Erica Schwabach is a SUNY – ESF graduate as well as a alum of the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s Restoration Ecology course. Here, she tells why three weeks in Montana changed her undergraduate education… for the best!
What was the most memorable adventurous moment on your trip?
The whole thing!! Haha.. no, there are certainly moments that stick out in particular. Even though it was possibly the coldest moment of my trip, I know I will always remember the trip into the Snowcrest Mountains at the beginning of my course. About 2-3 days the weather began to turn and it started snowing as we climbed in elevation. Not having the proper clothing really set me back but my fellow classmates showed me nothing but love and care as they gave me their extra layers and hugs. Pat, our instructor, even built a fire in the snow! It was a moment I will never forget. It challenged me and taught me my strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the trip I was very fortunate to have made it back down the mountain, but I was so grateful to have been given the chance to even see such a beautiful place and come back to NY to tell of it.
What was the most memorable connection (with a fellow student, instructor, or guest speaker, etc) that you made on course?
This one is a tough one. I really connected to a lot of different students and both of my instructors. So I don’t think I’ll choose just one. One of my strongest connections was to my tent mate, Ilona. We were a very efficient team and got along great… neither of us snored! It was very bonding to spend 3 weeks camping and working and learning together. I’d say besides Ilona, I was closest to another student named Amelia on my trip. She was so sweet and friendly and a bright, pleasant person to be around. Our friendship grew as the trip went on and even though she lives across the country (she goes to school at UofM and is from Oregon) we still keep in touch via Facebook all the time! I hope to be able to visit her again someday. I also connected strongly to my instructors Pat and Molly. They were incredibly intelligent and kind individuals and it was a pleasure learning from/with them. I have kept in touch with both of them. I also have kept in touch with a student named Stephen from the Summer Semester WRFI summer-long course. We had so much in common and it was awesome being able to meet, work/learn, and hang out along with the Summer Semester group that summer. I made a strong connection with Stephen and am happy that we still are able to keep in touch via social media and phone calls every so often. I am so grateful for all of the wonderful connections that I made that summer!
What summer jobs, internships or other opportunities have you had since your WRFI course?
Since I was close to graduating, I only had a semester or so left at SUNY-ESF, my home institution, after completing my WRFI course. I was most inspired by the fisheries components of the Restoration Ecology course. So in Fall of 2014 I worked in the SUNY-ESF fisheries research lab studying maturity indices of the American Eel with a graduate student. I took the Summer of 2015 to finish up a couple of courses, Field Ornithology and Wetland Restoration Techniques and I am now currently post-graduation. I am actively pursuing opportunities in environmental jobs in New York State at this time.
How did experiential education differ from a traditional campus learning?
I discovered that I learn the best out in the field after taking a WRFI course. Being totally immersed in the field/place, learning totally hands on, and being immersed in nature it is an incredible learning experience that no classroom can quite teach you. You learn things about the world, about others, and about yourself most of all. It was great being able to leave campus to learn!!
What were you most nervous for before your WRFI course?
I was most nervous for being so far away from home (I’m from NYS while my WRFI course was in Montana), in a different place/climate, with others whom I hadn’t met before, and perhaps not being as physically or mentally fit as everyone else. It turned out that it was an incredible experience of growth for me as an individual and once I was immersed in the course I felt totally at ease! Everyone was incredibly nice and supportive.
Any advice for a student at your home university who is considering taking a WRFI course?
Be prepared! Bring a few extra layers of warm clothing.. make sure that you begin working out a few months before your WRFI course. But most importantly.. have fun! It’s an incredible opportunity that only brings more and more good things to come and great connections. And I’m so happy that I did it!
Thanks Erica, for being in touch!
Wild Rockies Field Institute: What course did you take and when?
Ty Zwick: Colorado Plateau: Desert Canyons & Cultures 2013. That was my last semester. I did my capstone in the month and a half before I left on the trip, and then when I finished the trip I was done. We were in Happy Canyon or canoeing when everyone else was walking for graduation!
Degree at MSU?
