Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Crown of the Continent in Five Days by Jacob Seidel and Kaydee Borchers

Just shy of Canada in the small rural community of Polebridge
As our Wilderness and Civilization class toured the Crown of the Continent, from Bigfork, to Polebridge, Two Medicine-Badger, Triple Divide, and around to the Rocky Mountain Front, an overarching sense of responsibility was present. The responsibility to care and participate in the protection and enjoyment of the places we visited. Here is a concept which cannot easily be ignored; to be conscious about the environment around us and make changes to help out rather than to just take up space. Discussion with Mark Heaphy about how he lives sustainably and participating in pika and mountain goat surveys near Triple Divide Pass are a few examples of how we explored different ways to live responsibly and participate actively.
What impacted me the most about the trip was being able to do my learning at the place where the topic was most relevant. By being in the environment which we were discussing I built an emotional relationship with my surroundings which increased how much I cared about what we were learning at the given moment. For example, while learning about the fen ecosystem on the Rocky Mountain Front I was also sitting at a great viewing spot, looking at a fen that was right in front of me. From hands on experience to discussion about the politics in conservation we were able to gain a new “panoramic” perspective on how we can interact with our environment.
Monitoring for Pika and Mountain Goats near Triple Divide Pass
Throughout the visits we had with local leaders and managers, it was apparent that everyone is passionate about protecting the Crown of the Continent ecosystem. They all have a different relationship with the land, yet it is important to focus on the underlying values that can bring different people and groups together. Gary Burnett, the executive director for the Blackfoot Challenge, epitomized this concept with his “80/20 rule”, where we focus on the 80% of issues that we share a common stance on and work on the other 20% later, once we’ve built trust and fellowship. Gary and Lou Bruno, from the Glacier Two-Medicine Alliance spoke about not compromising on values, which could sacrifice portions of what we hold dear. I was thrown off by these comments at first, as they seem so foreign to the ideals of compromise that often are necessary to get anything done in this country. It is a struggle to balance the want to do something that has an immediate impact with the patience to fight for more. Gary and Lou both shared this philosophy, but their attitudes and methods were distinct. As a student, being able to see how people who care about similar issues but tackle them from different angles was very informative. There is no handbook or cookie-cutter method on how to make a difference, it just starts with passion and will.
From Flathead Lake, we continued north to Polebridge, the quaintest lil’ community you ever did see! With a year-round population of only sixty people and a history of independent-minded residents, this off-the-grid “town” provided an excellent stop to look at the intersection between humans and the wild, and how they continually shape each other. After climbing a short while to a lookout tower, which afforded us a view of the North Fork of the Flathead River, Polebridge, Glacier’s western extent, and the Whitefish range, we casually discussed river dynamics on the landscape, the history and future of mining development in the basin, and the changing community structure in Polebridge. Though it has escaped a lot of attention, more people are looking to move to areas like Polebridge, with just enough amenities to stay sane but more wild lands than anyone could ask for. Many of the new residents have different ideas on how to interact with the community or want to live a different lifestyle than the current and historical residents, which obviously changes the culture in such a small place. The North Fork valley has also had interest from developers in the mining industry. This has been the focus of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which is currently in congress but, if passed, will provide protections for the North Fork from large development activities, especially resource extraction. I have faith that Polebridge will retain it’s character for a long time, the North Fork will be protected, and the mercantile will continue to make the best bear claw’s around.

We spent the better portion of our 4th day climbing toward Triple Divide Pass, which sits just north of Triple Divide Peak. The peak’s moniker is derived from its affect on the hydrology of the local area as well as all of North America. Theoretically, a water droplet that falls on the peak could drain into either the Pacific Ocean to the west, Hudson’s Bay and the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Atlantic to the east (although some are skeptical if this is the actual exact spot where this happens…). Our focus, however, was on conducting citizen science wildlife surveys of pika and mountain goats. The low clouds made fall feel real and lent a mysterious beauty to the landscape, but obscured the view of our mountain goat spotters. Pika crew #1 realized the difficulties of conducting science in a natural landscape as well, when they couldn’t locate the previous site marker, and almost came out empty-handed. As they were leaving the newly situated site, they hear the high-pitch, almost comical “meep!” of a nearby pika. During the rest of the hike we spotted elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats (but not at survey sites), moose, squirrels and a few species of birds. As we elevated beyond Medicine Grizzly Lake and the lower horizon of the clouds, I was struck by the ethereal beauty and power of the landscape, where the forces of nature (generally) run free of their own accord. At the top of the pass two of the three major watersheds that Triple Divide forms became visible. It was easy to see from this vantage point how important small, localized features are to the greater environment, how important they are in our culture and beliefs, and how important it is to continue protecting these invaluable places.

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