Jumbo: The Grizzly Bear’s home by Isabella Kallfelz

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Envision a pristine, sacred, protected land stretching for miles on end, providing a home for the grizzly bear, an important spiritual site for the Ktunaxa people, and a place for adventurers to seek their own sense of serenity. As our group hiked up to Jumbo cabin in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, our view was filled with mountains and glaciers that would leave you awestruck.

Can you picture this same wild land with a year-round ski resort, 22 lifts, 369 hotel rooms, 240 townhouse units & 974 hotel and condo units? As I sat atop Jumbo pass with my classmates, we stared at the mountain where this project has been proposed for the last 25 years and I thought about how this altered landscape would affect something other than my own experience.

One consequence of the Jumbo Resort would be the encroachment on one of the Ktunaxa peoples’ spiritual places. The grizzly bear holds much significance for the Ktunaxa people.

“For us the grizzly bear holds everything,” states a Ktunaxa tribal member.

The Ktunaxa tell the story of how the bears made room for the Ktunaxa ancestors in this valley. The Ktunaxa declared Qat’muk (upper part of Jumbo Creek Valley) as a refuge for both the grizzly bear & the grizzly bear spirit. The Jumbo Resort would impact the bear’s native habitat, hurt the grizzly bear spirit, and remove the current protection of religious and cultural sites.

The Jumbo Resort would also impact an important corridor for the grizzly bear.

“Essentially, bears offer a window into a larger, deeper environment of a landscape,” says Bruce Kirby. As an indicator species, the grizzly bear is a sign of how the landscape is functioning. Jumbo Resort is threatening one of the largest contiguous areas where bears still roam today. If the land was developed, the grizzly would have to migrate elsewhere and their habitat would become fragmented which could in turn affect the health of the species.

The views we see today include a breathtaking 360 degree view of the some of the largest glaciers in the Purcell Mountain Range. This may change within our very own generation. Townhouses, ski-lifts, half a million visitors a year, and a 55-kilometer road into the center of the Purcells would surely threaten the wild balance of this place. As British Columbia receives a new Premier, my hopes and the local’s hopes remain high for the continued protection of this spectacular place.

Shane Smith: Cycling Through History

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Everything that arises, decomposes. This is a simple, but overlooked reality of life. At first this may seem like a depressing thought, but when it settles in you realize it’s actually quite freeing. In fact, when you look at it from an ecological perspective it is a beneficial thing.

When we started out on our 35 mile backpacking journey through the Bob Marshall Wilderness we saw large swaths of burnt forest. We noticed that beneath these charred, dead trees were a variety of new plants including fields of strawberry, aspen, armies of young lodgepole pine, and many other low-lying shrubs. An important aspect to this successful forest re-growth was the mosaic the fire had created when it went through about seven years ago. When a fire burns a mosaic pattern, some areas are burned heavily, other areas are burned lightly and some areas are not burned at all. Later, we learned that habitat disturbance and subsequent rejuvenation is called succession and is essential for the continuing health of an ecosystem. Five weeks later, this lesson has come full circle with a reading on “panarchy,” which gives new meaning to the importance of rejuvenation in an ecosystem.

Panarchy is a theory proposed by Buzz Holling that states that all systems go through a phase of growth, a decrease in resiliency, a regrowth period, collapse, and then (hopefully) rejuvenation. This “new” system can be a little bit different, entirely different, or anywhere in between. According to Holling’s observations everything goes through this cycle, from the microscopic bacterial cycles that happen on the microsecond scale to the global climate cycles that happen on an epoch time scale. When these cycles are aligned, collapse events can be lined up, causing the rejuvenation process to become a lot harder.