What have you been up to since your time at MSU?
I graduated. I took a sabbatical this year, worked part time jobs, moved around. I’ve worked as a camp counselor, outdoor educator, intern for a teen leadership program, and traveled. Last summer I worked for Custer State Park as their water and wastewater systems technician.
Why did you chose WRFI?
Luck! I had gone to a couple presentations, but it never worked out monetarily. I wanted to do it but I was at a stage where I was apathetic. Then I realized I can pick stuff up more and when you set your mind to something it can be achievable. A friend of mine was going to go to an information session, she was a WRFI alum from the Environmental Ethics course. After the presentation I realized I really wanted to do this [WRFI]. I had quit my job so I could focus on school and I hadn’t had any student loans up to that point. I decided, Well, I think this will be worth it. In a lot of ways it was like my study abroad. Studying abroad didn’t necessarily make sense to an environmental studies degree because I think we need to have a better sense of place, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to travel all over the world when considering the environmental ethics of it. There’s so much to see just two hours from here, I wanted to see what was in our own backyard.
Favorite or most memorable section?
It was all excellent. A couple of highlights was getting snowed on during our rest day at French Spring before we hiked up and out to the Ranger Station. That afternoon, all the snow was gone, it was cool how the landscape reverted. We had some personality conflicts within our group but the fact of us all pulling together, my classmates supporting me and supporting each other and also supporting the conflict. We came together as a group and put everything we had into finishing the course together.
Academically what topic did you most connect with?
Indigenous knowledge of a place, and the study of how the indigenous people knew what type of weather led to what results, they knew how the seasonal and yearly rotations occurred. They had a finger on the pulse of everything. It’s tempting to say we are environmentally removed, but there’s still nature to be found in those areas.
Tell me about your WRFI instructors
All the instructors were great as far as striking the balance with being students, instructors and leaders and also being our peers. They made sure there was continuity between sections.
If you could return to one part of your course, what would it be?
I’d like to go redo the entire course!
It was gorgeous and we had plenty of time on course to do everything. I’d like to go back and do it at my own pace and wander more, maybe bring a rope and do some exploring that we weren’t allowed to do for very good reason on the course. I wish we could do a class reunion. It was a small group and it was really fun. It would be cool to go back and do a trip with all of them. You are living with those people for two months and you get to know them well, then you get scattered back to your corner of the world and it’s hard to stay in touch. Nothing can ever replace face to face time.
What is your dream job or career?
I would envision myself going back and getting a Masters and hopefully having my teaching credential. I’d like to work in experiential education. I’d like to bring ideas of the unschooling movement, homeschool and coalesce them into something tangible. I’d really try and bring that tangible learning ideally into mainstream public school. I think it is something that everyone needs. I’d like to bring the movement that came from organizations like WRFI and bring that into the normal classroom.
Was WRFI your first experience with experiential education?
I had worked as a counselor so I knew what I was doing was experiential education, but WRFI was the first time I did something that was branded that way.
What advice would you give to a student considering a WRFI course?
Stop thinking and just do it. You will always find reasons not to do something. If it’s something that remotely interests you, try it. That’s why I’ve had a diverse work resume, I’ve applied because it looks interesting and tried it out. Just try it! That’s the motto of experiential education – you’re not going to know until you try it and know for yourself.
Favorite part of being a MSU Bobcat?
The diversity of activities and people. Bozeman attracts all different people and has a diverse student population and many people bring different experiences to the school. They want something new. Some people are from very small towns, some from big cities. Everyone is discovering something new. Also, I’ve managed to do skiing, rock climbing and go mountain biking in a single day without feeling rushed!
Ty in Short
Favorite MT/UT plant: Mormon Tea.
Next adventure: This summer I’m doing a human powered trip to Granite Peak, inspired by a trip in the Bomb Snow magazine. It’ll be around 280 miles round trip biking just to get to the trailhead. It’s the tallest peak in Montana, out in the Beartooths.
Dream adventure: Mountain bike tour across the world. Just my mountain bike and bare essentials.
