Reflection By Julia Douglas, Photographs by John Harrington
The Rocky Mountain Front, where the great rolling plains are broken vertically into jagged peaks, is referred to by the Blackfeet people as “the backbone of the world”, and it was there they would go to seek wisdom and spiritual guidance. The plains were home to them, but the mountains held something of the sacred. In the final days of August, our Wilderness and Civilization class took to these very mountains for eleven days.
We walked south along the Two Medicine River, crossing down into the Badger creek drainage, over the pass onto Strawberry Creek, through Gateway Gorge, and along Birch Creek until we broke out onto the plains again near Swift Reservoir.
To be in the backcountry for such a long uninterrupted period of time is to experience a distinct difference of mentality from shorter trips. There are no complications and external pressures that define life in the civilized world. After a few days of acclimation, the entire sphere of one’s normal life in town seems distant and not influential. You are left to be exactly where you are. The changing landscapes become the pattern of the days- going from one valley to the next through shifting forests and burn areas, high alpine and aspen parkland.
As we hiked along our route, observing and identifying the flora around us was of particular importance. To fully identify and come to terms with a plant takes time. In a trip of such long duration, we had the ability to truly understand the flora in context of its environment, distribution, and varieties of appearance. We didn’t just learn to identify the lodgepole pine from a guidebook- we saw the gradient of lodgepoles throughout burn areas and recovering areas, we made dinner on its fallen needles, and we felt the way it shaded out the sun to create moist understory habitat. It was in this way we became familiar with the landscapes throughout the days.
There is a difference between theoretical knowledge and the true holistic understanding that comes from experience. Our trip along the Rocky Mountain Front was defined by experiential learning of the place that we were moving through. Care for a place isn’t engendered from external formal education. It is difficult to feel care for something you have no memory based experience of. But I know for myself and every person in my group, that we all now have a great care for the landscapes of the Badger Two Medicine area. The place was not the backdrop for our backpacking trip, but an active and alive part of the experience. For a while, our human lives ran parallel to the life of the Rocky Mountain Front ecosystem. This connection will endure throughout the semester as we now embark on the academic side of learning about the wilderness. Hopefully we will ultimately combine our experiential care with intellectual backing to help in the efforts to protect, conserve, and manage this special place.
Fall Trek 2014 Reflection by Sanders Smith, Photos By Kaitlyn Kriz
It was quarter after seven on August 27th and the sun was creeping over the eastern edge of Missoula. We, this year’s students in the Wilderness and Civilization program, met up in a parking lot before departing on our fall trek to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Badger Two Medicine area.
While we waited for our transportation to arrive, all twenty of us sat around in a big circle munching on some pre-trip snacks. Our backpacks were comically large – stuffed to the brim with eleven days food and gear. Despite the heavy load and the early hour, everyone looked eager.
We were divided into two groups – ten students and two facilitators in each. The first group was headed to Mariahs Pass, hiking generally southeast through the Badger Two Medicine and the Bob, ultimately ending up at Swift Reservoir. The other group, my group, was essentially taking the same route but in reverse, heading in at Swift and out at Mariahs Pass. We hopped into our respective cars and took off.
Before hiking, my group stopped in Augusta and met with Hal Herring to learn some background of the area. Hal is an accomplished journalist with articles on conservation, energy development, and wildlife politics published in big time journals (Field & Stream, High Country News, etc.). He talked about the history of the Rocky Mountain Front, oil and gas development, the Bob Marshall and wolves. The topics all felt so interconnected that it was hard to tell where one ended and the next began. He spoke passionately throughout his talk but was especially emphatic about the role of politics and policy in shaping the landscape we were about to enter. He wished us a good trip and, with that, we left for Swift Resevoir.
It was a quintessential late summer afternoon in Montana: 80something with a slight breeze, the sun glinting off the wind-rippled surface of the water. Lumplets of cottage cheese cloud drifting lazily in the deep blue sky. Pine scent clinging to the mountain air. We hiked around the picturesque reservoir and found an ideal campsite near its southwestern end. We discussed Leave No Trace Principles before setting up our tents. We cooked dinner, ate, made a campfire, and prepared to call it a day.
The sky had darkened. Overhead, an unfathomable number of stars pinpricked the night. To the east, over the reservoir, the horizon glowed. Nobody knew what it was. There was no city, no streetlights, no reason for a glow in that direction. The glow ascended and grew more intense. The light shifted color and shape. A green then yellow band of luminescence, the aurora borealis, was jutting streaks of itself high into the firmament. We watched as the phenomenon painted the sky and the mirror topped water.
We woke up, broke camp, and hiked. We hiked every day but one, about 5-7 miles per day. All told, around 65 miles or so. Every one of those miles was noteworthy, but for the sake of brevity (this would be a pretty long blog post if I treated every day as descriptively as the first one), I will focus on some highlights:
-We saw grizzly bear, black bear and wolf tracks! Whoa!!
- We each prepared a lesson for the group and taught it! We had topics ranging from traditional Blackfeet storytelling to arachnids; wolves to geology! Cool!
- We had field guides to rocky mountain flora and learned to identify some plants! Achnillaea millifolium (yarrow)!!
- We ate the most delicious meals every night! Yum!!
- We all got cool trail nicknames! Crampbark!
- We learned a lot about the landscape, each other, and ousrelves! Neat!
In our 11 days out, we amassed a considerable amount of both knowledge and stank. Just as the smell of campfire and body odor took more than the wash a few showers to fade from skin, I am sure that these memories and lessons will take more than the wash of a few years to fade from mind.