In the Purcell Mountains, we saw this theory enacted first hand where whitebark pine was heavily infested by the mountain pine beetle. From afar it looked like an extremely hot and devastating fire went through, but as we came closer to the trees infected we could see the excessive sap on the trees that came down in defense and the many demarcations in the bark from successful sabotages. A warming global climate allowed for the mountain pine beetle to expand into whitebark pine habitats with populations that seemed to be growing exponentially. Specifically, the warming climate allowed lodgepole pine, a common attractor of mountain pine beetle, to grow into higher elevations where whitebark pine would normally grow exclusively. The increasingly warmer temperatures allowed for the mountain pine beetles to overwinter when they usually would be killed by frost and extended periods of subzero weather as well, exacerbating the problem. This aligning of “collapse events” is what leads to situations similar to that of the mountain pine beetle and whitebark pine– it makes the destruction a lot stronger and recovery nearly impossible.

Similarly, panarchy systems thinking can be applied to our society’s system of thought. In Western cultures, we often have this incessant drive to take more than we need. If we stay rigid in this thought and practice, we could be aligning collapse event cycles— global warming, deteriorating environments, diminishing energy sources… the list goes on. However, if we change our ways and start respecting the environment by working to give back more than we take from it, then we will have the chance of recovery and revitalization when the winds of collapse blow in. Just like the Bob Marshall forest that was able to rejuvenate because of its fire mosaic, our societal rejuvenation will be manageable if there are pockets of strong, localized, and environmentally thoughtful communities.

Mikayla Daigle: A Journey of a Lifetime

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What an amazing experience my time with Wild Rockies Field Institute has been so far…I still can’t believe I’m here.  I have been so fortunate in my life to be able to travel to Montana many times and western Montana has a special place in my heart.  I’m so thrilled that this summer with WRFI I’m spending time there and also in Alberta and British Columbia, all part of the Crown of the Continent, learning about the conservation issues that affect this area.  The Crown of the Continent is a large, intact ecosystem containing Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park; it crosses international boundaries, and contains the headwaters to rivers that flow in three directions to the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Hudson Bay.  So far, our travels have brought our group across international boundaries and through a variety of protected lands; here is a taste of the places we have been and how the different types of land management tactics have impacted what we’ve experienced.

The first section of the Summer Semester consisted of time in the front-country in and around Choteau, MT and a nine-day, 52-mile backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  For a first time backpacker, this was a completely immersive experience.  Besides our seven students and two instructors, we saw fewer than 25 other people; some areas of our backpack were more secluded than others as we went three days without seeing a single other person.  The sights in the Bob Marshall Wilderness were amazing.  We travelled through open, burned areas with young plants growing, large mountain valleys and forested areas with an overabundance of Bear Grass, through canyons next to streams, and trekked up and over mountains.  There was a consistent quiet on this backpack trip only broken by our own conversations and laughs and the occasional passing of other people hiking and horse-back riding.  There were no motorized vehicles, bicycles, roads, or sounds of industry which is usually rare; however, in a Wilderness area this is the norm.  Wilderness areas in the United States are the ultimate protection for ecosystems and species; they are untrammeled or unrestrained by humans, nature is at its most “wild” here.  Trails are sometimes managed in order to stay passable, but other than that, human impacts are minimized in Wilderness areas to offer great protection for the species that live there.

During section two, we visited a greater variety of places.  One of the days we spent at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park; it was an incredibly relaxing day lounging on the shore at Paradise Point enjoying the weather and working on academics.  The lake was beautiful with its clear, cool water and mountains surrounding it.  But the experience was much different from that in the Bob Marshall Wilderness; the sights were equally impressive but not as undeveloped in Glacier.  The east end of the lake was developed with a historic lodge-turned souvenir shop, restrooms, and boat tour docks.  We also saw more people in the first ten minutes at Two Medicine Lake than we did in nine days of backpacking.  The experience was different because the National Park Service manages their lands much differently than Wilderness areas do; parks are for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” and to preserve unimpaired land.  While the land and species within them are protected, national parks do see a much greater number of visitors as well as vehicle and bicycle traffic.

