Allie Leber: Learning to Dance in the Rain

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In all of my 16 and a half years of education, it wasn’t until I started taking adventure classes in college that I realized how rarely we are asked to problem-solve in our everyday lives, to put ourselves out there and do something truly challenging. Sure, we ask kids to figure out how to score well on a four-hour-long multiple choice test, and how to juggle five A.P. classes with playing a varsity sport, but our world has evolved to emphasize academic challenges, often leaving out other types of challenges. When I started working on ropes courses, this fact became extremely apparent to me.

Children would come to climb, often for the first time, with minimal problem-solving skills. Kids would frequently start to climb an element, begin to feel tired or frustrated, and then look down at their belayer to ask, “what do I do now?” We almost always responded, “you climb.” It’s not the answer the kids were looking for, but it was almost always effective at getting them to continue on and at least try to solve problems for themselves. Yet, I don’t blame the children themselves at all for their initial responses.

In our world of modern conveniences, we’re used to instantaneous answers. If we don’t know the answer to something, we Google it. If we can’t fix something, we call someone else to do it. We’re used to instant gratification, and we’re certainly not used to discomfort. I don’t mean the kind of discomfort felt when someone sits too close to you on the subway, or when a lecture hall feels unbearably warm and stuffy. I mean the type of discomfort that requires deep introspection in order to push through. I mean the type of discomfort you feel when you’ve been outside kayaking in the cold, in two straight days of nonstop rain, with no foreseeable end to the rain in sight.

From this very experience—one that, until recently, I never expected to encounter—I realized that in our everyday lives, when we’re wet and cold, we pretty much always have the promise of a warm dry shelter waiting for us. I also learned that, when you don’t have that promise, you have to find other ways to stay positive and motivated. I never realized just how much I rely on my warm dry house, and just how pathetic most of us feel without one. It seems to me that the only way we can ever learn to truly appreciate the simple things is to go without them for a little while.

In doing this, I realized that experiencing such difficult and uncomfortable times can only help us build character. It reminded me to be grateful and appreciative of the basic conveniences with which I and so many others are blessed, and it reminded me that it is possible to be creative and strong-willed, and to push through the discomfort we feel in all aspects of our lives. As our wise intern, Ben, aptly reminded us as we discussed a completely different topic (our fear of the future post-WRFI), “most obstacles are mental, not physical.”

So why was it that, in the past, I could always recognize that a kid who thinks they can’t climb to the top of an element is facing a mental block, not a physical one, yet when faced with the obstacle of physical discomfort, I (and many others) could not recognize the uselessness of having this type of negative mental barrier?

I believe this mental barrier of negativity only results because we are so unfamiliar with this discomfort. I also believe that once we’re used to solving one type of problem and pushing through one type of discomfort, we gain momentum at it. Therefore, it is crucial for us to continue doing so. We should keep finding things that make us comfortable, things that seem like we aren’t capable of doing, and then push through them.

We are living in a time when people are expressing more and more dissatisfaction with their lives. We are consuming more and more goods, and yet have very little to show for it. Statistically speaking, the number of people who describe themselves as “happy” has been on the decline since the 1950s. Why is this? Bill McKibbon, professor of religious studies at Middlebury College, suggests that “we need time with family, we need silence for reflection,” and that “we need connection with nature.” He quaintly titles this need the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Effect.”

He asserts that we have lives rich in material, but deprived in the aforementioned areas. He also asserts that we need to achieve the inverse. “We don’t need candy,” he reminds us, “we have candy every day of our lives. We just haven’t figured that out, because the momentum of the past is still with us: we still imagine we’re in that Little House on the Big Prairie.” So how do we change this attitude?

I propose that we challenge ourselves by putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations. While the average person may be asked to do seemingly impossible tasks like doing eight hours of work in three, how often in the course of our everyday lives can we say that we pushed through something truly demanding? How many people can say that they kayaked and camped along a stretch of nearly 50 miles of the Missouri River in freezing rain?

This type of challenge may not be for everyone, and that’s ok. What’s important is that we continue to find things we think are too difficult or uncomfortable, and we tackle them. While this type of experience may not necessarily sound like the best or easiest way to spend time, it certainly seems like a step away from the “candy”- the things we get far too much of, and toward the things we lack: “reflection,” “connection,” and “adventure.”


Morgan Krakow: On Rivers and Holidays

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Rivers and holidays are hopeful. They’re both loud and big. They draw attention and glee, and on American soil, they represent a proud history. Just as the Missouri River meanders through the continent — its headwaters in Montana so vastly different than where it meets the Mississippi in St. Louis – The Fourth of July too ebbs and shifts depending on who and where it’s celebrated.

