cars carrying bikes (presumably to ride down the pass with). However, while traffic was at first a nightmare making one question the audacity of tourism, the setting sun on the Rockies and the first glimpse of the rising moon over the tree line made me understand the desire to witness your surroundings by whatever method possible.

While the views were incredible while they lasted, the night slowly took over and darkness engulfed the mountains around us so all that could be seen were the moonlit hills slowly winding upwards and a cloud of bike lights from far ahead and behind. For me, this is what made the experience unforgettable.  As the sun set and car numbers dwindled, there was unison in the goals of the people around me; everyone wanted to be present in a beautiful place and most wanted to use their own power to make it to the top. The moonlight ride wasn’t about the grandeur sights, but rather the enthusiasm and community that gathered around cycling and the commitment to face the challenge of the ride. Whether passing or being passed, there was constant encouragement and friends and strangers all rallied around each other to inspire and strengthen the will to make it to the top.

Being on team sports like cross country and track my whole life, this experience reminded me very much of the races I used to run and the pride and community that accompanied them. As I struggled with what I thought was the last switch-back (surprise it wasn’t), I was met with a stranger’s voice yelling “only 3 miles left! You got this” and as we reached the last stretch I felt completely supported and reminiscent as my teacher, Ben shouted out “sprint finish!” and took off as I pathetically attempted to sprint with what little energy I had left. All of this reminded of what it was like to be on a team again; all of the “last hill” and “almost there” and the hoots and hollers were all reminders that there was an end to the uphill madness and each person there had accomplished it with you.

Before this class, I called myself a cyclist — making the daily commute to campus and occasionally the grocery store — but I didn’t really know what I was doing and when I did know what I was supposed to be doing I still never did it (i.e. using lights or wearing a helmet). It was simply the quickest mode of transportation, but I never felt quite in alliance with the others I was sharing the road with. This experience has shaped my idea of a cyclist and, like running, has shown me that it can be anyone in any shape on any bike and all deserve encouragement — no matter how small the ride.

Overall, I am glad I got to experience this ride in a different light and surrounded with like-minded, passionate people. While I may not have made it to the sun or witnessed the full expanse of views from our highest elevation, this opportunity allowed me to take advantage of my strength and reminded me of the goodness of people and spirit sport can have. I also got the check something off my bucket list I didn’t even know I wanted to do.

Mia Tompkins: False Summits

false summits

A short man with a furrowed brow emerged from an old rickety wooden building. We were nearly 20 miles from the nearest town, out of water, and I was beginning to see stars dance across my plane of vision. The building was surrounded by a fence with a big “no trespassing” sign, and around the house itself were scattered “stay the fuck out” posters in case anyone was unsure about the message of the first few signs. As he approached we quickly explained our predicament. He looked us up and down, and kindly offered up his spigot around the back of the building. I saw the flash of an idea emerge as a grin spread across his face. Here it comes, I thought. What will it be this time?

“This is gonna sound cocky, but I could spray you gals down with my hose” The man looked at us expectantly. He waited awkwardly to be rewarded for his seemingly clever joke, and was met with silence. I sighed. Matt frowned, and Liv whispered “gross” under her breath behind me. I filed his comments somewhere in my brain with the various others that we had encountered, and that I wasn’t sure how to deal with. This had become a frequent occurrence for our all-female student group. Belittling questions like, “who changes your tires?” or decorative posters titled, “12 Reasons Why a Handgun is Better Than a Woman” can be discouraging. It’s a challenge to celebrate our accomplishments after battling 25 mile per hour headwinds, or reaching the end of the arduous and seemingly endless false summits while also trying to digest how others respond to the choice we all made to embark on this journey. Number 8. A handgun doesn’t fall asleep after you’re done using it, and Number 3. A handgun functions normally every day of the month, are, unfortunately, seared into my brain.

Cycle the Rockies is a course during which we get to bike with all of our gear over 700 miles across the massive state of Montana. We have the privilege of speaking with farmers, ranchers, coal miners, wind workers, journalists, etc. as we earn college credit for studying climate change and Montana’s energy systems. Using nothing but our mental and physical strength to transport ourselves has demanded patience, tenacity, and teamwork. Each day we soak in the rewards of our efforts through the surrounding views that continuously evolve from eastern Montana’s golden wide open spaces to the rolling hills and towering Rocky Mountain Front. For some reason, only women signed up to take on the challenges of the Cycle the Rockies course this year.