The backpacking portion of section two began after crossing into Alberta, Canada and spending a few days near Waterton Lakes National Park.  We began our five-day, 20-mile backpack trip from Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Lakes National Park and continued to Goat Lake.  The trails in Waterton, like in Glacier, were wider and better maintained than in the Wilderness area and had greater foot traffic.  The campsite at Goat Lake was also completely different from the Wilderness area; there were log chairs set up for a kitchen area and a bear hang already set up.  “Backcountry” camping in the National Park was easier than in the Wilderness area where we had to find proper camp sites with trees nearby to hang our food.  After spending a night at Goat Lake, we hiked up and along the stunning Avion Ridge that establishes the boundary between Waterton Lakes National Park and the newly designated Castle Wildland Provincial Park.  Avion Ridge provided a stunning 360 degree view of the wonderful, mountainous lands around us with Waterton to the south and the Castle to the north.  Once we entered the Castle, the trails changed immensely; mainly we walked on old trails previously used for recreation, such as four-wheeling and dirt biking, and forestry but now left to let nature take over.  And take over it did, one day we fought gravity on a steep uphill as well as the growing, tangled mess of Alder trees expanding into the old trail.  Since it is a newly designated protected area, the trails in the Castle Wildlands have not yet been maintained, the trail maps were not fully updated, and we didn’t see other people until we were at Bovin Lake, which is only four miles from the boundary of the Castle.  Now that it is a wildland, the Castle in Alberta will be managed similar to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the species and ecosystems within will be protected from forestry and oil and gas industries that used to fragment the area.

It is incredible to be spending the summer in the Crown of the Continent region and seeing how public protected lands are preserving natural wonders, ecosystems, and species in a variety of ways.  I’ve had an amazing time on the first half of the course and I’m so excited for the things we will learn and see in the second half.  My time with WRFI has been a once in a lifetime experience so far and I’m thrilled for what’s to come!

Sarah Wells: A Different Perspective

IMG_3047-X2Let me paint you a picture: the sun is shining and the air smells of wild flowers. You’re excited for the start of a new adventure. There are eight other people and you’re onto your ninth self-pep talk of the day. Not to mention the backpack the size of a six year old that is grasping onto your shoulders and hips. Exhaustion has now started to take effect after the fifth mile of the day and your gaze has not left the rich, dark soil that makes up the hiking trail for the last half hour. Somehow you obtain the strength to lift your head and take in all of your surroundings and all that is ahead. As far as you can see along the trail is a forest with rich vegetation but all of the older trees are completely burnt and dead. It’s obvious that a wild fire has passed through this area within the last decade. Suddenly this picture perfect moment has turned into a post-disaster scene where organisms are doing their best to move on and replenish the land. But is it really such a disaster?

Throughout human history, wildfires have been given this negative connotation for destroying human homes, disrupting wildlife, and tarnishing landscapes. The Bob Marshall Wilderness is only one of thousands of forests that have been scarred by a relentless flame. Although it seems destructive and horrible for the ecosystem, there are actually quite a few benefits to having intermediate disturbances such as these. Wildfires do a ginormous help in returning nutrients to the soil. If a forest that has wildfires as part of its natural cycle, continues to grow without an intermediate disturbance such as this then the soil will eventually run dry of nutrients. This leads to unhealthy forests where organisms will not be able to get what they need. Not only that, different plant species are all competing for sunlight, water, and nutrients. If all of these species continue to grow and get taller, it will then out compete other species that either aren’t supposed to grow tall or will not be able to due to lack of necessities. Wildfires make it so that this is less likely to happen which in turn betters the ecosystem as a whole.

Forest fires can be thought of as catastrophes in our everyday lives. For this backpacking trip: blisters, falling over logs, and rolling ankles are just a few disasters that we have had to overcome. Although these catastrophes can be devastating in the moment, with time, it can become part of the natural cycle which lead to bigger and better things. Being on this Wild Rockies Field Institute course with a group of eight other fantastic individuals has helped me to realize that these catastrophes can turn into beautiful once in a lifetime moments on top of mountains that have a gorgeous view.

