Michaela Brumbaugh: A Testimonial, a Journal Entry, and a Poem


WRFI loves receiving updates from our alumni!  It’s particularly meaningful to hear about how their courses have impacted their lives once they’re back at home.  Michaela is a University of Arizona student and participated on WRFI’s 2012 “Wild Rockies Summer Semester.”


When Bethany Swanson first came into my anthropology class, the upper division course that as a freshman I was not supposed to be in, I had no idea she would change my life. A bright and early 8am class, she cracked a huge grin and I wondered how much coffee it took to get her here in front of us, I myself was gripping a thermos full of it. She proceeded to greet us and delve into details of a program that greatly appealed to me. It was called the Wild Rockies Field Institute and all of their courses were conservation themed field classes.

The options that you could choose from for your field course included all of the things I had grown up doing outside of class with my family: kayaking, biking, camping, hiking, etc. I had never dreamed that the activities I dabbled in outside of class could ever mesh with learning in class. Yet here she was, proposing just that, and I knew I had to be a part of it. I spoke to her after her presentation and got myself well on the way to signing up for a two-week restoration ecology course. It was not in the cards for me to go on that trip, with too low of enrollment, instead destiny had it that I go on a two month course; little did I know the impact it would have on my life decisions.

Before my WRFI course experience, I felt that I was still a youth. I felt that my ideals and lifestyle were determined by me but that that was the only way I had power. After my experience I realized that I could affect change in more ways than just through how I live my life. I have shared my readings with my family. I have turned three different households of highly right-wing conservative college students to recycling, in homes where that idea would have been utter nonsense before. I voted for the first time since I turned 18 and had registered, and I convinced everyone of age that I spoke to about voting to do so. I know I can reach those that I elect through citizen letters, and thanks to my WRFI course, I know how to write them. I got my grandfather to cancel his newspaper subscription so he now gets paperless news online. I decided to preceptor for a Soil, Water, and Environmental Science class for the Fall semester where I shared my summer conservation experiences with Shell Canada, Jumbo Valley, and organic farming with the class and my honors section. These are just some of the ways that I have been affecting change since I got back from my trip, and it will continue to grow as my life progresses, because I realize now that even these little things matter.

For me, it’s been the greatest accomplishment and adventure of my life thus far. It’s been little more than five months since returning home from the backcountry but I talk about it every day. I don’t just talk, I revel. I remember and reflect. The return has been just as impactful so far as the experience itself. I am adjusting to the return with this knowledge and different more economical lifestyle.

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Poetry of Place: Alaska Rainforest 2012 Group Poem


Going home but never forgetting,

I rose in a rainforest every morning.

Thinking back to the crescendo of ecology, the harmony of nature, the syncopation of landscape, the rhythm of wilderness.

It’s beauty will forever call to me for I find I cannot live without thee.

Dig your spirit in the sand and consider that the tern can fly from here to the end of the Earth, what can’t the living do?


By Will, Max, Sabrina, Helena, Ian, Patrick and Liz

Anna Finkenauer: Life, Simplified

It stands before me; green, waist high and threatening explosion. Pressure from within is causing bulging and stretching on its surface. It weighs 50, maybe 55 pounds, but has the ability to make me crumble underneath it. No, it is not some crazy backcountry creature. It is my backpack, my source of survival for our 8 day journey through the Beartooth Wilderness.

I lift it and groan. I tried so hard to make it smaller and lighter. I don’t like seeing it bulge at the seams, but I could not eliminate one more thing. I had simplified until I could simplify no more. Each and every item within held a purpose for my well-being for the next 8 days and I finally felt ready to go. Like a turtle, I walked off into the wilderness with my home on my back, ready for just about anything nature could throw at me.

Packing for this trip was in and of itself a journey for me. Sitting in my room at home, I was utterly overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I have collected in it over the years. It all seemed so important, but I knew I was going to need to leave the majority of it behind. I was worried I was going to miss it all too much, but when I put on my backpack and stepped out my front door, an amazing feeling washed over me. I realized that I was completely self-sufficient for the first time ever. I could literally go anywhere with just the things on my back and be able to survive. I had never felt such a sense of freedom before.

