Emily Quigg: Cooking in a Corridor

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After a cold and wet six-mile hike, there was nothing I wanted to do more than crawl into my sleeping bag and go to sleep. However, everyone still needed to eat. Of course that day my course job was to help cook dinner.

At home, I am more of a microwave chef. If all else fails I will just go to Wawa, a Pennsylvania gas station convenience store, and grab a hoagie. That being said, cooking is obviously not my strong suit. Luckily, on a WRFI course, there are two cooks each night so I wasn’t alone in my efforts. As I started chopping the bell peppers for Jambalaya, and the other cook started the stoves, I looked at the rain falling onto Bovin Lake and pondered what we learned in class that day.

An excerpt from the book, The Carnivore Way, by Cristina Eisenberg, explained the importance corridors have for large predators and how corridors are implemented in the environment. A corridor is a landscape that species move through to get to other habitats. For example, the goal of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, or Y2Y, is to connect core habitats that allow animals to move from one area to another. As I continued cooking dinner, I thought more specifically how the area we are in, The Castle Wildland Provincial Park, may act as a corridor.

The Castle was officially designated as a provincial park three years ago in 2015. The park had a three million dollar budget to implement a plan and add new features. The park’s management plan protects the wildlife and headwater region, respects and upholds the rights of Aboriginals in the park, and ensures recreational opportunities for the public. ATVs and other motorized vehicles were outlawed. Snowmobiles are still allowed and research is being done to assess their impact.

While making sure the rice didn’t burn and my hands didn’t freeze, I thought about the grizzly bears this corridor is important to. Grizzly bears need corridors to live and procreate successfully. Grizzly bears have a very low reproductive rate. Once cubs are born and reach maturity, the female cubs are philopatric, meaning they stay in their mother’s home range. However, male grizzly bears need 400- 1,000 square miles to roam during their lifetime to eat, hibernate, and, most importantly, to mate. Without the dispersal of male grizzlies, some populations of grizzlies could become isolated and prone to inbreeding.

Cooking dinner made me think of what the grizzlies might be eating out in the Castle. Grizzlies are omnivores, like humans, and munch on a variety of plants, animals, and nuts. Having to consume a lot of calories daily, grizzlies have been known to eat over 200 different species. Grizzlies are opportunistic hunters and often scavenge wolf kills for an easy meal, despite 80% of their diet being plants.  Without the Castle acting as a corridor for grizzlies, they might travel across roads and face devastating automobiles, venture into towns to find food, and struggle for survival. With the corridors in place, grizzlies can avoid roads and humans, forage for food, and have a better chance at survival.

As the meal began to come together, the other cook and I called everyone to climb out of their tents and their warm sleeping bag cocoons to gather under our rain tarp for dinner. We took a moment of silence before our meal as we do every night and in that moment I felt very lucky to be in such an amazing place for people and bears alike. In the end, the Jambalaya was a success and nobody was harmed in the process.

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Shannon Lynch: My Happy Place

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“Even when I’m a thousand miles away from my roots, I’m home.”

-Zac Brown Band

Growing up in a small town in Southern New Jersey with not many things to do and always wanting to be elsewhere, it was hard to find a sense of place and home there. Since moving out West four years ago, I’ve moved three times, Colorado, Nevada, and now Montana—each place feeling more like home than the previous. I’m not quite sure if Montana is the place, but I’m okay with that, I have plenty left to explore.

Jumping into a six-week course that explored the Crown of the Continent, I was excited to get to know places I’d never been to. The Crown of the Continent includes northern Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia.  And I love it. Plans have changed on the fly—rerouted backpacking trips due to flooding and recent forest fires—but that’s okay, life is always changing things up.

School hasn’t been the easiest journey for me. I’m dyslexic and have reading and writing comprehension issues. This course is challenging. Getting up at 7 am, having class at 8, then tossing on a 60lb pack and hiking 7 miles to our next destination to then read 50 pages that night, can be tiring. But when I’m in nature learning clicks for me.

Walking through and learning about my surroundings suits me better than merely reading about it.  I came into this trip not knowing any tree species. Within two weeks, I can easily spot a Western Larch, Lodge-Pole Pine, White Bark Pine, Engelmann Spruce, and so on. I had never backpacked prior to this and three weeks in, I have my daily backpacking routine down, such as how to organize and fit my pack properly. It has been rewarding to see how far I’ve come academically and physically.  I feel a sense of pride of my accomplishments. This sense of pride has been boosting my mental health.