A false summit is a peak that appears to be the pinnacle of a mountain but upon arrival it becomes apparent that the real summit remains higher. It feels like the landscape is betraying me, like it’s mocking me while demanding the exertion of more effort, time, sweat, and the occasional tear. We always make it though. One pedal at a time. I listen to my breath and the rubber tires gripping the hot pavement. I feel my heartbeat and blink away the salty sweat that drips into my eyes. Soon the incline relaxes, but my relief quickly dissipates as I look up to see the invitation for another taller mountain to tackle that had been just out of sight. This is what “no trespassing” man’s degrading comment feels like. Just when I thought I’d catch a break, or receive encouragement, or the reward of a nice downhill glide after a long strenuous uphill climb, we’re instead hit with comments on the tightness of our shammies, and encouraged to “lighten up” or “smile” when we fail to laugh at degrading jokes that are at our expense. So the climb continues, the work continues, the disappointment continues. But the strength and grace of the women with me on this course doesn’t just continue. It expands, and it’s contagious.

We bend around a long curve in the road and just ahead of us the pavement juts up from the flat land like a skyscraper. I hear groans behind me. 40 miles in and we’re at the mercy of 90 degree heat. Our exhaustion leaves us beyond the capacity to complain. We approach the final hill before Townsend, MT in a single file line. As the incline steepens, I put my head down and look only at the tires in front of me. My quads ache as I hear the sound of nine other bikes shifting into lower gears. I sneak a peek at how far away it is until the steepness subsides, which was a disheartening sight. Instead I look at the women in front of me. Their calves are flexing with each pedal and their backs are glistening with sweat in the radiating heat. Progress is slow and gradual. I pick my head up any time I feel discouraged and stare at the persistent push of the cyclists in front of me. They press on, therefore so do I. We reach the top and catch our breaths, congratulating each other. I watch the final cyclists behind me huff their way over the summit and towards our hoots and hollers. Our smiles reveal our relief, exhaustion, and pride in what we’ve just accomplished.

The willingness to go in blind to an unknown experience called for an extensive amount of courage from the students who signed up for this course. As this trip comes to an end, I feel endless amounts of gratitude and admiration towards my fellow classmates and instructors. We all had similar responses to the patronizing commentary, and we all encouraged each other into being courageous and staying motivated as we faced the cat calls and condescending comments with our chins up. Navigating a landscape in which I haven’t always felt welcomed or acknowledged has felt more like a learning experience rather than a personal offense because of the people accompanying me along the way in this course. They have helped emphasize the importance of a curious approach to the longstanding power structure in our society that is so deeply ingrained. But have also prioritized recognizing the negative implications of such a structure and the importance in honesty while addressing them. It has been a fine balance between self-respect and empathy for others. There are more hills to climb, and more mountain passes to cross in Montana’s male dominated landscape. There will be more false summits. And I will continue to look towards the inspiring women who surround me for the motivation to sustain forward movement.

Hailey Moll: Walking in Two Worlds

Haleys blog

Our guide at the Ktunaxa Interpretive Center, Jared, led us down a long hallway that was warmly lit with refurbished wood fixtures and plush Oriental rugs padding the floors. The original bricks from the school were fighting through the dry wall and wallpaper. As he reconstructed what the fully-operative establishment would have looked like in our mental imagery, there was an evident melancholy that seemed to emanate from the architecture.

From 1908 until 1970, the St. Eugene Mission, later remembered as the Red Brick School, would take indigenous children from their Ktunaxa First Nation [too-na-ha] and strip them of their cultural upbringing and heritage through forced religious enculturation. Completely unqualified teachers of the Christian leadership would expel the children’s prior way of life, culture, and language through rigorous academics, familial and gender segregation, and even violence. With each generation, more of the Ktunaxa’s cultural knowledge and beliefs eroded. This ubiquitous assimilation practice across Canada was a means of European settlers gaining complete sovereignty and control of the land. Attendants of the school recall being beaten, separated from siblings, and returning home in the summer unable to speak the same language as their parents.