Jack Buchinger: Early Connections

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Jack (second from right) and his classmates and instructors at Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park. 

During the last week and a half we have faced many challenges – but we have faced them as a group. In this group dynamic we have found that when something affects any one of us, it impacts us all either directly or indirectly.  From getting rained on while hiking and cooking, to keeping our pace consistent to match those who may have a minor injury (blisters, man), whatever happens we are connected much like the ecosystems we hiked through.  From fens to forests, and everything in between, we are connected not only to each other, but to those ecosystems.  That same inter-connectivity can be found in nature.  One example of this concept of inter-connectivity is trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade is defined as “reciprocal predator-prey effects that alter the abundance, biomass, or productivity of a population community or trophic level across more than one link in a food web” (Pace et. al., 1999).  Whoa, that’s a dense bit of scientific mumbo-jumbo.  Let me break that one on down to a more digestible bit of information.  Let’s look at the case of wolves in Yellowstone to better understand this concept.  The wolves were removed (killed in mass by scared humans) and as a result the elk population got much too large, as there was no natural check on them.  The elk began overgrazing the aspens until the aspen population dropped off.  The inter-connectivity demonstrated in this case is also demonstrated in our group’s dynamic.  What affects one part of our group impacts our entire group in a very big way.

Whether it’s the struggle to write journals and complete readings after hiking all day, or it’s the joy we share in learning – we are in it together.  A blistered foot on one of us (or most of us) impacts each of us.  We struggle together.  We study together.  We laugh together.  We grow together.  We do this all together because at the end of the day—we are connected by this adventure we’re on.

Sra Feigelman: Growing through disturbance

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Photo by Nick Littman

I snapped into consciousness by a cold gust of wind and a smattering of rain across my face. The fly of our tent, the only thing that had separated us from the storm that bore down upon us, had cast off into the wind. It was my second night in Horseshoe Canyon, and my second night ever in the backcountry of Utah. In a sleep-smitten frenzy, my tent mates Calla and Zoe sent me out into nature’s brewing violence to retrieve our weather-protection apparatus. After struggling to get out of my new sleeping bag, I finally made it out to grapple with getting the fly secured to the tent. I retreated to home base, soaked and shivering. I stuffed myself into my sleeping bag and shut my eyes tight, putting tomorrow on reserve to consider what the hell I was getting myself into with the Wild Rockies Field Institute.

I signed up for WRFI on a whim, for a change. My study abroad plans had fallen through (not enough people had signed up to go study food systems in Mexico). Nonetheless, I was still itching to expand my academic and physical horizons. I was craving movement, perspective, and realistically I only had a sense of what went on east of the Mississippi, never mind west of it. I hadn’t any idea of how other corners of the country operated in culture, in politics, in environment. Plus, I heard that backpacking builds character.

I had spent my whole life thus far on the east coast, in similar bubbles of lifestyle and approach toward success. In high school, knowledge was quantifiable, in the form of letter grades and GPAs, which put heavy constraints on qualitative understanding of what I was studying.

Truth be told, I felt my life as a collegiate beginning to dwindle in momentum. Although my studies had begun to pick up in content, I couldn’t help but participate with lagging initiative. I was beginning to sense a cap on what I could retain in the classroom, in a chair nailed to the floor, enclosed in a lecture hall, furiously copying notes from a screen, alongside 50-100 other students; every single day. Valuable conversations were going in one ear and right out the other.

And so, without much thought and minimal experience, I jumped into a two month alternative semester of schooling on the other side of the country.

Oh, how unprepared I was for what was to come. Within days of arriving to Green River, Utah, our group of nine was miles deep in a canyon of what seemed like infinite sandy desolation. Any green was manifested in the form of a stunted shrub. To the common eye, water didn’t exist. In 24 hours, the temperature dropped from high 80’s to 30’s. To myself, I thought, “How could anything survive here? How am I going to survive here?”