On this past Fourth of July, our wheels turned into Dupuyer, Montana, population: 86. The town approached after a long stretch of hills and watching the Rocky Mountain Front come into view. We had spent the last week understanding policy, voting and the advocacy side of energy in Helena. We met with journalists, lawyers and government workers all putting in time for a sustainable future.

After leaving the capital, we turned toward the Missouri River and camped at its banks and beside Holter dam, cycling its length at sunset. We watched the algal side turn golden as the evening’s fading light dipped and the mountains turned a deep purple.

Around the fourth of July last year I also spent some time at the banks of the Missouri River. It was muddier, dirtier, lacked the jolly fly fishers and horses across the way. I wasn’t frying up camp stove falafels or nursing the tail-end of a shoulder singe. And I was not very close to the headwaters. Rather, I was states and miles away, close to the end of the Missouri, in my hometown of Kansas City.

On this year’s American Birthday, I’ve found myself reflecting on the role I play as a citizen. Just in the last week we had witnessed democracy in the making. We came to understand the crucial roles of the Department of Environmental Quality. We learned how journalists like Hal Herring can change minds and only report the truth.

From the banks of one side of the Missouri to the other, 12 months have passed and I’ve continually reassessed my personal citizenship. I have found myself asking what it means to be an American and how I fit into the complex mix of individuals who make up the country. I spent much of the last year feeling embarrassed and disappointed in the nation. But it would be a stretch to say that these feelings were only from a vulgar election cycle.

As I finished my second year of college I took the time to study the nation from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. As the immigration ban occurred, I was in a class on development in the Middle East and learned from my peers what it was like to feel fear about visas being revoked, or the cold uncertainty of not knowing if it would be possible to return home.

I spent time in a class on American nationalism, reading history books from different eras that veiled slavery and violence against Native American populations as small unmentionable blips that might tarnish an otherwise pristine historical record. In the last 12 months, I have read more than I have in the rest of my life. As my friends were out marching and protesting, echoing off of each other, I was reading and writing – soaking in the absurdity of rhetoric and trying to contextualize the present day with the historical American past.

After all of the months spent researching and contemplating, I felt bad about the country on my passport. It felt like democracy had broken – that people were more interested in flinging Internet insults, in telling me that my academic setting was too politically correct and sheltered, that xenophobia and bigotry had scored both free throws at the end of the second half. It felt like things were failing.

And then I got on a bike in Montana. I hesitate to brand this trip as a cure-all for my patriotic problems. We’ve witnessed incredible oversights when it comes to both people and pollution. We have come face-to-face with those who disregard climate change theories in favor of a less scientific approach. We’ve experienced the strangest and most sexist of side comments about women on a long bike trip. America has reared its underbelly all along our route, harassing words from R.V. drivers and the effects of an oil spill along the Yellowstone River won’t leave my brain anytime soon.

But something about the landscape, the way a bike flies down a pass, the way we cook and eat together, respectfully disagreeing and engaging with all those whom we come in contact with – it makes me feel proud to be in such a big country. We have beautiful places but we also have beautiful people and ideas, despite the present’s nasty tone. And local government is still functions. City council meetings are still happening every week. NGO’s are playing the crucial role of oversight and ordinary citizens are making their own efforts, from organic farming to organizing neighbors against coal companies.

I just needed to get out of my filter bubble, turn off my notifications and actually start talking to folks in America to start believing in my citizenship. I understand the terrifying and disgusting past that this nation has often engaged with, but that understanding has propelled me further to help change, shift and write about these places for the greater good.

I wasn’t ever much of a flag waver, and fireworks make me nervous, but on this fourth of July, while I didn’t necessarily feel a sense of incredible pride, I held a better sense of where I stand on this Earth and where I stand in this country. In a few weeks I’ll be back at a more familiar stretch of the Missouri, much closer to where it meets up with the Mississippi. I won’t be near to the Rockies anymore. I will still hold onto the complexity and scope of this country, just the way a river can flow and change as it runs through so many places, so can the people and individuals who live along it. Just as rivers and mountains, the nation is not a static place.

Ben Warzon: What a “place” can mean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we left the shore of the muddy Missouri, we crossed a cow burnt field and started up a draw. We worked our way through the rolling hills, which flanked the mouth of what would soon be Neat Coulee. We bobbed or way up canyon, slowly pristine white Virgelle Sandstone rose like the walls of Zion. Juniper and limber pine dominated the plant community, species hardly seen down the river. Moist, white sand replaced the gumbo mud and welcomed our softening steps as our heads craned skyward. My neck creaked with the stark contrast from staring at the flat surface of the ‘Mo’ for days on end. With this tinge of pain, I was flooded with confusion. Are we still in Montana? We surely didn’t teleport to the Southwest. But there is no way we are on the plains, or in the mountains for that matter. As we sit at the head of this bizarre slot, all it takes is a moment of presence and it all comes together.