By the time this tragic establishment had its last students roam its classrooms and dormitories, the Ktunaxa still had an arduous battle to reclaim both the land and their culture. Now, the building is a year-round resort completely owned, managed, and operated by the Ktunaxa people, and Jared says his people are proud of that. However, their culture greatly suffered; their language is considered critically endangered, and their elders are dying along with the traditions and knowledge of their people. Through this relentless cultural genocide, relations between the Canadian government and the indigenous people of Canada are contentious, to say the least. You can still feel that resentment in the grim stories of Ktunaxa people relating their experiences at the Red Brick School. I left the Interpretive Center with a burdened heart and a genuine sense of the infringement of their rights and way of life.

The battle for Indigenous sovereignty and land rights with the Canadian government continues to this day. The area of focus–and the location of our final backpack excursion pivoted around the Jumbo Valley in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. For the past 25 years, there has been an ongoing conflict around the development of a proposed ski resort in the valley. Architect and developer Oberto Oberti and his team envision an enormous island of coffee shops, condos, lifts, and gondola rides. Meanwhile, conservationists, local residents, and the Ktunaxa First Nation are fighting relentlessly to protect this area permanently. To the Ktunaxa, Qat’muk (Jumbo Valley) is sacred to them and the Grizzly Bear Spirit. This reciprocal relationship between the people and the bears is fundamental to Ktunaxa history, and it guides their stewardship principles to the land. I strongly felt the sacrosanct effect of this landscape one evening we hiked up into the smoke-hazen peaks just behind our cabin, and the sheer immensity of the Purcell Mountains commanded my respect and reverence.

As has been the case for hundreds of years, the lack of recognition of indigenous sanctity and culture has threatened their land and way of life. It is difficult for people of a Westernized worldview to try to value a different worldview, and often this difference dictates decisions with ultimate disregard for different ways of knowing. Even as the Western world attempts to understand ‘traditional ecological knowledge,’ we are still doing an injustice to Native people by trying to harness and condense this knowledge using Western-derived concepts, words, and ideas. In order to begin this slow process of healing, we must first try to value Western knowledge and indigenous knowledge equally; these two divergent views should complement one another to better coexist in the same human and natural landscapes. Backpacking through Jumbo made me realize how little I actually know about the area. I respect that I will never be able to view the area in the same lens as the Ktunaxa. Yet, I know that protecting this beautiful valley will help preserve the knowledge about it indefinitely.

Stephanie Fisher: A Whole New Light

19990243_1636411139704746_1210859589059172452_nBreathing heavily, sweating profusely and looking back on my personal trials of life, things have certainly not been quite this easy. Now, more than ever, as I rely on human power to pedal along a demanding Montana countryside, I’m given ample time to rehash past and present health challenges beyond my control. My mind reluctantly wanders, back to a timeframe which most would consider prime of life, where I was overcome by extreme discomfort, perplexity and an unfamiliar sense of fear.

Beginning my sophomore year in high school, while feeling strong and on the verge of graduation, I woke to unbearable pain and uncertainty. To put it lightly, my life quickly went from placid to tough and, after three trying years visiting with specialists, I stooped to accepting the label, “hypochondriac.” I mean, how could I deny it? Each time a trusted health care professional drew a blank diagnosis for my condition I felt alone, with no reprieve, little choice and an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. As time went on, with sprinkles of struggle and mounds of perseverance, I was thankfully able to piece things together and find a pathway forward. I was ultimately diagnosed with an autoimmune disease known as ankylosing spondylitis (AS). It’s hard to describe how I felt when I learned of my condition but in this moment, looking back from atop my saddle, I see myself relieved in knowing my illness is real yet conquerable, neither debilitating nor imagined.

I’ll never forget that pressure-relieving day where my alternate reality, insecurities, and pain were suddenly validated, even by those closest to me. I now had a name for my illness to replace questioning eyes and unnecessary comments around my being too young to chronically feel high levels of pain. Having a name for my illness somehow also served as a first healing step towards better understanding both my body and mind. During these progressive times, diagnosis did not immediately relieve my aches and pains; however, finding proper medication did. Literally, after one injectable treatment I could sit up on my own and with ease! So, I sat up, stretched, and dressed myself utilizing what only 24 hours prior felt like 90-year-old joints.

