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.



Haley Traun: The Future of the Wild

Dark Canyon Wilderness

Hiking through Peavine Canyon as part of a 40 mile loop around Dry Mesa (Woodenshoe, Dark, and Peavine Canyons) within the Dark Canyon Wilderness Area.

My experience backpacking through Dark Canyon Wilderness, waking each morning to the sight of the grand, high walled sandstone walls painted by desert varnish and the various green hues of the diverse set of plant species like ponderosa and pinon pines, aspen, doug fir, junipers, and more lush looking shrubs and plants then you would ever imagine could grow in a desert area, challenged my naturalist skills while teaching me about everything from stream ecology to land management and policy.

I first learned the basics of the 1964 Wilderness Act in a classroom in Wisconsin. I enjoyed learning about the history and politics of the eventual creation of this act, but reading material about contemporary land management challenges regarding Designated Wilderness Areas while in the state of Utah hiking through one of its strikingly gorgeous sets of canyons peaked my interest about the future of Wilderness. I didn’t have many questions about land managed for wilderness characteristics after sitting in a desk in the middle of a campus at least five hours south of a designated area. Dark Canyon awakened an interest of thinking about the fine details of who manages this land, how it’s managed, and what kind of characteristics, components, and systems these places ought to contain.

Before starting this excursion, if you asked me about my thoughts regarding certain types of public land usage and management, I most certainly would not have had many impassioned things to say. There was something about being in a remote place capable of offering solitude, journeying up side canyons for water most days, noticing which plants grew where and why, and finding worthy branches to hang our food each night and retrieve it each morning instead of having it readily available to my fingertips within seconds from the pantry, reminding me that my access to food and water for survival is not inherent or guaranteed just because I am human, that opened my eyes to importance of how people value land and for what reasons. These experiences helped me understand that my actions are not without consequence, and how societies perceive the importance of areas like Dark Canyon matters for the future of species from every biologic kingdom.

A few months ago, I read a Smithsonian article about a proposition from biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson that 50% of the world’s land should be designated as human-free natural reserves. Half of the world treated as Wilderness – is that possible? What would it look like, and how could we convince private land owners that their land should be included? Should this proposition that half of the world must be free from the kind of development and impact humans impose, how might our cities, communities, priorities and lifestyles change? What legislative changes must occur, and how might we question our ideas and expectations about wilderness?

A book detailing Wilson’s argument and proposal published in March is on my list to read when I get home, but as I embark on our final section canoeing through Labyrinth Canyon, I’ll think about how the past ideas of wilderness allow me to explore these places today. I will appreciate the experience these wonderful landscapes provide; yet, I will remain critical about how humans think of wild and natural places, ponder what the next steps of land management could and should accomplish, and hope to discover how I can positively impact the future of diverse kinds of land this world encompasses.

Aly Kellogg: Why Natural History is Relevant!

Aly's Blog_chertIt can seem to the untrained observer that natural history isn’t very relevant in society today. What can a sophisticated urbanite learn from a bunch of plants anyway? Let me tell you, this urbanite has learned a thing or two from them already on this trip. Essential natural history practices can be applied to a realm well outside the backcountry. Vision, attentiveness, and accuracy play key roles in any social system and can improve ones understanding of the world around them.

Attentiveness has taken much energy throughout this trip. At each step there is something requiring observation and thought. An obvious example is the constant quest for beautiful chert – a type of jagged stone whose hues vary from white to red to purple. My eyes scan the ground for a glint of something unusual, something that calls my attention more than the rest of the rubble. I hone in on a particularly purple piece embedded in the fine sand floor. I lift it from where it lays to inspect it closer. Purple upon first glance – yes – but with more time a gradient develops, then a rainbow, then perhaps a pattern. The color and shape and angles become apparent and distinct. I rotate it in my hand to see all sides, trying to imagine the larger piece it used to be part of. Only by training my attention does it become obvious that this piece has been manipulated by a human hand and ancient tool. A bigger picture begins to show.

Vision is trickier to master than attentiveness. Our wonderful instructor Dave poured water onto some seemingly black moss clinging to a rock face. It turned green! By some miracle of nature, the moss immediately opened itself to the moisture. There were no signs that the moss would react that way but if you new that after a fresh rain most of the mosses were green, you could guess that water triggered this reaction. Natural history is seeing the unseen. Take nothing at face value. Make observations and try to hypothesize based on them. It is extremely important both in ecological and sociological systems to ask questions about what is happening outside of the obvious and examine the components that seem stagnant or simple. You never know what answers may lay there. One can use vision to prepare for future changes and see multiple solutions to current problems.