What do I mean by a moment of presence? Basically the simple awareness of where one is by feeling the soil, hearing the wind, and just engaging with the surroundings. The familiar can often let presence slip away, but an unexpected or large change snaps us back rather quickly. For me, the experience of Neat Coulee on the Missouri River was certainly one of those moments.  The initial feelings were definitely unsettling, almost a loss of where I was. Such contrasting landscapes must mean a new place. In reality, however, it meant a deeper understanding of this complex place. This was not an anomaly, rather an important step in understanding the breaks. A billion years of processes have created this place and the experience it provides. It is these intimate interactions that create a sense of a place.

This is a phrase we often hear thrown around but rarely stop to think about what it means. There are many pieces to an individual’s sense of place, but it starts with simply being present.  A sense of place is not an abstract or conceptualized idea. It cannot be defined by science or really even words. A sense of place is as simple as the feeling that you are home after a long day. It might just be a touch of fabric on your bed or the smell of the trees. Truly it is just an awareness of where you are. Without that small awareness, though, we lose our culture, traditions, values and roots. That is place.

On a grander scale, a sense of place means being an engaged participant where you live. We can develop a sense of place by exploring our world–both near and far–all it takes is walking out the door and paying attention. Through these explorations we will become invested in our neighborhoods and communities, we will know more about them and understand what they mean. As I sat in the sand of Neat Coulee, I was able gain a greater understanding of and connection to the mighty Missouri River and the state it is born in.

Matt Gasper: Knowing Your Place

IMG_9483.jpgThroughout the second section of the Montana Afoot and Afloat course, I have been able to apply knowledge from the first section to understand this landscape more precisely. Being in Montana, first in the Scapegoat Wilderness, and now floating down the Missouri River, I have realized how small I am, but how enormous my actions can be. I wonder how these ecosystems would function without human intervention. Why are we here and what is our purpose? Looking out onto the landscape as we float down the Missouri has opened my mind to the preservation and conservation efforts this land needs to flourish.

The wide, murky Missouri River came as a shock after experience the fresh, vibrant, freezing, flowing mountain waters of the Scapegoat Wilderness. Paddling from Coal Banks to Kipp Landing, I learned about the various types of land ownership. This flowing body of water is in constant motion as it feeds the Mississippi River. This is one of the hydrologic features in the Rocky’s that essentially effects the majority of the lower 48 states.

The Missouri is the first stretch of river that I believe needs cleaning up. I quickly saw the overabundance of cattle and their impact on the river. Water quality is an issue around the world, so why would we promote this style of intensive management when water is one of the most important resources? If we use wag bags to prevent our feces from being engulfed by water runoff, we are simply disposing our waste in another geographic location (out of sight out of mind). I cannot see the nourishment that this river may provide to the species like the sturgeon, the rancher, or millions of organisms and people living downstream by adding more disposal to the river. If we want change, I believe it starts with a positive course of action and one that becomes a daily routine.

We have touched on the relationships ranchers have with each other and with state and national governments. I think we have forgotten about the landscape’s most valuable tool/nurturer, water. My experience on the Missouri has opened my eyes to our actions on this planet much more than what I have been able to grasp while in the classroom in Wisconsin. I believe we are here for some amazing reasons, but we have found a way to destroy valuable assets to our existence and we are the only ones that can repair the damages.

Water is the key component to this landscape and the interconnected body of the environment, society, and economic functions. A simple course of action can spark more people to adopt better methods, even without government or policy intervention. Positive actions for the environment should be the norm. A norm is created by securing some relationship or bond with the land that is acquired over time; in early childhood or even later in life. However, once a person obtains a relationship with the landscape, a deeper meaning and connection to the landscape will evolve. I have learned this through education and seeing how others perceive the landscape. Without the love of the ecosystem there may be a part missing from your soul or true character. I believe early education with our youth needs to include experiencing mother-nature so the next generation of future ranchers or tourists may see the land and water from a different perspective. A perspective that seeks to help preserve, not destroy with a blind eye.

