What an amazing experience my time with Wild Rockies Field Institute has been so far…I still can’t believe I’m here. I have been so fortunate in my life to be able to travel to Montana many times and western Montana has a special place in my heart. I’m so thrilled that this summer with WRFI I’m spending time there and also in Alberta and British Columbia, all part of the Crown of the Continent, learning about the conservation issues that affect this area. The Crown of the Continent is a large, intact ecosystem containing Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park; it crosses international boundaries, and contains the headwaters to rivers that flow in three directions to the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Hudson Bay. So far, our travels have brought our group across international boundaries and through a variety of protected lands; here is a taste of the places we have been and how the different types of land management tactics have impacted what we’ve experienced.
The first section of the Summer Semester consisted of time in the front-country in and around Choteau, MT and a nine-day, 52-mile backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. For a first time backpacker, this was a completely immersive experience. Besides our seven students and two instructors, we saw fewer than 25 other people; some areas of our backpack were more secluded than others as we went three days without seeing a single other person. The sights in the Bob Marshall Wilderness were amazing. We travelled through open, burned areas with young plants growing, large mountain valleys and forested areas with an overabundance of Bear Grass, through canyons next to streams, and trekked up and over mountains. There was a consistent quiet on this backpack trip only broken by our own conversations and laughs and the occasional passing of other people hiking and horse-back riding. There were no motorized vehicles, bicycles, roads, or sounds of industry which is usually rare; however, in a Wilderness area this is the norm. Wilderness areas in the United States are the ultimate protection for ecosystems and species; they are untrammeled or unrestrained by humans, nature is at its most “wild” here. Trails are sometimes managed in order to stay passable, but other than that, human impacts are minimized in Wilderness areas to offer great protection for the species that live there.
During section two, we visited a greater variety of places. One of the days we spent at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park; it was an incredibly relaxing day lounging on the shore at Paradise Point enjoying the weather and working on academics. The lake was beautiful with its clear, cool water and mountains surrounding it. But the experience was much different from that in the Bob Marshall Wilderness; the sights were equally impressive but not as undeveloped in Glacier. The east end of the lake was developed with a historic lodge-turned souvenir shop, restrooms, and boat tour docks. We also saw more people in the first ten minutes at Two Medicine Lake than we did in nine days of backpacking. The experience was different because the National Park Service manages their lands much differently than Wilderness areas do; parks are for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” and to preserve unimpaired land. While the land and species within them are protected, national parks do see a much greater number of visitors as well as vehicle and bicycle traffic.
The backpacking portion of section two began after crossing into Alberta, Canada and spending a few days near Waterton Lakes National Park. We began our five-day, 20-mile backpack trip from Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Lakes National Park and continued to Goat Lake. The trails in Waterton, like in Glacier, were wider and better maintained than in the Wilderness area and had greater foot traffic. The campsite at Goat Lake was also completely different from the Wilderness area; there were log chairs set up for a kitchen area and a bear hang already set up. “Backcountry” camping in the National Park was easier than in the Wilderness area where we had to find proper camp sites with trees nearby to hang our food. After spending a night at Goat Lake, we hiked up and along the stunning Avion Ridge that establishes the boundary between Waterton Lakes National Park and the newly designated Castle Wildland Provincial Park. Avion Ridge provided a stunning 360 degree view of the wonderful, mountainous lands around us with Waterton to the south and the Castle to the north. Once we entered the Castle, the trails changed immensely; mainly we walked on old trails previously used for recreation, such as four-wheeling and dirt biking, and forestry but now left to let nature take over. And take over it did, one day we fought gravity on a steep uphill as well as the growing, tangled mess of Alder trees expanding into the old trail. Since it is a newly designated protected area, the trails in the Castle Wildlands have not yet been maintained, the trail maps were not fully updated, and we didn’t see other people until we were at Bovin Lake, which is only four miles from the boundary of the Castle. Now that it is a wildland, the Castle in Alberta will be managed similar to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the species and ecosystems within will be protected from forestry and oil and gas industries that used to fragment the area.
It is incredible to be spending the summer in the Crown of the Continent region and seeing how public protected lands are preserving natural wonders, ecosystems, and species in a variety of ways. I’ve had an amazing time on the first half of the course and I’m so excited for the things we will learn and see in the second half. My time with WRFI has been a once in a lifetime experience so far and I’m thrilled for what’s to come!