Through the days that followed, my being was jostled by great discomfort. I was bombarded with all sorts of stimuli unfamiliar to my system. I could barely process what was in front of me. I was wandering through an environment of alien flora and fauna, shapes and shadows, formations, faults and climate. At first, I saw nothingness in this odd terrain, in the rocks that I stumbled over, in the bristled juniper bark that tugged at the netting of my pack, in the pale sand that I clobbered through in new hiking boots. Sand stuck to us with magnetic force, and got into every available crevice within our gear. The daytime sun was so strong that my eyeballs often burnt. The nighttime air was cold, and the moon bright. After dinner, my stomach cranked laboriously through our meals, consisting of mostly carbohydrates and cheese. We stacked miles upon miles into our days, and after finally reaching camp and collapsing into the dirt, we still, as a group, had to make time for class and discussion, homework, and sleep. I had to quickly make way for a whole new routine, set of knowledge, and way of life. I was exhausted and confused: it was hard to tell which way was up.

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis states that at moderate intensity and occurrence, disturbance to an ecosystem can encourage and maintain the system’s overall resilience (Noss & Cooperrider, 1994). Too little disturbance leaves a system vulnerable to shock beyond repair when it is disrupted. Too much disturbance might push a system over its edge immediately. Essentially, an intermediate amount of force can prompt an ecosystem to stay on its toes, making it able to adapt to the chaotic forces that ebb and flow around and within it.

Systems ecology is defined as a way to, “understand the processes and structures that define the working of ecosystems of all kind, from microbial to global” (Think Academy, 2016). The natural world, indeed, is a massive system in itself, and a conglomerate of dynamic systems that interact with and respond to each other. However, systems ecology and theory extends further than the “natural world.” It encompasses humankind and all of its happenings as well, giving, “equal attention to the human dimension” (Think Academy, 2016).

Humans obviously operate within ecosystems. Although we are encouraged to see ourselves as something separate and above Mother Nature, in reality, we operate in and as a part of it (Cronon, 1995). Subsequently, humankind, in all its chaos and complexity, can learn from the behaviors and patterns that encompass the natural world. Systemic disturbance keeps any system (or organism) in check, prompting its ability to adapt to different conditions and environments and maintain diversity within them.

Indeed, the Colorado Plateau is a harbor of disturbance. Given its harsh climate and terrain, one might consider the impossibility of life to thrive here. However, over time, the Colorado Plateau flora and fauna have adopted this variability and unpredictability into their design and behavior. For this reason, the Colorado Plateau serves as a hub of species diversity and ecosystem resilience, as organisms have learned to thrive in many different extremes, from aridity to flash flood, from frost to heat waves.

A plant I’ve been privileged to spend some quality time with, Mormon Tea (also known as Ephedra viridis), embodies said resilience. I’ve found it alive and well in the parched sands of Horseshoe Canyon, alongside the muddy waters of the Dirty Devil River, freckling the Four Corners front country, throughout the alpine zone of Dark Canyon, and up on the banks of the Green River. This singular species has acclimated to each of these unique climates and their extremes. Over time, Mormon Tea has developed characteristics in response to the variable disturbances that shape its lifestyle. For example, instead of photosynthesizing through leaves, Mormon Tea has adopted scales of chlorophyll, through which it processes sunlight. This reduces the plant’s water loss and keeps its temperature regulated, enabling it to tolerate various environments. By embracing the spectrum of disturbances offered by the Colorado Plateau, Mormon Tea is able to thrive throughout different environments.

Before WRFI began, I functioned within one corner of life, one basin of attraction. This system that I call my life was accustomed to the same structure and forces, to my East Coast lifestyle. I was so well-adapted, so comfortable in my basin of attraction that nothing moved or changed. I had no push to explore or learn, and minimal space to do something different.

WRFI shocked my system. It scooped me up right out of my familiar lifestyle and placed me in a new realm of understanding. I learned to work with unfamiliar physical and social environments, and to practice group dynamics in a new backcountry setting.

