Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Milltown State Park


            The Milltown State Park sits at the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers, just a short drive or bike ride from Missoula. Unique in its own right, the park is divided by the Clark Fork River. On a cold and windy morning in November, we met Michael Kustudia, Montana State Parks, at the overlook, perched on the south side of the river.


The view from the overlook sets your gaze eastward, over Bandmann Flats. This floodplain used to be covered by water, containing the remnants of heavy metals sent downstream from the mining operations of Butte, MT. Today, the persistent Clark Fork carves through, reclaiming a more natural meandering path. 


Judging by an aerial view, it’s difficult to imagine that this was ever the site of a dam that became Montana’s first Superfund site. The Milltown dam was built in 1908 and supplied power to the one of the largest, most active mills in Montana. Mr. Kustudia explained how important the dam was to the town and industries, but also how damaging it was to the community. The same year it was built, a flood also breached the dam and consequently toxic mineral deposits Residents of Milltown were drinking water from their wells that were contaminated with arsenic and other byproducts from the upstream industries.


It wasn’t until 10 years ago that the Milltown dam was removed and toxic sediment was dredge and sent to holding ponds. The EPA and Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program has funneled in thousands of dollars in order to improve water quality and restore natural ecological processes. Mr. Kustudia says their efforts have returned the river to a more natural state. Black bear footprints line the shoreline and raptors dive bomb the river for fish.
The Milltown experience is a story of hope and restoration. Despite seemingly dark times and murky waters for many ecological and human health issues, a solution may lay down river. The Milltown State Park is a testament to time and faith. It truly was inspiring to hear how the profound problems of the Clark Fork, after and century and a half of degradation from mining, were solved though with long term ecological restoration in mind.

Mr. Kustudia’s candid and hopeful delivery of the Milltown State Park’s muddy beginnings served as a platform of enduring hard work. His mother grew up just north of the site, but still within the Milltown superfund site. However, his description held no perceivable animosity or anger toward what happened. He remained clear and objective, dead set on the goal of the project, without carrying the weight of fury I feel many of we younger environmentalists feel burdened with.
The century long history of this project, from conception to restoration, is a glimmering optimism for our generation. The inundating number of mistakes made in the name of development and progress can be addressed with the Milltown story in mind.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

Butte Field Trip

Cory Mitchell
November 13, 2015
Berkley Pit
Friday November 6th, the 40th class of Wilderness and Civilization visited Butte, Montana. Snow had fallen the night before giving the town of butte, along with the Berkley Pit some “make-up” to conceal scars of the past.

(Entering the tunnel to the pit viewing area)
Our first stop was at the south side entrance of the Berkley Pit, and we were greeted by Butte historian and enthusiast Richard Gibson. We went through a tunnel in the hill that led to a viewing porch of the pit, where Dick told us unbelievable detailed facts about the mine. Butte is referred to as “the richest hill on earth”, because of the immense amounts of precious metals that were harvested. After the lightbulb was invented in the late 1800s, the demand for copper skyrocketed, causing the town to grow like crazy. The mining town of Butte experienced every stage of development, from camp to boomtown to mature city onto a center for historic preservation and environmental cleanup. In the early 1900s it was one of the largest cities in the U.S. with a population of 100,000 comparable to New York and Chicago. After WWI the demand for copper declined causing the population of the town to dwindle to a mere 30,000. The urban downfall of Butte was just the beginning.

(View of the pit from the north-west side)
 The pit is 1x1.5 miles around and approximately 1,800ft deep filled to around 900ft with water, closing in on the natural water table. Combination of 10,000 miles of tunnel run-off along with the deep strip mine waste caused the water to become toxic. The pit is heavily monitored because if said water were too leak/spill, it could contaminate one of Montana’s largest headwaters. The water is very acidic, and has a pH level of 2.5, equivalent to lemon juice or cola. People including scientists are no longer allowed on the pit “lake”, and most animals that come in contact with the water become sick or die. There is a siren that sounds regularly to keep animals (mostly waterfowl) from lading in the toxic water. There were a few minor theoretical solutions to help slow down the levels of contamination, but they were scrapped because the costs would be in the billions and no one knew if they would actually be beneficial for prevention. The water is managed differently as time goes on or as we heard many times “in perpetuity”.