As I walk along the trail today, carrying everything with me, I cannot help but to think of the plains Indians. Before white settlers came to this area, they must have been one of the freest civilizations in history. They were a nomadic people, constantly following the buffalo: their source of food, clothing, shelter and tools. They were always on the move and as a result could not amass loads of material goods because they could not carry it all. However, they were still able to live a culturally rich and satisfying lifestyle with what they had. I think we can all learn from them that having more does not necessarily mean for a better way of life.

There are many people, myself included, who could benefit from having less. America, in particular, is a country full of houses with too much stuff. Just watch an episode of TLC’s hit show “Hoarders” and you can see just how out of control this problem has become for some people. It is not just a personal problem, either. From an environmentalist’s perspective, the creation and distribution of all these items is a nightmare. The metals used to create all the TVs we have sitting around did not just magically appear. Somebody had to dig deep into the earth and extract them all in some way, probably destroying an ecosystem in the process. I hold no grudges against TVs, I think they can be an incredibly useful tool in our culture, but I don’t think we need as many as most of us have in our homes. If we took the time to simplify, we would probably find that having just one per household would not drastically affect our quality of life.

For me, it boils down to a simple equation: too much stuff= too many problems= stress. When my only possessions can fit on my back, my life seems open and limitless. My pack may look like a volcano ready to erupt, but when I think about all the stuff I have in my house, I become aware that what I am carrying is just a small fraction of it all. My packing journey has forced me to reassess my life and all the things that are in it. If what I have on my back is all I need to survive, why do I have a whole house full of stuff as well? After out Beartooth backpacking adventure, I really don’t know why. There is no doubt that those items at home provide me with comfort, but are they holding me back in some way from leading a more independent and free lifestyle? I honestly cannot say for sure at this point in my life, but for now I am going to try to enjoy the last few weeks of my simplified Montana lifestyle and hope that my backpack will forgive me.

Lecture: To the Summit! Mountaineering and Responsibilty to the Planet

WRFI always loves hearing stories and insights from those who spend time in the mountains. This lecture, hosted by the Global Leadership Initiative, features world class mountaineers Conrad Anker (captain of the North Face Athlete Team), Peter Metcalf (CEO of Black Diamond Equipment) and Rick Reese (mountaineer and climbing ranger). Check it out, Nov 2nd, 7 PM in Urey Hall!

Flyer for Metcalf_Anker_Reese

Lincoln Frasca: Moods of the Mountains

When your toes are numb with cold, and your Nalgene is frozen shut, it becomes hard to believe that only a couple of days ago it was seventy degrees and you were swimming in the blue waters of Mystic Lake. October third, our second day in the Absaroka- Beartooth Wilderness of Custer National Forest I awoke to the first snow flakes of the season. That cheery feeling of Christmas morning (or Hanukkah eve) filled the air. We spent the morning sipping coffee and hot chocolate while the snow continued to pile up. By the time afternoon rolled around I measured two and a half inches of snowfall. It was time to explore this winter wonderland and we geared up for a two-mile hike to the end of Mystic Lake.

The cold was beginning to sink in but walking helped to warm up my feet. We padded silently through the forest as the snow fell in slow motion, eventually settling perfectly on the drooping branches of the Englemann Spruce tress that lined the trail. The tracks of deer hooves and Snow-Shoe Hare paws were already imprinted in the freshly fallen snow. The air was crisp and still; the forest was alive. That night I fell asleep toasty in my Marmot zero degree sleeping bag with thoughts of amazement at how suddenly the seasons had changed.

The next morning the mood of the Mountains had not changed and the mood of in our group was about to be put to the test. The snow had not stopped falling and the temperature dropped dramatically overnight. The snow no longer seemed like a novelty, but more like a new friend who was overstaying his or her welcome. To move camp, or not to move camp? was the question. The group’s feelings were split, half wanted to hunker down and wait out the storm. While the others wanted to continue backpacking on our planned route. As the Leader-of-the-day (LOD) I made the decision, in the name of adventure and staying warm, to forge onwards. I led the team on a grueling four mile bushwhack through dense riparian brush, over slippery rocks, and onto our final destination at the edge of Island Lake. Tired, cold, and hungry we set up cam in the trees where we would be protected from the whipping wind coming of the lake.

