Awesome Alumni: Catching up with Rae Fitzpatrick, Montana Afoot & Afloat 2012


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.

Rae’s Favorites!

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!


Harrison Tiffany: The Big Muddy’s Mud

harry“Looks like you owe us a six-pack when the course is over Sabrina!” Poor Sabrina had stepped out of her kayak as we all pulled over to investigate an abandoned homestead along the river. She had placed her foot on what she thought was a compact surface, only to be deceived by many layers of mud that can give way. As she struggled to pull one foot free from the mud the other would sink in farther until grit and muscle came together to pull free her boots and wade to firmer ground. The Alaskan tradition of favors being called after a friend fills their rubber boots with water has made its way from the North Pacific to the banks of the Missouri River in central Montana. The boots though are not filled with the salt brine of the ocean but with the dark, silt rich waters of the Missouri River. This river has been known nationally as the “Big Muddy” since Mark Twain’s time, but one cannot understand how appropriate this name is until they themselves sink foot, ankle, calf, and knee into this mud. Some made scorn the sucking silt mud, but the mud is vital to the life along its riparian corridor, which supports the very ecology of the “Breaks” area of central Montana.

The riparian corridor the snakes down the white cliffs and breaks section of the Missouri River supports a very unique biological community with the ever moving mud at its center. One of the most important parts of the Missouri’s riparian ecosystem is the cottonwood galleries. These cottonwood trees are large and give shade to the grasses so that they do not lose too much moisture to the sun’s heating rays. The better grasses and the shade attract a multitude of animals such as deer, elk, cattle, and coyotes. The trees help transform the river bottom to a lush oasis in contrast to the surrounding sagebrush desert.

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Ali Colbert: There’s No Place Like Home, but Does Home Have a Place?

aliAfter a jam-packed day of driving through the plains, our van turned the corner into the campground of the tiny town of Choteau, Montana and our instructor exclaimed, “Home sweet home!” My immediate thought was, home? A few measly tents scattered around some picnic tables in this middle of nowhere town, and we’re calling this home?

Then another quote popped into my head. “Home is where the heart is.” And I thought, my initial criticism couldn’t be more wrong.  We spent nine days backpacking in the Badger Two Medicine wilderness.  Together we climbed up and over the high elevation passes, across ice-cold alpine streams, through the tall grasses of native wildflower, all while absorbing the incredible plains and mountain front views along the way.  There’s not a doubt in my mind that this region of Montana has a piece of my heart and I can call it home with ease.

I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, New York and spent summers and winters exploring the mountains of Stowe, Vermont. The roots I formed in these two places taught me that my sense of “home” couldn’t be limited to a single place. Just as this portion of Montana that we backpacked and lived in for over a week has recently become a part of this list, I’m constantly on the search for more places to feel at home.

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Erik McLaury: The Wild Balance in the West


As we took the final steps to crest Badger Pass, a freight train of wind blasted through us, turning hoods inside out, slicking hair back, and freezing hands blue with cold. We had finally made it –on day 3 of 9- to the top of our first vista in the Badger Two Medicine wilderness in the Rocky Mountain Front Range. Standing amongst the ancient and gnarled Whitebark Pine, I saw smiles erupt on each and every face, a scene so perfectly lit with the late summer sun and a backdrop made up of the fabled Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, perhaps the most remote and rugged landscape in the lower 48.

On that September afternoon, the wind blew something more than just a chill into my bones. Some might call it deja-vu, others a waking dream. What I felt was something deeply embedded in body, something written into my DNA, something that the wild landscape that was spread out in front of me unlocked and let leap out. It was pure Nirvana. Genuine enlightenment. A resounding state of bliss, traced back to origins of humanity.

Wilderness is my church. My holy place. My sanctuary. And I’m not alone in this feeling. All human beings thrive off the wonder of the wilds. Humanity’s roots are planted far more firmly in a natural landscape than even the sturdiest skyscraper’s foundation. Our connection with the land has been developed over hundreds of thousand of years, dwarfing the short time we’ve locked ourselves up in an industrialized landscape. We all rely on nature- and not just for sustenance. There have been scores of psychological studies done around the world, all of which starkly suggest our mental well-being relies on the natural world. Our minds thrive out in the deep woods and high atop mountains.