Favorite MSU professor: There have been so many great ones. But probably my advisor, Teresa Greenwood. She enabled me to take whatever class I wanted to and helped me apply it to my major which gave me a diverse education. She enabled me to knock out everything I needed so I could graduate right after WRFI. She was a champ!
Favorite outdoor sport: Mountain biking, by far.
Item you don’t go backpacking without: I have a little fuzz ball that I glued two googly eyes to. I started it when I first started going to summer camp because I missed my dog. My mom gave me a brown fuzz with google eyes and it’s remained in my pack ever since.
Celebrity/famous person to have lunch with: Edward Abbey
Most recent/current book you are reading: I’m re-reading The Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley
Fun Fact About Yourself: I’ve stepped foot in North Korea!
Thanks Ty, for catching up with the Wild Rockies Field Institute!
Myles Keating is an Montana State/Wild Rockies alum, ski shop extraordinaire and passionate about outdoor education. He and I sat down and chatted about his experience on Montana Afoot & Afloat and beyond. Thanks for catching up with WRFI, Myles!
Wild Rockies Field Institute: When you were looking at WRFI at what point were you at in your education and why did you chose WRFI?
Myles Keating: I was a junior and I had previously done a Semester at Sea. The outdoor education model is so much more valuable to me than a standard on campus education to me. I saw WRFI, looked into it. I wrote some essays so I could afford it [laughs] then went on the course. I would’ve done the rest of my schooling through WRFI if I was allowed.
What in your course was the most memorable section and why?
I really liked the Bob [Marshall] because I had been dreaming about going there. I liked them all… I have vivid memories of each section. I really liked the Bob Marshall because I really like backpacking. We were out eight days, did a big circle. The day when we went over Lookout Pass into Mausch basin was definitely memorable. It was raining and it was a push for a top, we sent it. Then when we got to the top it cleared off and we could look out into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the other direction was the prairie. It was really cool. And then we saw wild horses.
Academically, what was your favorite topic studied on course?
Really connecting with the energy needs – coal – was really cool. Touring an open pit mine was like being a kid in a sandbox, these trucks are sweet! Touring the power plant in Bilings that is going to be mothballed, that was interesting too. I’ve followed that in the news since. Connecting with day-to-day news that I can now follow and really understand. WRFI did a really good job with showing both sides. We toured the coal fired power plant and then met with the Northern Plains Resource Council. It showed that there is somewhere to meet inbetween. When you first look at WRFI you might think oh it’s just a hippie college thing but I appreciate how they try to show both sides of an issue and make you think.
What was your favorite and least favorite WRFI meal?
We somehow missed packing a dinner on the Missouri. We pooled together what we had and we made fondue. We double boiled a bunch of different cheeses and dipped into it. I think that could be both [favorite and least favorite]!
What did you think about the Missouri River?
It changed my perspective about the eastern part of Montana. You’re down on the river and the plains are above you. It almost looks mountainous because the drainages come down to the river. I thought, ‘Eastern Montana is beautiful!” On that same note, I saw prickly pear cactus for the first time. That turned on a big light bulb in my head where I realized I hadn’t really seen anything in this state yet. It [Montana] is so big! It’s a constant reminder when I see them around here that there is so much to learn, we don’t really know much. It keeps me humble.
What have you done since your WRFI course?
I graduated in environmental studies this December. I’ve been working in a ski/bike shop and the summer after my course I got on a path to graduate so I took summer classes. I came back and realized how close I was and took a full load and graduated. I’m proud of that.
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to explore environmental education. I applied for the internship with the 2015 Montana Afoot & Afloat course this fall. The amount of doors there are if you’re able to see it at the time during WRFI are huge. Even just small jobs. But there’s so much value in outdoor education and I’d like to be a part of that. I’d like to start getting certifications like my Wilderness First Responder. I know that I need to be outside using my body, that’s when I’m the happiest.
What’s been your biggest accomplishment since finishing your WRFI course?