To balance vision, one must practice accuracy. Hypotheses are only as useful as they are true.  By assuming too much, one may make other hypotheses that lack a strong foundation. We were asked to spend two hours with a plant and make speculations based on our thorough observation. I thought my specimen was fairly solitary, standing alone for many yards in any direction. There were a few of its kind on the hill above but I wouldn’t have called it abundant or guessed that it was well adapted to the desert. As I continued to walk down canyon, I saw it everywhere! There hasn’t been a campsite since where I haven’t seen it. The assumptions I made based on the original site did not hold true. This is a perfect example of the necessity of accuracy and the dangers of vision. They need to balance each other.

Attentiveness, vision and accuracy all need to exist in order to come up with clear definition of a problem and to see viable solutions. This is the usefulness of natural history. The same principles that help me make sense of this strange, anything-but-barren landscape can be applied to social systems.

Natalie Stockman: Shadows and Leaves

Natalie blog 1I picked up a branch of leaves and observed the shifting shadows as it spun between my fingers. There I sat, starring at an unassuming desert plant. My three-hour plant study had only begun. As I sat in the scorching sun, I wished the plant could create enough shade to accommodate me. I began my observations by noting the obvious features of the plant. Its leaves were garnished with sharp points on every end and grew out of snarly branches. Dusted winter green colored the leaves, with little evidence of possible flowers. Maybe it was too early to tell. After noting every distinguishable feature, I dissected the stem in order to gather a visual on its circulatory system. I noted the details detectable by my naked eyes. Then I moved to speculate about the location of my plant. It seemed to grow close to the stream bank as well as far up the steep canyon slopes. My plant could withstand direct sunlight and possibly had adapted to only living close to a water source, judging by it proximity to the stream and absence later down canyon where the wash ran dry. I hadn’t done much independent speculation of the natural world before the plant study. I’d grown accustomed to stifling the imagination that nature can inspire. Science books and nature guides were often my first stop before employing my own speculations.

During the plant study activity we were required to creatively express our plant in any way we seemed fit. I thought for a while about whether to write a poem or story. I decided that the words I had might not do it justice. I drew, instead, the shadows projected by one of the branches on to my paper. Every incremental movement, as it spun, created a different complex shadow. I soon began to trace the shadows and attempted to explore the myriad of shapes that appeared. I remember thinking they were oddly geometric as a result of the pointed leaf lobes. Each leaf seemed to shade itself while taking into account its particular position under the desert sun. The challenge of capturing one of these shadows on paper consumed me. Soon enough, three hours had passed.  I followed the small stream back to the head of the canyon to meet the rest of the group.

As we shared our findings, the depth of observation and expression of everyone’s plant study presentation happily surprised me. We engaged our scientific observational skills as well as our expressive techniques. During our discussions in class we talked about the two sides of natural history. The scientific and the interpretative aspects of natural history inform each other. Ella’s plant study offered a great example of this. She named her plant the pillow. She observed the composition of the plant. She speculated about adaptations the plant might posses and the ways it is best suited for its environment. Her creative component especially struck me. She wrote,

In the form of a tiny green bud

Not all of a flower or leaf,

But of a plume softer than fleece.

Its details are pristine

Fit for a fairy queen

Pink and black and white and green

They inspire a pleasant tune

That’s hummed about them by the bees.

She artfully used her scientific inferences to inform her expression. As a member of the audience her poem was memorable and incorporated her personal experience within the plant study. She was not alone in her creative expression; Nate wrote a short story about his plant relating it to a little brother. Aly personified her plant as a grandmother because of its small dusty petals that resembled hair curlers. In each case their close observation informed their interpretation, creating a greater depth to our study of the natural world.

Thomas Fleischner wrote in an article titled, Natural History and the Spiral of Offering, about the complexities of natural history. He suggests that a wholehearted naturalist employs a variety of observation methods to be more receptive and “cultivate awareness.” Fleischner emphasizes how important expression is to the practice of natural history. Ultimately the expressive component allows naturalists to present their experience and findings to their community. Expression is not only important to convey findings but it can also add a degree of humanity to the study of nature, for the people who might not be drawn to the natural world independently. In some circumstances the expressive portion can be crucial for inspiring other people to feed their naturalist spirit or to question their environment. The plant study demonstrated the importance of nurturing a creative lens when practicing natural history, not only to present your work but also to inspire others.