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Maisie Powell: A Wild Classroom

bisonAs ten of us sit in our open-air classroom by the banks of the Lamar River in Yellowstone, we find ourselves discussing the meaning of the word “wild.”  In today’s society with our species management, massive irrigation projects, and other controls over the natural world, is there anything left that is truly wild?  One student mentions the lack of wilderness left in National Parks.  We notice a herd of bison grazing in the nearby meadow.  Is Yellowstone wild or is it more of an outdoor museum with nature on display?  Recalling the swarms of tourists in the information centers and the gawking photographers lined up on the side of the road, a ranger standing guard, making sure park visitors don’t get too close to a mama black bear and her cubs, we question how much of this place remains wild.  Class pauses for a nature moment; the bison have moved from hanging out by our tents a few hundred yards away to one of them now grazing only about a hundred yards from class.  We watch silently as the bison flops down, wallowing in a patch of dirt.  Keeping a watchful eye on the approaching bison, we continue our discussion.  The bison inches closer.  Too distracted to finish our thoughts or sentences, we contemplate our next move.  This bison clearly wants to hang out in our campsite, and who can blame him?  Surrounded by mountains, a clear view of the river, shade from towering lodgepole pines, and a nice smoothed out stump, buffed from years of itchy bison backs.  There isn’t a better place to be.  Class ends abruptly as we gather our things, relocating to the edge of camp, watching the bison graze through camp, working his way over to rub his back against the old, smoothed out stump.

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Nate Winch: Yellowstone’s Charismatic Megafauna

nateThe wolf and the bison share similar pasts, and hopeful futures. The Grey Wolf, and other subspecies, were aggressively hunted and eradicated from East to West, a task completed around 1960. The bison was nearly eradicated in seven short years in the 1860s. The motive behind the killing of both the wolf and bison was progress. Progress, at the time, was seen as fewer predators and more game, less bison meaning less competition for grass and land.

In Yellowstone National Park we read a lot about wolves. Wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone and Idaho, and now number in the thousands throughout the West. We met with Rick McIntyre, the resident wolf expert at the park. The experience was a bit touristy, seeing as we simply got out of the van and listened to him talk. From hearing him talk, the integration in the wolves’ relationships was clear. Seeing other tourists, rightfully titled wolf watchers, who chase wolves around the park in their cars and communicate with one another via radio, the extent that humans anthropomorphize wolves was obvious, whether it’s the big bad wolf of fairy tales or the individual personality given to them by wolf watchers. In reality the wolf is a wild animal just like the bison and should be treated as such, with the intrinsic right to live as a wild animal.

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Rachael Balinsky: Friday Nights

rachael blog picWhen I think of a Friday night, I picture tailgates, barbecues and local sports events. Out here, on the Charles M. Russell Refuge near Malta, Montana, Friday night entertainment comes with a herd of elk. Dozens of trucks swarmed the reserve, each supplied with a coolers, bug spray, and a couple of lawn chairs. Families, couples, elders, and kids all gathered to come and witness these large, enchanting animals during their mating season, known as the rut. Beer and binoculars were passed around and each person was cheering for a different male elk to win over the highest numbers of female. Pure American spirit was the vibe on the prairie, and for a short second I felt back at home at one of the college football games.

As I gazed into the field, stunned at the amount of elk (since I had never seen one before), I witnessed the struggle that all male species face; winning over the females’ attention. The male elk strut their overly large antlers, bugling as loud as they can to prove their strength and size. They urinate on themselves and roll in the mud, a term called wallowing, because apparently to female elk this is very attractive. Each male had his own harem, or herd of women, and some had many more than others. It was a fight to keep your ladies and stop the other males from stealing them. This is where the entertainment comes from – the fights, the struggle, and the dominant male. The crowds roar for the battles, cheers for specific elk, and anxiously wait to see how this wild act of nature will play out. I even found myself cheering for the one male elk that had a smaller harem than the rest, because of course; I’m always rooting for the underdog.

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