Anna Finkenauer: Working With the Wild West

The swift moving waters of the Missouri River provide an amazing vantage point from which to observe the complex history that has taken place along it’s banks. Awe-inspiring rock formations such as the Hole In The Wall and the Citadel encourage one to think long and hard about the geologic forces that must have gone into their making. If the climate out here is strong enough to mold and shape a substance as tough as rock, it is hard to imagine what it can do to the humans who have attempted to eek out a living here. It is clear to see by the number of abandoned homesteads we have passed along the way that life in the wild west was not easy.

However, that has not stopped people from attempting to any way. Countless federal programs such as the Homestead Act, Enlarged Homestead Act and the New Deal tried to encourage the ownership and development of Montana’s vast stretches of prairie because to them, undeveloped land was wasted land. Manifest Destiny propaganda and newly built railroads fueled the movement of thousands of people out here. They brought with them dreams of establishing successful farms and creating a comfortable life for their families, but after a few years it became apparent that this landscape was not going to be easy to settle into.

Virtually all of the native peoples that inhabited this land before white settlers were nomads who followed their food sources around. Agriculture was nonexistent because the plants and animals here must be highly specialized to survive in the dramatic and extreme weather. They have coevolved for millions of years to be able to do this, and introduced agricultural species simply could not compete with that. Top predators such as grizzly bears and coyotes know that they cannot stay in the same place for long because the land is quickly depleted. However, when homesteaders arrived, they were expected to stay in the same place for long enough to develop the land. This expectation proved to be detrimental to their ability to survive out here.

As I float down the Missouri River today, I can still see the ruins of their valiant attempts to control this wild landscape. It must have been unbelievably challenging and at times terrifying to be the first white settlers to move here. I harbor a deep respect for their courage and independence to come out to Montana, and it is sad that they were not able to succeed. The dry arid environment was different then any other land they had seen or lived on before and they did not know how to properly manage it. However, what they did was immensely important because it forced us to realize that we cannot always change the land, sometimes we need to change for it.

It is encouraging and inspirational to see that many modern day ranchers are taking this to heart. Ranching has traditionally been destructive on the dry, harsh prairies of Montana because cows graze the grass to the dirt and trample down vegetation in sensitive river riparian zones. Cows may still be doing this in some sections of the Missouri and other rivers throughout the state, but people such as Blackfoot Challenge founder Jim Stone are realizing the value in working with the landscape rather than against it. New innovations in the industry such as cow ponds, which bring water to the cows instead of having them go to the river, are allowing ranchers to continue their livelihoods with less of an impact on these sensitive areas. I believe this is proof that we can have a sustainable lifestyle in the wild west if we are willing to readjust some of our old habits.

This all sounds far easier on paper than it would be to execute in real life. It has long been the American tendency to attempt to control the land rather than work with it, and this attitude will be hard to reverse. However, there is a change starting to happen. Ranchers like Jim are at the forefront of a sustainability movement that has the potential to create a harmonious, rather then exploitive, relationship with the land. The Citadel and the Hole in the Wall show us all that something beautiful can be created from the harsh winds and winding rivers of this landscape. Will we be able to make something beautiful out of it as well?


Catie DeMets: History in Plain View

We were in the middle of nowhere. The flat plains stretched infinitely into the dimming horizon. We had no cell phone reception, no way to communicate with our friends or family, and no trees to retreat behind in moments of introspection. Though this harsh, windswept landscape seemed to hide nothing nor allow anything to hide, it is burdened with a long history that we’d learned about over the past few days during our time at the American Prairie Reserve.

I reflected on this history and our learning as I gazed into the vast expanse. While we’d spent so much time on the Missouri River discussing humans’ destruction of the plains and the river through cattle grazing and inappropriate agricultural practices, our time at the American Prairie Reserve (APR) had shown me that humans can very effectively channel their efforts to restore the prairie to its natural state. We had the opportunity to witness this firsthand as we spoke with important leaders at the APR and helped them with a yurt-building project in return for their time and for allowing us to stay at their established yurt camp at the APR. We learned of how they are working to purchase and accumulate 3.5 million acres of land, including the BLM grazing leases attached to private properties, around the central APR area, north of the Missouri River Breaks and the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. This, in essence, is an effort to preserve one of the last remaining viable temperate grasslands—the least protected of any type of ecosystem—in the world. They mostly rely on wealthy individuals to donate large chunks of money to the cause, and it takes some convincing to persuade these people to donate money. Hence the yurt camp that we helped to build; here, the APR will host wealthy donors for overnight stays so they can experience the APR firsthand.