(view of downtown Butte)
Richard brought us to city hall where you could see the wealth that Butte possessed in the past with the lovely architecture and art displayed in the hall. We walked around downtown admiring the amazing classical buildings.

(Joe informing the class)
Then we met up with longtime Butte geologist Joe Griffin, on the north-west side of the pit. We were able to view some old mining equipment and retired structures. Joe gave us some insight on his opinions as an expert on the situation, and made many of us realize just how severe the pollution was.

(old sealed off mine shafts)
We wrapped things up in Anaconda where Joe showed us some old smelting stacks that were used for mineral processing. After the processing plant was closed, people realized there was still much hazardous and contaminated waste in the area. Millions of dollars has been spent in an effort to clean up the toxic district.

(Group photo in Anaconda; in front of an old smelter stack)
Overall it was an awesome trip, probably one of our most informative weekend sessions. Dick and Joe were just full of information about the region. It’s hard to determine the best possible answers when it comes to mining. Everyone in America (and all over the world) needed/ relied on the materials that came from the Butte district for numerous reasons, so it is difficult to say “no mining” when we so heavily rely on the products. But the aftermath of the mining will be felt long into the future for generations to come. It was a very thought-provoking trip that made me re-realize that natural resources NEED to be managed properly or for “the greatest outcome for the greater good”, we need to maintain ourselves without “biting” the literal hand that feeds us.        

40th Anniversary Event

Tessa Leake and Bryce Shaneyfelt
40th anniversary event
November 5, 2015

             On Thursday, October 29th, the Wilderness Institute and the Wilderness and Civilization Program had its 40th Anniversary celebration at Flathead Brewery, a local brewery in downtown Missoula. 

The night began with Natalie Dawson (above), director of the Wilderness and Civilization Program, giving a brief introduction on what the program consists of, as well as the influence it has had on members of it and the community over the years. Additionally, she acknowledged a number of individuals who have played key roles in the success and longevity of both the Wilderness Institute and the Wilderness and Civilization Program. She also described a relatively new program the Wilderness Institute has recently implemented called the Freshman Wilderness Experience. The idea came to her when she was on top of a mountain with her students and they were all whooping and having a great time. She began thinking of having students on top of a mountain yelling “I’m free” and that turned into FWE (Freshman Wilderness Experience) where groups of freshman are taken out on a four day backpacking trip just before the beginning of the semester. The program's goal is to get as many freshmen into the wild as possible so they too can experience what it means to have a true appreciation for nature.

           Natalie then handed the floor over to Bob Ream (above) who is one of the original founders of the Wilderness  Institute and Wilderness and Civilization Program. Bob spoke about some of his experiences with students in his years in the program. He recounted a story of being on the Fall Trek and getting to a campsite with his students. They wanted to hike up to the peak, but he convinced them to wait until the morning, so they could do a sunrise hike. Bob continued to speak of one of his fondest memories while being a part of the program. He remembered waking everyone up at three o’clock in the morning, hiking to the top of the peak and seeing one of the most breathtaking sunrises of his life.

            The night was a great opportunity for both former and current members of Wilderness and Civilization to interact and learn from each other. If you were to walk around the room you would see people of all ages striking up conversations because of the shared love of wilderness. Students from old classes reconnected with their former classmates and shared memories from old trips.

The current students pestered the graduates with questions, curious to learn where the program took them and what activities, both personally and professionally, they occupied their time with. This was a great experience to illustrate the fact that many graduated of the program go on to pursue very meaningful roles as they continue their journey through life carrying a true love for nature. We, as current students, also saw how lasting the friendships made in Wilderness and Civ are. Even years after the program, people greeted each other like it had been only yesterday they began that hike on the Fall Trek.