Before the plants study, I wouldn’t have looked at the pillow willow, formally known as the Coyote Willow, and thought of it in the same manner as Ella. Her presentation allowed me to have a connection with the plant as well, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Nonetheless, it has encouraged me to see the natural word with a variety of lenses. Fostering unique personal expressions to nature could have a similar effect on a community as it does on a group of students in a remote canyon.    By inspiring everyone to be a naturalist in there own way, a new widely shared reverence could inspire us to take a second look at the way we treat our environment.

Katie Revels: In an Outlaw’s Footsteps

Dirty DevilWhat do you think of when you hear about the Wild West? Tumbleweeds, outlaws and cattle rustling? Well, this lore is true on the Colorado Plateau in Utah. Here, those stories aren’t just Hollywood fiction- they are history and reality. However, the landscape here in canyon country is different than what is usually portrayed on the silver screen. The pinnacles, alcoves and sheer walls of rock surrounding you in a canyon are amazing. Down in the canyons near the Dirty Devil River, you can watch peregrine falcons dive down along the crazy steep canyon walls. The often hard-to-find paths to get in and out can be nerve wracking, but that is all part of the fun when backpacking along the Dirty Devil River! The narrow trails and the remoteness of this area are probably why outlaws holed up here. The Wild Bunch—Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and the rest of their gang—often used Robbers Roost, a side canyon that joins the Dirty Devil River, to hide rustled horses and cattle.

I was able to walk in the outlaws’ footsteps through some of the most beautiful, awesome and remote areas in Utah. The trail we took to get down to the Dirty Devil River and its adjoining canyons is named Angel Trail. In the book, The Wild Bunch at Robbers Roost, one of the outlaws who taught young Butch Cassidy the outlaw trade “insisted it took wings to get over it.” I think that he offered quite an accurate description—it has steep slick rock slopes that I can’t imagine herding dozens of horses down.

Although I may have a hard time envisioning life in the West, the members of the Wild Bunch had an extensive knowledge of this place from living here that helped them to evade authorities in the late 1800’s. Robbers Roost—where they often hid—has a view of the surrounding area. It’s perfect for outlaws on the lookout for an incoming posse and is a good incentive to get to know a place like the back of your hand. I’m sure the authorities looking for the Wild Bunch wished they had that advantage!

As a visitor to these canyons, I can’t fully imagine what it took to live in this remote region of the southwest. However, many people have and still do call this beautiful place home: Native Americans, early pioneers, ranchers, miners, and—last but not least—the outlaws who became icons of the West.

Elly Voigt: Experiencing the Colorado Plateau


We sat with the stream, and talked about what we saw. In the expansive desert of the Colorado Plateau, the pockets of water are the islands. What organisms live here, and what do they do when these seasonal streams dry up? How do the plants survive the drought and the flood? We observe the water strider bugs on the surface of the water. Their larval stages are spent in the intermittent streams, then, corresponding to the dry season, they grow wings as adults and are able to move. We noticed the brush high in the trees and shrubs growing in the wash. Do the spring floods reach that high? Along the canyon wall is another clue- a line between smooth, weathered rock and rough, jagged rock. This stream, now low and calm, becomes a roaring river with the spring floods.

This is our classroom- the Dark Canyon Wilderness, the Colorado Plateau, the world itself. I am writing this from under a ponderosa pine, my back to its bark and seated on a bed of its dry needles scattered with open cones. Its branches shield me from the light sprinkling coming from the grey clouds above.

Place-based learning gives you knowledge and connection like no lecture hall or textbook can. The best way to learn about the natural world is to get out into it- to walk through its deserts, forests, and rivers. To touch the layers of rock as you learn their names, to watch the birds and hear them sing. Throughout this course, we have walked through the Colorado Plateau. We toured the Glen Canyon Dam and saw for ourselves the affects it has on the landscape. Upriver, Lake Powell looms as an expansive body of water in the middle of this desert. Bathtub rings on the canyon walls show how full this reservoir was at its fullest, hundreds of feet above where the water is now. Downstream, the change in flood patterns caused by the dam’s regulations of water release has allowed invasive species like tamarisk to take over, crowding out the native species and affecting the ecology of the area.