My mental health tends to drop in school since my way of learning doesn’t fit into the “traditional” educational system. My academic struggles are not fun to deal with and can be discouraging at times.  But an outdoor classroom doesn’t have the same distractions as an indoor one, such as a kid in front of you on his laptop watching Netflix or the girl texting on her phone having an argument with her boyfriend. The outdoor classroom may have a nosey chipmunk or an Osprey diving into the lake looking for breakfast. Many of these distractions provide teachable moments. Being able to sit at an alpine lake, enjoying its beauty and enjoying my reading is very calming because I’m absorbing more out here. This course has shown me that I can progress in school and my grades so far have been proving so.

One of our guest speakers, who teaches at the Blackfeet Community College, is also an advocate for experiential education.  She said that the Blackfeet value it for their growing process. As Helen said, “how can you be in it and not outside?” Words on paper can only do so much justice.

Really getting to know this place and the people in it has made it feel like home. Finding a sense of place in a country I’ve never been to is exciting. As we have learned in class, hundreds of species and different environments all have a connection together. As I learn more and explore new places, I find new connections to these places. I like the NorthFace tagline, “Never Stop Exploring”, and use it as a motto for myself. As I keep exploring on this course, it’s refreshing to be connected to new territories and call them home. I am satisfied knowing that “Even when I’m a thousand miles away from my roots, I’m home.”

Steve Schmidt: One Father’s Epiphany

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To the fathers of eight exceptional young women:

You sent your girls off into the backcountry of Montana and Canada. I would have been nervous being a father of three adult girls myself.

We left two days after Father’s Day. I, like many of you, most likely did not get to enjoy our daughters’ company on that special day. Your girls may no longer live with you, but I assure you, you are with them. Walking these trails, I have heard countless times: ”my dad does this” or “my dad says that.

The girls, your girls, they dream of careers, question religions of the world, worry about finances, speak well about their families, and ponder possible love interests. The very same hopes, dreams, and concerns that you and I enjoyed as twenty-somethings leaning forward in life; they are eager!

From the time of Plato, higher learning has been about self-enlightenment – striving to be the best person one can be. Most colleges emphasize the academic, of course; however, the Wild Rockies Summer Semester is not bound to the academic enlightenment per se. Along with studying engaging, timely topics such as conservation biology, traditional ecological knowledge in the Rockies, and the history of Wilderness, we choose to push ourselves physically in pursuit of intellectual growth.

To all the fathers: the morals you spoke, instilled in them, and lived by, are the tools these girls carry into the backcountry – and into life. If you are overly concerned about them here in the wild, STOP! It is their turn! So rest easy, Dad, your little girls are Strong, Powerful, Women. With each stride forward on these backcountry trails, they step forward into their physical, intellectual, and feminine enlightenment.

Alyssa Swartz: Wilderness Defined Differently

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No one wants to carry around an encyclopedia in their 75 liter pack through the Scapegoat Wilderness. Even if I did want to carry around my phone, there is no service for Siri to look up definitions for me. Therefore I am challenged to create my own definition of “Wilderness.” With assistance of my WRFI reader, I have carefully crafted my own personal definition that I can only hope meets the standards of my naturalist predecessors.

Bob Marshall in his 1930 essay “The Problem of Wilderness” spoke of wilderness as “a region which contains no permanent inhabitants, possesses no possibility of convergence by mechanical means, and is sufficiently spacious that a person in crossing it must have the experience of sleeping out.” Over the past week, I have been honored to backpack through the Helena National Forest and Scapegoat Wilderness, part of a series of interconnected wilderness areas named after Bob Marshall himself. He was a pioneer, with inspiring insight and thoughts about the American landscape beyond his time.