Orographic Field Trip

Orographic Field Trip, Lauren and Megan

At 8am on Friday, October 30th, the UM’s 40th Wilderness and Civilization class set off on a journey for a firsthand experience of the phenomenal orographic effect. We all knew we were in for a treat as our Fearless Leader and conservation ecology professor Natalie Dawson took charge for the day.
         Our first stop of the 60 mile day put us out of our warm cars and into pouring rain at the Lolo ranger station to learn about the orographic effect. The orographic effect explains the drastic change in rainfall, weather, soil and species composition across the windward and leeward sides of large mountain ranges. On the windward side of a range, precipitation condenses. This creates heavy rainfall as the clouds are pushed into the windward slopes. Clouds lose much of their water as they travel into and over the peak of mountains. Thus, the leeward side receives extremely low amounts of precipitation.

Jackson refreshes his topographic map reading skills while pondering the orographic effect

 Once we had the basic concept of the effect down, everyone piled back into the vehicles and drove West to DeVoto Cedar Grove, where we began our lab. We scratched down notes as quickly as possible as the rain beat down on us.

Silas observing large woody debris on the windward side of the range in the Devoto Cedar Grove forest

Here we saw a luscious green temperate rainforest comprised of species such as old growth cedars, Douglas firs, liverworts, a variety of mushrooms, and many other species. My lab group was stoked about the mushrooms we’d found, and shared our excitement with Natalie. “So usually if the bottom is spongy like this, you can eat it,” Natalie explained. Andrew replied, “Wait Natalie, you’re saying that usually it would be okay for me to eat this right now but this may be like, a life or death thing here.” All in good humor, but a solid point still. Once we took down all crucial information-- latitude and longitude, species makeup, canopy structure, coarse woody debris, and evidence of disturbance-- we moved to our next site.

Natalie goofing off with Tessa, Andrew, and Cory in the Lolo Pass temperate rainforest

Transect number two was the peak of Lolo Pass, which also receives heavy rainfall and thus had similar species composition as DeVoto. When our work here was finished we headed down the leeward side of the range, finally escaping the rain. At Fort Fizzle we found entirely new species and forest structures—a forest that is drier and fire-dependent. The tree population consisted largely of Ponderosa, Aspen, Cottonwood, and Doug fir, and few woody debris were present. This type of environment intensified as we headed East to our last location, Blue Mountain. When we arrived, the orographic effect became extremely clear to me. In a short amount of time we had reached a dry open valley that received only 14 inches of rain each year; DeVoto receives 1,083 inches. Here, the only tree species we saw was Ponderosa. The understory was made almost entirely of cheatgrass.

The group heading out to explore the dry lands of Blue Mountain

         The rain, friends, learning and fun made for another fascinating field day for Widlerness and Civ.

Natalie teaching about riparian species along side of Lolo Creek at the Fort Fizzle site