We found this to be an intriguing philosophy, and grappled with our inner conflicts regarding whether we can support an effort that mostly relies on wealthy donors giving money to a private organization. But as we stood overlooking a genetically pure, brucellosis-free herd of bison that the Reserve has restored to the landscape and watched their dark figures lumber away across the prairie single-file, looking so correct in that place, we were filled with gratitude that a small group of people has worked so hard to make this a reality. It didn’t matter where the money came from, because it was being channeled into a good cause.

And bison aren’t the only creatures being restored to the prairie. Yesterday afternoon, we’d spent three hours choosing and researching a species that we would each represent at the Council of All Beings, our exam for the second section of the course. Poring over books in the sunny yurt and scribbling madly, we each became familiar with the history of our creature on the plains or in the Breaks. We connected our learning with our knowledge on Native American history, white homesteaders’ influence, and changes in land use and policy over the last three hundred or so years. Many life forms have undergone significant changes during this time period, resulting in their partial or total disappearance from the prairie. After we’d finished our research, we presented our findings to one another at the Council of All Beings meeting in the candlelit yurt, dressed to resemble our being: Brooke as river algae, Lincoln as prong-horned antelope, Rosie as cottonwood tree, Robert as sage grass, Sam as bald eagle, Anna as beaver, and me as bison. I was enthusiastic that the APR was working to restore the natural state of each of these species in their efforts.

Alas, the many human actions that have influenced the land and disturbed its natural state are very obvious on the prairie; this land hides nothing and its history, though invisible in some ways, is reflected in every plant, every animal that is or isn’t there. The prairie’s transparency, but also its deep mystery, allows me to free my mind of the information clutter I continue to accumulate as the daylight wanes and the fall progresses. Here, I can just be present in the clear air, observing as the horizon drops into the abyss and the stars appear, unobscured and illuminating.

Natasha Steinmann: Walk a Day in WRFI Boots

6:25am           LOD (Leader of the Day) Faren groggily hears her small watch alarm go off. Time to get up! Her faithful tentmate Mike ensures she dutifully gets out of the tent to fill the two silver pots with water for breakfast. She starts up two MSR WhisperLite stoves, and puts the water on.

7:00am           With the water almost at a boil, LOD Faren comes by each tent: “Wake up, wake up! Water’s hot!”  I groggily begin to stir. Wriggling out of my warm sleeping bag, I dress quickly – lest my body warmth desert me. I hobble down the well-worn path to the :kitchen,” which, here in Waterton Lakes National Park is actually a designated area complete with picnic table, benches, and a “sump hole” to sump dish water in. What luxury! We sit around in a circle, mixing breakfast concoctions of oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit, flax seeds, coconut, chia seeds, and honey, and make either hot tea, cocoa, or coffee to kick-start out foggy day.

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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.

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Michaela Brumbaugh: A Silent Plead Amongst Centurions

As a believer of global climate change, there’s something quite sensational about getting to see what I spend my life learning about, studying, and vocalizing first hand. Hiking to the topmost edge of a lateral moraine – quite literally in the space between spaces – where a glacier moved the Earth, where it scoured the landscape and receded to such a degree I can attest to its aftermath is mindboggling. A lateral moraine is created by glaciers, moving rocks, as it moves like a large icy bulldozer capable of molding the landscape; an incredible feat for frozen water in my opinion. Even more so is drinking water so pure it melted straight off a glacier and flowed underneath to the glacier’s toe/terminus, the tip of the ice and beyond in a stream of snow melt. A step further and I can stand on it and see the red algae that grow on it – my eyes scanning the porous ice crystals for a glimpse of the snow worms or ice worms that eat the algae. Swooping down to scoop some up, it smells of sea and watermelon. Bunching it into a snowball I hurl it at one of my instructors Shawn. She laughs and exclaims, “It’s on!” Right about now you might be wondering just what I am doing out here next to a melt pond of a glacier that’s been here before Homo sapiens roamed the Earth releasing emissions and pollutants depleting this centurion of a glacier gradually over time with warming temperatures. In fact, I am on a semester of summer school with the Wild Rockies Field Institute – quite unlike anything I have ever experienced in my Sonoran Desert home of Tucson, Arizona.

