Kimberly Rivers: An Old Question with a New Answer

kimberly-riversEvery summer of my life has been spent in my home state – North Carolina – and that has been very comfortable. Easy trips to the beach and long days spent by the pool. This past year, though, something changed. For the first time in my life, I wanted to make myself uncomfortable. It was my last summer before graduating from college, and I knew I needed to step out of my comfort zone a bit. By sheer luck, I found out about Wild Rockies Field Institute from a flier all the way across the country from Montana, in a classroom building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fast forward through the application, the invitation to join, and my decision to take the Environmental Ethics course – that’s when I first asked myself my big question of the summer: “What have I gotten myself into?”

Before taking the WRFI course, I had never been to Montana, never backpacked, and had never even been outside of North Carolina for longer than a week or so. After learning more about the intensity of the course and all the equipment we would need, I wondered: “What have I gotten myself into?” When literally everyone I told about the course warned me to watch out for bears, I asked it yet again. I had no experience and really didn’t know what to expect. The closer it got to the start of the course, the more nervous I became. I packed my new, huge backpack before I flew out to Montana, and after struggling to lift it up and put it on, I asked the question yet again.

For our first day on the trail, my new WRFI friends and I were only hiking about 3 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to get to our first campsite in the backcountry. It became clear very quickly, however, that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Our instructors estimated that our packs weighed about 45 pounds each, (which is heavy, y’all!!), and of course we got rained on. I just knew that I had made a mistake, and that I was going to be miserable for the three weeks of the course.

I started off the trip doubting myself and the course itinerary, but let’s fast forward one more time – I made it through the trip, and ended up having an incredible time. Together, my classmates and I backpacked in two different wilderness areas and Glacier National Park, spoke with members of the Blackfeet Tribe, swam through a canyon to a secret waterfall, scrambled up to a mountain peak, and engaged in meaningful conversations about climate change and life itself, among other really cool things. I learned so much about myself and could feel proud for what I had accomplished. My whole perspective about traveling and the world changed – I knew I loved traveling and wanted to do more of it before I came on the course, but new ideas about what I could do were exploding in my head. I again began asking myself the same question: “What have I gotten myself into?”, but now it had begun taking on a new meaning.

Before the course, my question had been one of doubt and fear. Now, it’s a door to new opportunities and possibilities. By taking the WRFI Environmental Ethics course, I have gotten myself into a new mindset, and a new perspective. I cannot thank my instructors Pat and Katie, as well as the rest of the WRFI crew, enough for everything they did for me to ensure that an inexperienced girl from North Carolina had the best experience possible through their amazing program. If you’re thinking about taking a WRFI course, I urge you to find out what you can get yourself into. I’m so glad I did.

 

Hannah Joki: Natural history on the Rocky Mountain Front

Hannah_JokiAs my first backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness is coming to a close, I am humbled. I am humbled by the fear of bears outside my tent every night; I am humbled by the fear of injury in a secluded place; I am humbled by the scenery that belittles me; I am humbled by the nine hour days I spend walking through the woods; I am humbled. Not only has this trip tested my physical endurance, but also tested my place on this Earth.

I am just a tiny spec in a large ecosystem that can’t be controlled. Society has tried to become apart of this wild and raw ecosystem that we only force ourselves into. As we walk on the trails, we are faced with the realization that we have no control out here. This may be public land but we do not own it, the millions of species do. Being a Montanan also helps me understand the importance of living with the environment and understanding how important becoming a naturalist is.

In one of the readings, Thomas Fleischner talks about the eight characteristics of becoming a naturalist. The eight qualities are: attentiveness, receptivity, expression, vision, accuracy, gratitude, humility, and affirmation. These are the characteristics that keep us levelheaded and help co-exist with nature, not control it. More then the others, I relate to attentiveness, gratitude and humility.

I have become active in my attentiveness to the trail and the clover hoofs that shape the trail before me. The occasional bear track always grabs my attention, the large pad with five toes and long claws indicate the grizzlies nearby. My hand is only a fraction of the size, making me feel small and helpless.

I stood on the top of Sheepshed Mountain, realizing the small role I play on this planet. I felt a mass flood of humility. The snow capped mountains just miles away and the Great Plains stretching to the East. The sheer size of every land form brought tears to my eyes; the amount of respect gained for the land was unexplainable. “Wilderness is the raw material out of which has hammered the artifact called civilization” (Leopold, 1949). As I stood on the mountain I realized society has embedded itself into this raw, untouched, landscapes around me. Civilization is the tool people used to gain control over the land, to feel the ownership we will never truly have.

It seems that to be a naturalist is to understand the environment to a level greater than most people can imagine. Nature is the base of civilization and only a few people have taken the time to experience nature raw.

I’ve gained gratitude through my time backpacking. I am grateful for the fear of bears that keeps me grounded and for the land I may never see again. I am glad the fear of bears keeps me smart and vigilant, even though we have yet to encounter one. My heart flutters every time I round a corner, continuously reminding me of my place in this world. I am seeping with gratitude for I, and only a few others, have walked where I’ve walked. And once I walk out I may never walk back in, but my gratitude of this experience is endless.

Aldo Leopold states how, “only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” This observation is of a true naturalist, realizing the land is wise and the animals that roam it are raw and important to the mysterious complex. So many people will never know what its like to stand in the middle of wilderness and see nothing but mountains. They will never learn to appreciate the lifetimes the mountains have seen, the fires it has burned under, the deaths it has taken, the lives it has given.

As we walk our seven miles out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I will recognize the grizzly hairs on the trees as I pass, know the names of many plants in the area, and follow the path of many animals before me. The trail connects me to nature as the elk, deer, moose, bear and I walk step over step, me becoming connected to them. As my journey continues I hope to be humbled even more, becoming a true naturalist in my generation.

Nico Matallana & Chelsea Johnson: The Spirit of the Wilderness

Backpacking

“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