Over the next day and a half I learned a valuable lesson about the power of mountains as well as the power of indoor heating…

With a forest-wide fire wide ban in effect there was nowhere to dry off our wet bones. Staying warm became a full time job. The clouds didn’t lift for another full day, and goup moral reached an all time low. With no weather channel to check there was no end in sight. I began to understand how much we depend on the sun for not only heat, but really for the hope of a new day.

“Survival” was the new buzz word around camp. Jumping-jacks, emergency blankets, and long dancing games of “Big-Booty” helped us fight the cold and keep spirits high. Unable to sit outside for long enough, class was held in one three-person tent. Only there were ten of us, and even huddled all together in the tent, the cold found us.

Finally, on the morning of October sixth the sky was blue and the sun smiled down on us. However, this did not mean the cold was over. Any warm air that had previously been trapped by the clouds was now free to rise, allowing even colder air to sink down and test us. Nonetheless, the mountain’s mood had changed and so had ours. We left camp, hiking fast and strong with new vigor. Island Lake was now completely frozen! Even more impressive were the, now visible, Beartooth Mountains that surrounded the Lake and were covered in snow.

Lunch that day was nothing short of magical. On the beach of Island Lake the sun beat down on us as if making up for lost time. Our laughter rang loud across the lake; at last we were totally warm and dry!! In modern society we heat our houses and cars allowing us to remain at the same dull temperature year-round. But how can you truly appreciate being warm, if you’ve never gone to sleep cold? Excuse the catchphrase but, “You don’t know what you got till’ its gone.” For this reason I will never take our mighty sun for granted again.

Keep in mind our backpack trip was only seven days. Throughout this course we have learned about and spoken with Native Americans who have endured Montana’s harsh winters for centuries. Natives believe people and the environment are one and the same. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or T.E.K., is the indigenous was of knowing and it has nothing to do with Western Science. TEK consists of ever changing knowledge, acquired directly from the land. The deep internalized respect I gained in just seven days for something as simple as sunshine, is minuscule when compared with the environmental understanding Native’s have acquired over a lifetime.

While visiting the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, MT we met with a Native herbalist; Pauline Matt. Pauline has dedicated her life to raising awareness about the negative human and environmental impacts from oil fracking. Pauline spoke of her childhood, and sixteen brothers and sisters. She told us about how when she was young her father would send her and all her siblings out into the meadows saying, “the mountains will take care of them.”

This is the type of knowledge that needs to be accepted and applied to seeking solutions to our modern ecological crisis.

Catie DeMets: The Bob Marshall

On September 1st, the day after our uphill climb, we awoke to a stunning sunrise in the mountain meadow at the Nanny Creek headwaters. It rained the night before, clearing the summery smoke blown toward us from a forest fire in Idaho and making way for autumn. Indeed, the chilly y air had a decidedly autumnal feel as we sat in a circle having a morning discussion of plant ecology and biodiversity. As a prelude to our plant study assignment that we’d spend most of the day completing, our instructors, Dave and Brooke, introduced us to the idea of ecological refugia. Defined as a protective growing environment where an organism can retreat to when its normal environment is disturbed, an ecological refugium houses a unique set of organisms. Perhaps our meadow was a prime example of one.

We concluded our discussion for the morning, and Rosie, Robert, and I spent some time doing yoga in the browning grasses of the meadow. The past few days had been a taxing transition for each of us, who traveled from far away to be in this new place, to sleep in tents on chilly nights with people we didn’t yet know, and to think of how we could have been comfortably moving back to college with our friends. But at last, we were settling into our new tent-dwelling existence and beginning to focus on the environment around us. I meditated upon this as I held downward dog pose alongside a person who I just met last week.
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