I wake up the morning after hiking the lateral moraine and before a day hike to an unnamed glacier for hot Echinacea tea and raisined oatmeal, my view is nothing less than spectacular. The roaring of a far off terminus glacier melt stream filling my ears and eyes. I smile at my companions as we have a morning class next to these glaciers. In the afternoon as I am discussing the landscape scale ecology of these northern mountains of the Purcells, a chunk of ice falls and the sound reverberates kind of like thunder, causing Natasha and our instructor Joshua to position ourselves between larches for a view. Finally I get my wish of watching the ice falling with its sounds – a surprisingly hard task amongst so large a scale of glaciers and their echoing accompaniments.

The alpine terrain in close proximity to these glaciers is full of surprises. There’s Western Yellow Paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) and dwarf fireweed (Charmina latifolium), wildflowers livening up the rock and ice that surrounds us with dashes of color. A stream of glacial till that originates from the glacier meanders through the shear sparkling rocks of all shapes and sizes that makes up the moraines we have been traversing throughout the day. These monstrous centurions of ice and snow loom above – advancing and receding. As I gaze deeper in wonder upon the glacier I realize I am capable of identifying the crevasses, the bone dry ice of the ablation zone, and the snow piled up on the accumulation zone. I even spot flakes that might eventually avalanche, predicting the path they might take. On the aged mountains I see an arête, a col, a collier, all carved by ancient glaciers and I even see a hanging glacier.

In these moments I feel the most privileged—I am not a passenger on an airplane yearning to explore the snow-capped mountains thousands of feet below me. I am not gazing wishfully at the picturesque postcards of a souvenir shoppe. I am not an onlooker. I am an explorer, a naturalist, a naturist, and a learner on the adventure of a lifetime experiencing the natural world up close and personally. As the juxtaposition of rock, ice, slow-growing larch trees and glacial till substrate streams I stand at the toe of a glacier watching what mankind has done to the ice that gives us water. With wind cooling the sun on my back I watch the pike and the ptarmigan that stare at me in return, with just as much curiosity. I send a silent plead out to the world to limit our consumption and emissions, to reduce our carbon footprint, to bring awareness as much as possible to conserve these sentient glaciers older than the dirt they created around them (glacial till is derived from glaciers scouring rock) in the northern Purcells of beautiful British Columbia, Canada. Will the humans of the world ever hear my plea? – For the pika whose habitat requires cold temperatures to thermoregulate, for the larch whose cold-loving branches are the softest conifer needles I have ever had the pleasure of caressing, for the red algae and the snow worms that live on the glacier, for the water that the glaciers produce, for the Purcells that act as a core habitat source for the increasingly endangered grizzly bear and its umbrella species, but most of all for the sentient (thinking, living, existing) beings themselves – the glaciers – who are more important than we realize, who speak to us with their advancing, receding and bone dry expansive ablation zone, and whose very ominous yet vast presence can never be captured in a photograph. More humbling than anything my travels have led me to before, they loom above and whisper with the rumbling of ice descending the mountainside – a glacier’s shout out to me, to us, to the world that plays a much larger role than should be conceivably possible in their future.

Davis Logan: Canadian Switchbacks

Canadian switchbacks? From spending time hiking through the Lewis and Clark Wilderness, Yellowstone, Lee Metcalf and other state areas my sense of trail design was pretty firm.

Setting foot on Canadian trails is a whole another experience. The Canadian trails for example in Waterton National Park specifically the Goat Lake trail was deceptively labeled to us state hikers. We saw a sign for a short few kilometer hike be as we began the ascent we saw how the trail only ever seemed to continue upwards, unbroken steeper and steeper. Yes, we hit a few switchbacks if they can truly be called as such.

My personal definition of switchback in regards to hiking means a sig zagged trail that allows for easier ascent up a steep gradient.

These Canadian switchbacks seemed to only consist of a single zig never the zig zag duo. Also they either came upon us when the trail seemed more steady or had become nearly steep enough to employ our hands to pull ourselves upwards.

I need to speak with some forest trail managers on either side of the border to find what is needed for and when switchbacks are appropriate, but overall, hiking on Canadian trails is a helluva of a lot tougher than hiking on the States trails. The Canadian trails call for more determination and fervor, which I enjoy more than meandering zig zag trails of the States.

Finally, seeing trails from afar the zig zag pattern is much more obvious and disruptive than the straight on through the wild trails of Canada. I am a fast hiker and appreciate the challenge Canadian switchbacks provide and feel docile when trekking upwards in the States. How do you feel? In regards to switchbacks or no switchbacks?