Megan Harrison: A Journey through the Prairie

img_1145The Great Plains for the last 10,000 years has remained an arid grassland receiving less than 24 inches of rain annually. This makes one wonder how can one of America’s longest river be located in such an dry environment. The Missouri river begins its journey in the headwaters in East Glacier N.P., continues through central Montana to North Dakota, and eventually joins the Mississippi in St. Louis, MO. The Missouri river valley is comprised of unimaginable Virgelle white sandstone cliffs, carved out coulees, and a surprisingly diverse plant community. Prior to the dams in the upper Missouri river, spring floods would help establish new river channels, transforming riparian vegetation for cottonwood seedlings. The seedlings would then be placed high on the river banks to avoid being torn out by winter ice. Over many years, the meandering water of the Missouri has laid down inches of sediment like pages in a novel. While kayaking down the Missouri, the geological features that remain redirects my focus and I become deeply observant of my surroundings.

The beginning of my own journey to the prairie began in mid-September. It had been my first kayak down a major river. It reminded me of a three lane highway: cottonwoods, grassland and sandstone cliffs. Early into the Missouri trip,  our group rested the boats on the muddy banks of Eagle Creek BLM campground. When we awoke the next morning, we hiked  from the south end of the campground heading east into Neat Coulee. As the trail enters the canyon, I am soon restricted by the sandstone walls. The sandstone is a yellow tan, but look closer and one will be able to see white Alkali present in horizontal layers. Within the wall that white Alkali has percolated downward by groundwater and precipitated out when it has reached a less permeable layer of shale. Dragging my fingers across these tan and white walls particles of sand fall from my touch. How old and fragile this landscape seems, weathering before my eyes.

Landforms on the upper Missouri are unlike anywhere I have seen in the state of Montana; a sense that I am unaccustomed to in the western Rocky Mountains. The Great Plains are a complex system of large and small rivers. I have come to learn the history water has left behind over the years.  I will remember my kayaking trip as a trip through time, and I will be curious to see how the future landscape will be affected by the Missouri’s hydraulic processes.

Ruth Howe: Water is the Lifeblood of the Earth


Ruth Howe (far right) and fellow classmates on the Mighty Missouri

Humans are 50% water and all plants pull it from the ground – from crops to trees to the scraggliest patch of rock star moss.

We started our journey in the Scapegoat Wilderness. In the mountains water is plentiful and clean. It comes from snow-melt, and from ground wells which are replenished by snow. We purified our water with filters and dissolved chlorine tablets to protect against giardia, but I’m sure we were in some places we could drink it straight. The cool, clear water is the reason we could be in the Scapegoat. Besides being too rugged for settlement, a major reason the national forests were set aside was to protect the source of water for the Great Plains, because it is THE source of water. The Northern Great Plains get 9-14 inches of rain annually, which is nearly a desert.

As soon as we leave the mountains, where the mountains are still in view, people are fighting over the water. Landowners have water rights on a first-come, first-serve basis, and until recently when in-stream flow was added to ‘beneficial use’ they had to divert their allotment for agriculture, mining, or residential use. Some neighbors have serious conflicts over water.

So that takes us (from the rivers that make it) into the Missouri River. Specifically, the Wild and Scenic section between Coal Banks Landing and Kipp Landing where we camped at the same sites Lewis and Clarke camped at 200 years ago, and the view is relatively unchanged. We even met a group of “fur trappers” in a keel boat, wearing all leather, eating form wooden bowls and acting like the world stopped changing in 1820.

But a few things have changed. They’ve changed a few times, evidenced by the abandoned homesteads along the river. The most common “wildlife” is cattle, most hunters are whizzing up and down the river in motor boats, and most importantly the river is tamed by five upriver dams which divert what would be spring floods to crops of wheat, barley and alfalfa. So while the river looks the same, and we camped under beautiful shady stands of cottonwoods and watched bighorn sheep, the changes are there. Many stands of cottonwoods are older than the dams, and the pallid sturgeon haven’t been able to spawn in more than 40 years because never mind getting over the dams, there’s not enough weather for them to get to the dams. The river ecosystem evolved when the river flooded every year, and every 5-20 years there’d be a flood big enough to create new sand bars for the cottonwoods. Now the BLM drills eight foot deep holes and waters every week to get cottonwoods to grow, and scientists have been trying to breed sturgeon with little success.

So, as we leave the breaks, it’s easy to wonder what’s the best use of the water? Is it for bread, beer and beef, which we all consume, or should we restore the system of flood and droughts that the plants and animals adapted to? It’s not an easy question and it doesn’t have easy answers. What would people do without farming or ranching? What will happen when the last stands of cottonwoods on the Missouri breaks die? Could there be a compromise with man-made floods that sustains both? In the 30’s when they started building dams, they didn’t understand that the river needs to flood. Now, as people learn more about the life that a free-flowing river supplies, maybe it’s time for a new system.