Now, breathing easy and feeling comfortable within a 30-year-old body, having cycled nearly 700 miles, I see this physically and emotionally demanding journey as my reward for sacrificing years of being patient, enduring and almost accepting a debilitating disease. I sincerely thank WRFI for their encouragement and support before and during this journey. Their work has helped me see the meaning of accomplishment in a whole new light. I feel capability beyond belief – a condition I once believed impossible.

At the end of the road I will step away from my bike within a ‘place’ filled with impeccable self-awareness, exploration, and a brand-new desire to share a short stint of my personal journey.

Liv Sears: It’s a Breeze

Liv Blog 2In 2005 Montana’s first wind farm, operated by Invenergy Services, took shape among the rolling hills of Judith Gap. Our group was given the opportunity to visit the farm as a quick day trip while staying in nearby Harlowton. With unloaded bikes, we traveled 13 miles north to where the ninety turbines of the Judith Gap Wind Farm rise high into the air over green meadows. Each able to produce around 1,500 kilowatts, they yield energy which is then contracted to Montana’s largest utility, Northwestern Energy. For all those in favor of finding alternative energy sources, one would hope that wind could have the ability to open many doors of opportunity for renewable energy in Montana, a way to veer far from coal. Coal has lasting effects on surrounding towns, polluting drinking water and undermining ranch land.

We made sure to get started on the road early, hopefully avoiding chances of wind; it generally isn’t blowing in the morning, but usually picks up later. Lucky for us, it played out in our favor and we had a pleasant outing, arriving just as the turbines started to turn for the day. This is in comparison to other days where we didn’t quite luck out in the same way, often facing headwinds that varied from a mild breeze to intense gusts, forcing us to lean into it to prevent from swerving into the grassy landscape that parallels the road. With our experiences, it’s hard to believe that wind wouldn’t be an efficient and abundant energy source in Montana.

Invenergy is a privately owned (and primarily renewable) energy producer with about 35 sites in the United States and even more internationally, generating energy through wind, solar, and thermal, and even trying to make progress with the battery storage obstacle. During our visit we were able to both explore the wind farm system as well as understand the center of operations that control the turbines and the energy that is produced.

Our guidance through this day came from the facilities manager, Michael, a man with experience in the wind energy production business. After a similar job elsewhere, he relocated to Montana to begin work with Invenergy. However, he expressed that this job was not taken only because it was familiar, but because he can appreciate the opportunities that develop from a rural lifestyle. While experiencing enjoyment from what Montana has to offer with recreational activities, Michael also cherishes the isolation of wide open space, the “big sky.” That, I can understand. I went into this day expecting compelling conversations and similar views in regard to the other half of our course that supports the topic of energy… climate change. But when climate change was mentioned, Michael confessed that he was not convinced. Maybe I was wrong to assume that a manager of a renewable producer would consider the effects that humans and fossil fuels have on the environment. He could admit that things are changing, but things change all the time, right? It’s a perspective we hear often from climate change skeptics.

So why was he working so hard to find success with wind energy while coal is still more reliable? As he explained, energy prices in Montana are inexpensive, and Northwestern is getting a good deal with their energy and transmission. It’s all about the economics. And that is what I realized goes for Michael too. Of course a steady income is top priority for some, so maybe it’s too idealistic to think that everyone would be motivated to pursue these projects because it is simply good. It’s hard to look past the disconnect between the motivation and the end goal. But if that motivation does happen to be money, Michael and Northwestern have found themselves an effective and inexpensive opportunity. Simply shown in data from the Public Service Commission, a board of individuals who regulate services such as energy and transportation, costs of energy production for Northwestern energy (per megawatt-hour) is less than half at Judith Gap than it is at Colstrip, the largest coal producer for the company. Not only that, but when considering the initial build, maintenance, and costs to operate the business, it is still significantly lower than coal, and continuing to decline as technologies advance.