Graduating college! WRFI helped give me direction and I realized how much I like outdoor education – I’m early interested in group dynamics and how groups change during those experiences. In that short period of time everyone got so close and you’re forced to help each other and be friends. The value of being outside, the skills, life lessons and societal issues you learn about out there, you can’t do that on campus. There’s a big disconnect out there between students and the natural world around them. If I can help other young adults get some education outdoors, that’s what I’d like to do.
Myles in Short
Favorite backcountry food item: Tortillas. Man, the utility of tortillas! I have to thank Ben Johnson for that.
Favorite Montana Plant: The prickly pear cactus.
Favorite MSU Professor/Advisor: Teresa Greenwood in Liberal Studies, she helped me along and would tell me I was going to finish no problem and was doing great stuff. I needed to hear that, because I was in a time when I didn’t know if I wanted to finish school or not.
Upcoming adventure: A skiing trip with my dad to Alaska. Hopefully I’ll come back, maybe not.
Dream adventure: Sail from Vancouver to South America with climbing gear, snowboard gear, mountain bike, surfboard.
Favorite outdoor sport: Backpacking and split board touring. I’ve been wanting to do a solo, couple-day backcountry trip.
Celebrity you’d like to have dinner with: Jeremy Jones – the big mountain snowboarder one.
Most recent read: The Last Child Left in the Woods. It was really good!
Favorite part of being a MSU Bobcat: The outdoors! Even simple things, like if I get frustrated I can hop on my bike and go outside and get my head back in the right place.
Random Fact: I spell my name with a ‘y’ because I’m named after my Grandfather who was a commander on the Mayflower.
Over at the Wild Rockies Field Institute, we love catching up with our alumni! On a cloudy Monday in Bozeman, Montana I was able to sit down and chat with Rae Fitzpatrick, alumna of Montana Afoot & Afloat (MTAA) 2012. Rae, a wildland firefighter by summer and MSU environmental studies student by winter had some great insight into her experience during and after her WRFI course.
WRFI: When you were looking at WRFI what point were out at in your education and why did you chose MTAA?
Rae Fitzpatrick: I was a freshman and chose the course because it was a compromise between classes that I wanted to take and being outside. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point and WRFI was great because I got to be outside, which I knew I wanted to do, but also got to earn college credit. It was like, parents look, I’m doing college! [Laughs]. It was a perfect way to discover if environmental sciences is something I actually wanted to do or not, and it definitely was a big factor in helping me decide it was a topic I want to study.
What was your favorite/least-favorite WRFI meal?
One night we made pasta. I’m gluten intolerant and WRFI didn’t this amazing job of making everything gluten free. We had gluten free pasta with veggies and a bunch of cheese and it was on the Yellowstone, it was so delicious.
For least favorite… I remember in the Bob [Marshall] we brought five or six heads of cabbage – so much cabbage- and it came out towards the end of that section that none of us like cabbage! The meals still turned out fine, just that isolated cabbage portion wasn’t so great.
Is there one item you wish you had had on your course?
More peanut butter! I was always rationing out peanut butter so carefully each day. I was thinking, this has to last the whole time! If I had brought two, I might have been happier in some small sense.
Thinking back on your instructors, are there any moments that have stayed with you?
With Brian [Chazar], he maneuvered through decision making on the course so well. There’s one moment that Catie DeMets [another student on course] talk about still. One night in the Beartooths after it had gotten warmer we had a fire and he read Aldo Leopold’s excerpt about the wolf with green eyes and some other parts of the Sand Country Almanac. It was such a perfect moment and he really cultivated that with our readings. That stood out to me.
What was the most memorable section for you?
The Yellowstone section – I’m petrified of water. So there was a lot of very life changing situations [laughs] that helped me get over that fear. Everyone was so supportive and understanding, they really helped me. They would talk about experiences where they were really scared. I think back on that because it helps me deal with a continuing fear of water and other things. And floating through Billings on the Yellowstone River, everything smelled and looked industrial, you would see pipes leading from factories into the water, strange smells, the water was noticeably warmer. That was bizarre because when you drive past it you barely notice.