A more recent thinker who also tackles ideas about wilderness is the writer Christopher Ketcham. In his recent article in Orion Magazine, called “Taming the Wilderness,” he writes: “Wilderness is intended, among its other purposes, to be a refuge for wild animals and plants, where the processes of evolution, so far as we humans have observed them, are to remain unmolested and unhampered.” Ketcham also defines wilderness as “difficult to reach and explore, sometimes dangerous to life and limb.” Through his writings, Ketcham inspires me to expand my own definition of the natural world and of wilderness. We must acknowledge that we have not been “humble or responsible.” This realization has led me to a passion for stepping up and advocating for the stewarding of our public lands and wilderness.

In addition to Marshall and Ketcham, other naturalist writers have contributed to my personal definition of wilderness, including Thomas Lowe Fleischner and the novelist Wallace Stegner. These two authors had powerful remarks about loving the natural world we are surrounded by, and fighting for what is left of it. Both encourage acceptance of what is, but also of what can be. While they don’t deny that there are serious environmental problems, they both encourage us to strive beyond the status quo. They both want us to better the wilderness in every possible way. Thomas Lowe Fleischner states “a known and loved world has more effective advocates than one that is ignored.” Wallace Stegner writes, “Better a wounded wilderness than none at all.” These wise words have provoked in me my own, unique definition of wilderness.

Now with you I share my vision of Wilderness:

Wilderness: A home to plants and animals that did not earn our respect, but simply deserve our respect through their existence. A natural area that allows humans to escape, find solitude, and practice mindfulness. A home and refuge that must be protected and fought for by the naturalists and passionate advocates, few in number, but strong in heart.

My definition of Wilderness draws on perspectives from both science and philosophy. To me, my definition is pure, honest, and valuable. The opportunity to temporarily live in a Wilderness, as I am right now, forces me to practice being a steward of this earth. It forces us, as humans, to open our eyes to how small we are in the scheme of all beings. These vast landscapes allow me to dream bigger, reach higher, and advocate for the land that sustains us.

Although my journey to find and perfect the definition of Wilderness is just beginning, I hope and dream that with every passing night, I find more of myself among these lands; I want my dreams to soar, just as the towering Lodgepole Pines reach for the sky. They are my guides. For now I thank the Wilderness for humbling me, empowering me, and allowing me to let my light shine.

Sloane Adams: My First Backpacking Experience

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I signed up with Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) at the end of December, eager and excited. After waiting only a few weeks, I got an email from WRFI notifying me of my acceptance. In the back of my mind I was completely questioning my motives and “How in the world would I be able to complete a six week backpacking course all while learning four different subjects?” Originally I wanted to join WRFI because of the amazing opportunities it would offer and because it was a 12-credit course taking place in the backcountry – an entire semester in the woods!  Not only was I a bit nervous but I was also skeptical of my ability to complete this course of study. I was worried I would not be physically prepared, even though I was told to start working out months in advance. Additionally, I believed myself to not be scholastically prepared. The semester before this course, I struggled academically due to my lack of focus and preparation. Because of this my confidence lessened drastically, causing me to question my abilities.

But my confidence and persistence has ensured my success here. As the months turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into days, the idea of this all happening finally started to sink in: I was actually going backpacking for six weeks. Of course not only was I nervous about the course, the backpacking itself, but also the people. I was worried I would be unable to make friends or that the group dynamic would be different than I pictured.

Things began falling into place from the get-go. My fellow students are very accepting, easy to talk to, and non-judgmental, making it the perfect group to bond with. This has been key, because as soon as the backpacking finally began, things started to become very real. My first backpacking trip was harder than I imagined: the entire time I had one thought in my head, “Why did I ever believe I could do this?” If I had a general idea of what backpacking was like before I went on this course, I would have thought it to be very difficult but maybe easy to pick up on; so far it has been both.

Not only did I not know anyone very well, but I was also carrying a 50-pound backpack. When backpacking with a group, our communal items – the pots, pans, food, etc. – are distributed among each hiker, comprising what’s called “group weight.” We all had some kind of group gear to carry; for instance, I carried two bottles of fuel and a night’s dinner, and some thick natural history field guides. This made my backpack quite heavier than I imagined. If I got the chance to go back and buy everything all over again, I would most likely buy strapped sandals for walking around camp and for crossing creeks – rather than my heavier street shoes.