Kaitlin Kenney: What Today Leaves and Tomorrow Brings.

After five backpack trips, roughly 28 days total spend in the woods, and 57 nights of camping, here are at our last backcountry campsite of the summer. As Jerry Garcia puts it ever so perfectly, “What a long, strange trip its been.”

Thinking back to day one when we were all strangers driving together across Montana seems like ages ago. I was a different person then, who loved life and the outdoors but always took both for granted. I was in support of conservation and protecting wildlife but hadn’t done anything personally to promote those concepts. Sure, I recycled and rode by bike, but I never paid attention to the issues going on right here in Missoula or even the greater Yellowstone to Yukon region. I just remember thinking how awesome it sounded to learn outside AND get college credit while backpacking. Little did I know I was about to be more deeply impacted by the journey ahead of me in these two months than I’ve experienced in all my schooling to this point.

The WRFI 2012 Wild Rockies Summer Semester spent two months studying the connectivity of the greater Yellowstone to Yukon region. By foot and by van, we extensively studied conservation biology, community-based conservation, ecological restoration and traditional ecological knowledge. As an anthropology major, I felt slightly overwhelmed at points. We kept daily journals or our experiences, met with incredibly inspirational activists embedded in the issues, hiked with a compilation of articles, wrote letters to environmental managers, and critically analyzed important issues facing the environment and thus all life that’s a part of the Earth’s biosphere. That’s just the academic portion of our summer. We woke up every morning by 7am for breakfast, packed up our campsite , hiked to mountain peaks over many different landscapes of loose talus, snow, mud, river crossings, and glaciers. Once at our day’s destination, we’d explode our packs, set up camp, cook dinner, have class, catch up on schoolwork, go to bed and wake up to do it all over again. Talk about making the most of each day! Experiential learning such as this taught me so much academically and way beyond. I was forced to develop effective time management skills as well as figuring out how to balance school with my emotional and physical health on top of the group’s well being and communication. The lessons we learned as a group tied interchangeably with the academic side.

It’s hard to put into words how stellar experiential learning with WRFI has been. Exploring the environmental concerns around the connectivity of the Y2Y region has simultaneously allowed me to dive into myself and really find out where my values and ethics stand in the collective scheme of life here on Earth. There’s a lot of injustice when it comes to the environment and how people interact with it.  Learning about what is and isn’t being done to protect life made me reevaluate what my priorities in life are and actually feel like I can make even an insignificant change.  A big question that we were faced with daily is what can we do individually? How can we take forth this experience and make a change? Being able to be in the field backpacking to some of the most beautiful mountain sites in the West engraved these questions and topics so deeply in me. After seeing such spectacular sights while simultaneously reading about Grizzlies in that same area is profound. There’s such an inspirational amount of meaning and sincere care that arises while being in the heart of these topics that differs significantly from just reading a textbook in a classroom.

So here we are, in a subalpine Larch meadow in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. Everywhere I look now I’m reminded of the connectivity between all life and the natural world. I’m sitting in a meadow watching snowmelt flow as streams interweaving which will soon meet the glacial runoff from across the ridge which flows into the source of the Columbia River which supplies humans and other forms of life with a critical water source. Seeing first hand the connectivity of humans to CO2 emissions which affect the rate of glacial melt which we and all life on western North America relies on is extremely powerful. Being embedded in our study topic is such a significant and effective way to truly learn about the environment.

After such an impactful summer I ask myself, what will I take away from this experience? We’ve been practicing “Leave No Trace” which entails leaving the environment we travel through in the same if not better condition. Humans as a whole have made extensive impacts to the environment that we feel its appropriate to leave no signs of our presence. I must say though, the natural mountain environments of the Northern Rockies have left quite the trace on me. I feel humbled by the innate beauty of these places that are so ingenuitive and efficient without any human touch to make it this way. I feel connected to, even tapped into the web of life that exists here. Being able to wake up and go to bed as the animals do and feel what its like to be in a magical place, untouched by human hands is refreshing, revitalizing, and awakening. For each day leaves with us a new perspective, a heightened sense, an experience that builds upon the previous day’s, an experience that’s mystical and life-changing. As for tomorrow, it brings hope and change, adventures to be had, people to meet, and lessons to be learned. What yesterday leaves and tomorrow brings is up to us. “Yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.” Our memories make our beliefs which make our dreams ultimately making the future.