Shannon Quinn: The Spiritual Journey Manifests Itself in the Physical Journey: A Story About Floating the Missouri River

“There are two kinds of suffering; the kind that causes more suffering and the kind that puts an end to suffering.” -Buddha


I am a believer in the interconnectedness of the spiritual journey and the physical journey.  The movement from place to place allows for our minds to open up, and for our hearts and bodies to grow.  I often think of a spiritual journey as a mountain.  There’s beginnings, bases.  The upward climb.  The summit.  This is followed by a decent.  Once we work through a struggle, or time of intense change and decision making, we eventually become enlightened with an epiphany, a strong feeling, a realization, it becomes a downhill ride until we reach our next peak that we must conquer.  When I climb mountains in real life, I connect the physical ascent I’m making to my mentality.  I face the duality of the climb, the difficulty and the ease; the changes in the landscape.  The challenge of reaching the summit is what pushes me onward.  The summit is the reward; the realization.  The opportunity to grow and become stronger.  In nature, the reward is a view, a time to relax and rejuvenate oneself before heading back down again.  In a spiritual journey, the reward is the realization of one’s strength and the ultimate mental growth gained from our mental struggles.  The satisfaction of understanding.

As we walk through this life, often times we limit ourselves to the spiritual journey that makes us feel comfortable.  Just like climbing a mountain, it can be hard and painful.  It can make us want to stop in our paths and turn back.  Some of us do turn back, and avoid the mountain all together.  Missing the summit.  Spiritual growth however requires us to weather the difficult and the painful.  That can be when we learn to see the most.

For myself, hiking up mountains is very often difficult, but I love doing it.  During my trip to Montana, I was faced with a feat of wilderness travel I was unfamiliar with.  Learning to kayak was daunting at first.  I was afraid to be on the water, and was afraid of what I did not understand.  Our group had just finished an 8 day backpack through the Scapegoat Wilderness, and I was feeling up for the next challenge.  When actually faced with getting in the kayak for the first time, I felt intimidated.  I wouldn’t have pushed myself to do it if it wasn’t required of me.  It felt uncomfortably daunting to be swept away by the mighty Missouri River, and there were times when I found myself frustrated trying to navigate the boat in one direction when the wind wanted to take me in another.  The banks of the Missouri are made up of sludge that will steal a person’s boots like quicksand if one doesn’t persist against it.  There were times on the trip down the river that I felt like I was fighting against the river.  A few times I thought to myself “I’d enjoy this so much more if I were truly good at it.”  I thought this internal frustration was tainting my experience, but did my best to remain positive and calm throughout.  “Only 7 more days… only 6…”.

Then there was the utter beauty of the experience that I hadn’t expected to find in my wildest dreams.  The vastness of the desert landscapes, the ancient sandstone cliffs, the diversity of the flora and fauna.  We took a detour into the Neat Couley, and climbed some of the sandstone structures.  The way the sun collided with the water some mornings made it appear to be nothing short of pure gold.  I learned to ride the river instead of trying to fight against it.  Acceptance.  I saw my first wild bald eagle, and many more after that.  Despite having to paddle against the wind at times, we had the wind at our backs others.  One night a harvest moon rose above the prairie, and I recall crouching down to view the orange glow through the sagebrush.  I fell in love with that landscape right then and there.

Through all the difficulties of conquering the wild river and overcoming my fear of entering the water by kayak, the beauty of this journey down the Missouri was all worth it when we reached the end.  The summit.  I recognized that along the way, my fear of tainting my positive experience with thoughts of the opposite were part of my ultimate growth.  The difficult, the painful, the uncomfortable experiences in life are the ones that force us to broaden our horizons.  If we only limit ourselves to the spiritual growth that makes us feel comfortable, are we really growing?  Is anything changing?

We come to realizations all the time.  We resolves conflicts on a daily basis.  It is often when the river becomes wild, or the mountain seems impossible, that if we persist, we find the greatest strength within ourselves.  When one allows their body and minds to openly merge, for the mental journey to manifest itself in the physical form, I believe that we can find fantastic amounts of strength within ourselves.  Connecting the physical movement up a mountain or down a river is pleading to be metaphorical.  To manifest your spiritual journey in the movement of your feet creates a rhythm that grows to be new and more wonderful with every step.  Constant rebirth.

I implore you all, readers, to climb a mountain, float a river, or even go for a walk somewhere beautiful without any real destination at all.  Set an intention, ponder it with each step.  Dig deeply, open your hearts and minds. Challenge yourselves.  Sometimes the journeys we are most afraid to embark on are the most crucial.