These are our teachers- every flower we stop to smell; every speaker, local, and expert we have talked to. We are always learning. From reading about the endangered condor, to talking with the condor specialist for the state of Arizona, to seeing two condors in the wild warming their outspread wings in the sun in the same day.

We learned about the ancient people who lived here thousands of years ago, hiked to the ruins of their granaries, looked up at their pictographs, walked by their pottery shards and arrowheads scattering the ground, and meeting their descendants- the Hopi people. We stayed on the Hopi reservation, and planted corn in the traditional dry land farming method- with no watering. We butchered a sheep with the Navajo people, partook in a traditional sweat, and discussed current problems on the reservation, like diabetes and high unemployment rates.

We saw the effects of grazing on the landscape by crossing the boundary between heavily grazed BLM land and ungrazed Canyonlands National Park land. We crossed from barren desert of rock and sand to one full of life. We talked to BLM employees, park rangers, and locals about these grazing problems to get the full picture.

Getting all sides of issues, and learning to understand the complexity and dynamic-ness of our systems has been a theme of this course. Take this a step further- use this knowledge and apply it to your own life. In learning about this landscape, I have learned about myself. This experience has made me really excited about my own education. I love natural history; making observations and speculations, and understanding the interworking of the natural world. I’ve realized how much you can learn about a place by being in it and paying attention. Look around you- notice which plants grow where, cottonwoods in washes and ponderosas at high elevations. Notice the millions of years of built up rock, cut down by water into red canyons. The earth is in a constant state of change, covered in plants and animals constantly adapting to keep up. There is so much to learn about this world, and the best place to do that is out in the middle of it!

Cory Horton: The Value Found in Field Course Experiences

11017066_1032123520133514_358484404277688186_nThe educational environment and expectations in our country have changed a lot in the past few decades. In today’s world, as kids near high school graduation they are expected to have a life plan. Most importantly this includes a plan for college. Five years ago, as I neared graduation, the rhetoric of my teachers, counselors and parents urged me to find a college I wanted to attend and a degree I wanted to study; which basically leads to a life plan. The issue is at 18, few kids know what they want for dinner, let alone what they want for their life. Because of this pressure, I picked a school, but I didn’t have much luck picking and sticking to a major.

It was not until last summer when I attended an 18 day Environmental Ethics course through the Wild Rockies Field Institute that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Through this course, I gained experiential knowledge of climate change and environmental issues which led to a passion in educating myself in environmental issues. Currently, I am on my second WRFI course, Cycle the Rockies. Over the past three weeks we have been studying the energy systems in Montana, the economic, social and environmental impacts of these systems, as well as the broader topic of climate change.

In past blogs, I have discussed the specific information I have learned in this course.  Now I would like to take time to reflect on the benefits of outdoor education through WRFI and field courses in general.

To me, one of the most rewarding qualities of WRFI has been the time spent in the great outdoors. Remember in grade school when the teacher would announce that class would be held outdoors? I’m not sure about you, but I felt those were the best days. With WRFI, every day is an outdoor class day, and it’s not in the school yard, but rather it is amongst some of the most breathtaking scenery imaginable. I have had class in locations ranging from sandstone rocks perched on bluffs overlooking the endless grassy plains of the west, to natural mineral hot springs, to high mountain meadows on the continental divide. Tell me, with a straight face, that you would rather be in a clammy lecture room, packed with hundreds of students.

As engaging as the setting of WRFI classes is the class style and subject matter. Forget outdated (and expensive) textbooks and boring multi hour lectures. In the WRFI “classroom” the focus is on updated scientific journals and reliable, progressive reporting. Both of the courses I have attended have had an incredible collection of engaging and relatable material. As we traversed the high alpine we read of western pine beetles, endangered pika and receding glaciers. As we biked through wind farms we learned of energy policy, the viability of renewables and the economic impact of eliminating fossil fuels. I find there is no better time to learn about an issue than when it is right in front of you, begging for your inquiry.

All in all, field courses and WRFI in particular, provide students with an experience that the traditional college class cannot. They allow for hands on learning. They encourage real time discussion and debate. They surround you with an environment saturated in inquiry and information that goes beyond textbooks and lectures. Best of all, they do this while immersed in the great outdoors. For me, these classes have left a more lasting impression than all of my traditional college education combined. They have also allowed me to realize that climate change and environmental education are areas I want, and need, to spend the rest of my life perusing.

Traditional four year institutions may not be for everyone. But learning about what you love while immersed in real life situations brings about something, I feel, everyone can benefit from.