In the wake of the Colorado Plateau’s challenges, I’ve learned to adopt a fresh set of skills, values and perspectives. I can pack my life onto my back in 30 minutes in one morning, traverse an 11 mile stretch of a canyon in one afternoon, dive into a fervent class discussion before dinner, and make it to bed before 10pm. Indeed, I will carry this new knowledge across the threshold that separates me from my pre-WRFI self. With practice, I know I will be able to move between the two, incorporating new skills with old and vice versa. Perhaps with time and exploration, I will learn to acclimate to more basins of attraction, lifestyles, and ways of understanding and interpreting the world.

 

Eleanor Babcock: The Beauty of Backpacking

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“Look down at your legs,” Isa’s positive voice exclaimed. “They brought you here!” Twelve days hiking through the chocolate silted waters of the Dirty Devil River Canyon had induced sore muscles, blistered toes, and soil streaked faces, but also incredibly happy campers. Isa made sure to proclaim our collaborative success as we looked out over the entrenched dirty waters, glazed over by daytime dust. We left the Dirty Devil behind, holding the memories and the beauty of the place we called home for those twelve days close to our hearts.

The past two months permitted us to walk our way through sandy washes in Horseshoe Canyon, trudge our way through muddy quicksand in the Dirty Devil, and march through beaming sun rays in Dark Canyon. These extensive trips gave our footsteps purpose and new stories about place to tell. Backpacking is no easy feat. Each morning we dance our way through the packing routine, filling each open space in out packs with loose socks and canvas tent bodies, hoping the weight will balance out well on the trail. As we chugged, deep into the folds of the earth, sunbeams warmed our noses and happy shouts from out group echoed off red canyon walls. Just as Isa notes, our legs power us forward, building strength with each step.

We endure and embrace this type of travel so we can experience portions of the world very few others have seen. We enter into disjointed places from developed civilization which, in our society, we classify as wilderness. These places are defined by the untrammeled characteristics of its earth and its community. Places where taste, touch, smell and sound differ from the developed lands we call home. While backpacking through wilderness, the beautiful rhythm of our step pulses from the arches of our feet to the bounce of our unkempt hair and settles back into the earth. The earth greets our presence by blowing sand particles through our hair and chilling our blistered toes at night. The give and take from the earth while backpacking creates a sense of harmony between us and the untrammeled characteristics of wilderness.

Our time in society and ultimate search for comfort has evolved to dissipate our connection with nature. William Cronan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has critiqued societal views of wilderness to be “the dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural,” separating the developed world from perceived wilderness. The beauty of backpacking is that it allows us to break the division between humans and nature and carry our lives, packed tightly and held close to our backs, into wilderness with the purpose to temporarily live in harmony with nature. My experience backpacking in Horseshoe Canyon, the Dirty Devil Canyon and Dark Canyon has given me harmony with nature as I allow the earth’s red sand to rest in my hair and as I practice attentiveness to the non-human world. This attentiveness allowed me to touch papery Aspen bark, fuel my body with spring waters and smell the damp red rust rock waft through the air. How can we take this harmony backpacking creates and break the dualistic vision Cronan describes between humans and nature? Can we work to apply attentiveness to the non-human world in our own backyards to bridge the gap between wild places and us?

We don’t all need to trudge through murky waters, or carry half our bodyweight on our backs to experience wilderness. Wilderness is what brought our societal norms to be. Wilderness helped us create cities and fuel our modes of transportation. The beauty of backpacking does not need to be experienced through backpacking. We can walk through our everyday system of life in harmony with the land as we choose to recognize the value of nature shaping our lives. The islands of wilderness do not have to be islands if we drain the sea of dichotomy between nature and development through the application of attentiveness to the non-human world. Awe and wonder can be experienced through our front door if we choose to open it and embrace the sunbeams which radiate over the world, potentially bridging the gap between humans and nature.