Awesome Alumni: Ty Zwick, Colorado Plateau 2013


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?

Environmental Studies

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!


Access into the Wild: Kelsey Mortensen and Nico Matallana

Halfmoon Pass. Big Snowy Mountains.  The sign said one mile, but it was definitely more than that.  Thinking like I’d never make it, I was surprised to reach the pass in the end.  Amazed, our group looked down upon a basin lined with snow-capped rocky peaks, but more impressively, the golden prairie shown at the end of the drainage.  Only a day and a half ago, we’d been on the other side of the island mountain range speaking with a local snowmobile enthusiast in Lewistown, Montana.  This leader in the snowmobile community expressed his deep love for these mountains and the joys of accessing them with his machine.  In the next few days we explored what it means to recreate in an access controversial area.

Photo by Ben Johnson

For a 24 hour period, each member of our small group set off on foot to spend a night alone.  Completely self-reliant, Continue reading

Chelsea Johnson: Permanence on the Prairie

In downtown White Sulphur Springs, most storefronts are empty. The short buildings hunch over their dusty windows, making themselves as small as possible as if apologizing for their sorry state. Weeds grow alongside the streets and at buildings’ edges. In the closed taxidermist shop, frozen raccoon and deer stare out with blank eyes at the cracked and crumbling sidewalk.


At one end of the block is an abandoned western wear store, once located in the lower story of a red stone building. Continue reading

Becca Sinichko: An Analysis of the ICP (Insane Cow Posse)


It all started as a joke while floating down the Missouri.  Rendered speechless by the white sandstone cliffs that humbled the river, a cry of bewilderment broke the silence.  “Cows!”  Sure enough among all the cottonwoods and tucked between the breaks were herds of cattle.  Mark, the BLM ranger we talked to before beginning our trip had warned us that ranchers had let their cattle back to the waters edge, now that tourist season was over.  I guess they no longer had to pretend this landscape was pristine.  I still never expected to see them every quarter mile.  They must not have expected to see us either.  Occasionally they got worked up at our appearance, making ungodly noises until we were out of sight.  We joked that we had set the “cow alarm” off.  It may just have been a provoked response to my constant whistling, Nico’s singing, or the fact that Ben furiously played his harmonica at them.  Nonetheless the humor continued, narrating the life of the “Wild Cow” in an Australian accent and shouting Juggalo every time we saw a cow with a jet-black body and stark white face.  To be honest I spotted cattle and joked about the ICP more than any other animal along those banks.

In fact, I have seen more cows than any other mammal since WRFI began.  Cattle are the livelihood of this area.  They dominate the landscape, a symbol of the West… But they aren’t even from here!  Did you know they can’t be found in a single field guide of this area?  I tried. If they weren’t so bloody well known we would have no way to identify them.  Maybe their ability to stick out like a sore thumb here is why they’re so easy to make fun of in comparison to the other wildlife.  But are we naïve in our ability to joke about them so carelessly?  Some people say their presence fills the void left here by bison, but they leave behind a different footprint.  Grazing down the land, damaging riparian areas, compressing the soil and fragmenting the land as ranchers fence off field after field.  This is not a native relationship.  But they can’t be blamed.  Even I feel sorry for them, knowing they spend their last six months trapped in a feedlot in Nebraska.

The system is sick.  Invading the land as homesteaders, introducing foreign species and then ripping them away when it is no longer ideal.  Like the ICP the impacts we have overwhelmed this area with in the past 200 years are invasive.  We can’t keep treating the land and the animals here as a joke.  We need to adapt.

Nico Matallana & Chelsea Johnson: The Spirit of the Wilderness


“Alright guys, you need to make sure you have everything on the packing list.” It was the first day of WRFI and we were in a Missoula parking lot, surrounded by the piles of stuff we’d need for the next two months. We had synthetic rain gear, plastic tents, chemicals to purify our water, and apples from Fiji for lunch time snacks. With these, we’d surely be ready to create our own environmental ethic in Montana’s wilderness. Right?

Quickly, the illusion we had of primitive backcountry life was buried underneath our piles of gear. We wondered if it was valid to go into the wilderness with all this stuff. How would dragging our plastic stuff into the mountains teach us anything about being environmental?  Continue reading

Tiffany Chou: After the Fire


As we hiked through the charred remains of what was once a lush forest full of Englemann spruce, subalpine firs, and lodgepole pines, I felt the awe of Simba and Nala as they explored the Elephant Graveyard. The trees, dark and mangled, reached out with their spindley branches for their fallen friends. Those that had succumbed to the fire and could no longer stand lay on the blackened ground like obsidian alligators, their burnt, scaly bark reflecting the afternoon sunlight. In the Scapegoat Wilderness of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (1964 Wilderness Act), my best guess for the cause of the forest fire would be a lightning strike.

Standing among the burnt stands and seeing up close how a single spark grew to consume miles of 80 foot tall giants was both amazing and saddening at the same time.  Continue reading

Katie Hutchens: Labyrinth Canyon


John shuffles and spreads the animal medicine cards in a fan before me. Pausing for a few seconds, I carefully select one of thirty at random. Butterfly: the master of transformation. First an egg, then a larvae, a cocoon, and finally, a rebirth as a entirely new being. The card asks its receiver some questions. Is there a decision that needs to be made in your life, an idea that requires forming, or has that idea developed enough to share it with the world and make a difference in the lives of others?

The river is a master of transformation. As its waters ebb and flow with the seasons, the land around it succumbs to the powerful changes. The currents deposit cobbles and gravel on the outer curves, while the inlet banks form into vegetative beaches that gradually rise up the sides. The water has carved rock slowly but definitively, creating the steep canyon walls that we gaze up at while floating downstream in our canoes. Thinking of what this land looked liked thousands or millions of years ago seems impossible.

The riparian habitat lines the banks, gravitating toward its most crucial source of sustenance, water. This habitat, which makes up only about 3% of the land in this region, is essential to about 80% percent of the life. The river has ensured the vitality of its banks, changing what would be sand and a few shrubs, to a dense layer of plant and animal life. This section is the median between river and upland, the vital connection between desert and water body. This river has total control over its immediate environment. It is a master of transformation.

When the spring floods come, the banks drown in a rush of fresh snowmelt and rainwater, and the flora and fauna are more than happy to accept the high waters. Over time, they have adapted to depend on the seasons. Fremont cottonwood trees wait for the floods to disperse their seeds not only because the water will carry the seeds downstream, but in order to germinate, they must be implanted in wet soil. Understanding the control of the river, life willingly adjusts its ways to properly balance the ecosystem, and ensure its sustainability for the future. When the hot and dry summers roll around, the plants and animals are prepared to adapt once again to the rivers continual mood swings.

Butterflies undergo a process of transformation that begins the second they are laid as an egg. They grow into larvae, then a caterpillar, munching away at leaves carelessly. Suddenly, without ever knowing what they’ve been preparing for their whole lives, change is knocking at their door. But do they resist and stay a caterpillar forever or with no assurance of what the future holds, allow the new stage to take over and hope for the best? With an innate understanding, the worm locks itself away in hiding, far from the influence of others and completes a transformation it’s been waiting a lifetime to finish.

When we feel a change is coming, there is a desire to resist. We know we have to evaluate our lives, and act on it. Change is difficult; it challenges everything we’ve built up to that point and makes us uneasy of the future. It all comes down to this: those that resist the shifts get left behind. Those that embrace them with open arms and don’t look back not only last through the rough times, they emerge better than they ever thought was possible.