Also, spending time in Lame Deer and doing a sweat lodge – that was so amazing to be welcomed into a culture and a culture that we’re surrounded by. It was amazing to experience that.
What was the most memorable part of your course academically?
We read a couple Barry Lopez pieces and I can always connect with that author the most. And the environmental ethics section, that was really cool.
You work as a wildland firefighter in the summer, did you do that before WRFI too?
Yup! I worked on Helena and now Lewis and Clark but they’ve combined districts.
How did those two interact? Did that experience give you confidence coming into WRFI?
I had done outdoor stuff before that but going into WRFI after a fire season showed me how many different fields there are within a very broad topic of environmentalism. Fire is a small, isolated world so for me it was going from one outdoor thing to another but they were so different that it was an adaptation. But it made me think, I can go hiking for way different purposes!
What’s your favorite part about being a MSU Bobcat?
Living in Livingston! MSU is an awesome location and there’s a ton of people who are excited about being outside so there’s a cool community around that.
Favorite animal: Bobcat
Favorite outdoor sport: Backpacking or skiing, it’s a tie
Favorite outdoor author/book: The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs
Favorite MSU professor: Tony Hartshorn, he taught my soils class.
Favorite backcountry food: Chocolate. I always bring chocolate anytime I’m in the backcountry.
Number one returning to the front country treat?: Bacon cheeseburger!
Item you don’t go backpacking without: Journal
Favorite plant: Ponderosa pine and Indian paintbrush.
Next adventure: I’m planning two: one for a backpacking trip in New Mexico and one to the Black Hills in South Dakota for a race.
Next dream adventure: Nepal! I’d love to go trekking in the Himalayas.
Thanks Rae, for keeping us posted on where life has taken you since WRFI!
WRFI loves hearing about our alumni’s adventures after their course. Cory Zyla was a student on 2008′s Cycle the Rockies: Energy and Climate Change in Montana course. This excerpt from an e-mail he sent us shows all the places you can go with a WRFI education!
WRFI is an exceptional organization. The course materials, the staff, the instructors, the students, the people you will likely meet on your trip, are all truly remarkable. In fact, by the end of my own course it was apparent that my instructors (the amazing David Morris and Nicky Phear) are actually the bleeding-edge of human evolution: higher intelligence, superior fitness, strong leaders, social butterflies, good looks, and more! You are learning from the best with WRFI. But it’s a vicious world out there, and not all of us are so evolved, so what you really need to know is how a buffoon such as I benefited from the WRFI experience.
WRFI developed many skill-sets that have proven incredibly useful to both me and the various organizations I have had the privilege of working for. Since joining the 2008 WRFI Cycle the Rockies crew, I have collected large amounts of environmental field data with a county in Washington State and later a non-governmental organization in El Salvador, wrote a book on water resources management with one university and later researched the environmental and socio-economic impacts of drought with another, and assessed the environmental impacts of small hydropower projects with a private consulting firm. I am currently working as a Technical Advisor with the Nunavut Water Board in Canada in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut (Google it and see the location! A wonderful place to live and experience the increasingly visible effects of climate change). My WRFI experience better prepared me for each and every one of these work experiences.
WRFI teaches you work as a group. WRFI teaches you to challenge yourself. WRFI teaches you innovation. WRFI teaches you outdoor skills. WRFI teaches you social skills. WRFI teaches you patience. WRFI teaches you perseverance. WRFI teaches you the benefits of delaying gratification. WRFI teaches you practical knowledge of contemporary problems and integrated solutions for addressing them. WRFI teaches you to question everything (including YOU. You are actually, in fact, wrong about many things… quite often. Who knew!?).
So, if you’ve read this far, and I still haven’t successfully convinced you of the value of WRFI courses, just know that the 30 days I spent in the Cycle the Rockies course were among my favorite. Sign up!
Thanks Cory! For more information about Cycle the Rockies and WRFI’s other courses, check out http://www.wrfi.net/courses/index.html.