As soon as we got to our first location, “Heart Lake,” my body finally started to feel at ease, and I could finally relax. But then the real work began: learning! Now this is not meant to be discouraging for anyone who wants to go on a backpacking trip to get a few credits. This is meant for anyone who dreams big, but never chases it. Because there is one big thing I forgot to mention: this has been by far one of the best experiences ever! You get over the feeling of “I can’t do this,” because you can. Your body becomes accustomed. The classes become more interesting as the days pass. I became really comfortable in our class setting, considering it was always outside. I started to engage more in the conversation, asking questions and getting involved in debates. I contemplate my curiosities. I could never do this sitting in a classroom full of 300 students, but out here in the wilderness with just nine students, it becomes easier. The course readings became genuinely interesting for every topic we’ve tackled. And these classes pertained to my major, which made them more fun to learn about. One topic in general pertained to biodiversity and ecological restoration, and my major is resource conservation. So being able to dig deeper into the background of these critical debates in my field prepared me for my studies back at school.

There is no substitute for place-based, active, experiential learning: it engages me physically, intellectually, and emotionally. There are some things that become a once in a lifetime opportunity, and this is one of them.

Brianna Rykken: A Day Behind Glazed Eyes

Bri blog 2 photoWith this piece I am portraying two of the values of the wilderness; accessing the concrete, physical attributes that surround you and the reflective thought that they provoke. Some choose to see value in what is before their eyes whereas others find value in the opportunity to explore what goes on behind them. I have found the two to be more connected than one may think. Here is a day in the two intertwined realities that wilderness inspires.

                The day began heading down into Woodenshoe Canyon. The crisp morning chill was still in the air but the hot desert sun was making its way into our skin. This canyon is immediately different than the previous trips. There is a cleared, single-file trail for one! Also, a new rock layer is present, the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. It switches back and fourth from a deep red to a muddy white. It is home to many more tree than we have seen before. There are so many trees! Ponderosa, Pinons, Junipers. Everything is so green. It feels so alive.

Everything is green. It feels so alive.
I haven’t thought that since I was back home in Minnesota.
I wonder how everything is back home. I haven’t had much thought
of my family, we have been so busy. How are my parents? My sister
graduates soon. I am so excited to see them again.
Everything is green. It feels so alive.

                Camp is finally in vision. Hips are red from where packs rested all day. The wash near our site is dry but walking upstream, a vibrate swamp comes into vision. There are scattered pools throughout. The water is covered in a fine layer of pollen, but for tonight it will have to do. There are little flowers everywhere. The Naturalist Guide says they are Carpet Phlox. Nearing camp, there are tracks in the mud. There are bear prints! They have five short toes. This one must have been huge! It is so nice to be back in the wilderness.

It is so nice to be back in the wilderness.
What exactly is wilderness? Thomas Fleischner think it is where we
fall in love with the world. Wallace Stegner thinks it is simply an idea that
keeps him going. Funny how he sits at a desk and thinks about the
wilderness whereas I sit in the wilderness and think about him.
Its so nice to be back in the wilderness.

                Class begins in the late afternoon. The canyon walls rise high above us, forming the boundaries of the Dark Canyon Wilderness. The reading for today was The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature by William Cronon. “Wilderness, in short, was a place to which one came only against one’s will, and always in fear and trembling.” Why did they see things so differently?

Why did they see things so differently?
It’s a fair excuse, they didn’t know any better. I wonder who it is in
todays world who is so unable to see. Is it the miners? Or the environmentalists?
Or is it me?
Why did they see things so differently?

                The buttes around us glow under the setting sun, signaling that the day is coming to an end. A chill is creeping back into the air. Its smells of fresh pine. It is time to start tonight’s reading. Land management of Bears Ears National Monument is the focus. The administration justified this change by stating that the Monument was not “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected…” as the Antiquities Act states, although this matter is still in litigation. It also stated that “Public lands will again be for public use.”

Public land will again be for public use.
Does this mean the workers who want the land for its resources?
What about the Native Americans who revere the land for its
sacredness? Or simply the hikers who love the land for its beauty? Is it
crazy to imagine that one day we could all see eye to eye?
Public land will again be for public use.

                The night has gone cold. One by one, the illuminating lights of headlamps are turned into darkness. The silence is only occasionally broken by the wind blowing through the trees and the deep breathes of the slumbering creatures who fill Woodenshoe Canyon tonight. The world is lit by a sliver of light brought by the infinite number of stars.