Monday, November 2, 2015

Rocky Mountain Front Field Trip

WC Field Trip– Rocky Mountain Front

Colleen Leddie and Marko Capoferri

The Language of Wild

I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy – Charles Baudelaire

            This past weekend marked our final weekend field trip of the semester, and like Baudelaire says above, finality of this kind has its own sort of beautiful melancholy: you know that whatever you see or experience, however beautiful, cannot be held for long, and that at some point you must let it go.
            Like a true grand finale, our trip to the Rocky Mountain Front offered no shortage of unexpected excitement, a series of adventures packed with surprises, goose-bump inducing speakers, some literal car camping, and endless Rocky Mountain panoramas, hinting at peaks just waiting behind miles and miles of wide, grassy plains.
            Knowing that our weekend adventures have come to an end, it is natural to reflect on the path that led us to this point, to speculate on what may be coming up ahead, and to tie together all loose ends in order to find the deeper meaning in all we are here to do. This past weekend was laden with mental tie-ins, largely to uncover some deeper sense of why we are all here. Not even necessarily in this program here or location here or how we are all together to discuss such substantial, heavy and emotional issues that are so relevant and continuous. It is hard to not to feel impotent discussing some of these topics concerning endangered species, climate change, and oil and gas drilling on wild lands; on the flip side, it was remarkable how uplifting a conversation with Lou Bruno of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance could arouse feelings of power and positive change for our future.
            The theme of the weekend was stories: the stories we tell ourselves and each other, about who we are, why and how we live, what we want in this world; stories tie us together as humans.  Author and journalist Hal Herring talked about moving to Montana and his path to becoming a wilderness advocate. Lou Bruno told us about his childhood in New York, finding mystery and meaning in a salt marsh that eventually succumbed to the bulldozers. Casey Perkins discussed the rigors of working protective legislation through government bureaucracy. Of course, at the base of these stories and every story, is language.
            The few hours spent at the Piegan Language Institute in Browning, Montana triggered some broad understandings that just seemed to make sense. Naturally at the language school we talked about language and how the Blackfoot dialect was dying both economically and culturally. Robert Hall, the teacher and speaker at the language school implicitly introduced an idea that was greater than one specific endangered tongue. Language is the essence that culturally secures us. Without language, then, what do we have? This extends so far beyond any one particular culture or group of people. On a large scale our language with the natural world is endangered and it is up to us to relearn it, to tell the stories that need to be told, to make the deeper connections between people spread far and wide both geographically and ideologically.
We’ve spent a little over a month now learning, studying, traveling, and experiencing things that we hopefully won’t soon forget. At the beginning of the semester, it was mentioned that this program might not have an instantly gratifying effect, but rather larger, profound implications that manifest beautifully and boldly, where momentarily everything finds a way of coming together and you discover yourself making worldly connections, being a part of something greater than ourselves. We’re learning to speak in new and bold ways, and hopefully one day we’ll get to tell our stories to those that need to hear them. 

Fall Trek 2015 Reflections

Wilderness & Civilization
Fall Trek 2015

Entry 1: Gunnar & Lauren
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Dinner time was the coziest time. One of my favorite things about being in the wilderness is living each day by the minute and relying solely on yourself and your immediate community, including all aspects of the landscape, to keep you jiving. For me, balanced meals and sustenance are an exciting part of all of this. Since we were assigned the very first evening’s meal, we decided to pack in about 4 pounds of vegetables-each- so as to best revitalize and prepare our lovely backcountry family. We were both very pleased to have dropped those pounds and satisfy our peers early on!
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    Photo courtesy of The Hiker Formerly Known as Chance
“Those two out there are Pilot and Index, and just to the right is The Thunderer in the Lamar Valley. Then if you look out way over that way…”
“…That is Electric Peak!”
“ **** yes!”
I was very stoked to recognize my summer playground from the top of our layover-day adventure, Chalice Peak. Sitting at 11,153 feet on this bluebird day, my body and mind struck by altitude giddiness, I was reassured by our guide, Tim, that the mountains which I was gazing upon were those that are a part of me in the sense that I had grown in their presence just a few weeks earlier. We saw The Thunderer, the Tetons, and Electric Peak. We spent four hours up on top of Chalice. I had never before hiked to a summit so high. It was the perfect way to bask in the glory of our landscape and take time to soak in the first 36 hours of our trek.

Entry 2: Tessa Leake and Ryan Morgan

The fall trek into the Beartooth Wilderness largely revolved around water. Not only was it a place to refill our water bottles and take in a nice view, but it also served as a hub for the alpine wildlife and a place of serenity for all of us to soak in the experience. This photograph features Diaphanous Lake on Lakes Plateau in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. The crystal clear waters reflected the scene above it perfectly so it appeared as if we were seeing two the landscape that  spread out before. Water was an integral part of our trek into the Beartooth Wilderness. Reaching this lake in particular was a momentous
occasion for us as it signified the top of Lakes Plateau, which we had taken the whole day to climb up. The waters of the lake renewed everyone¹s energy and replaced weariness with a sense of excitement.

This lake is Lake Dreary; a lake that several of us hiked to on our lay-over day. We were not the only ones drawn to the water; Clark¹s Nutcrackers could be seen frantically but gracefully searching for food over the water, while a flock of ducks paddled around the lake as a safe haven from predators. and Yellowstone Cutthroat prowled the shore line, occasionally rising to the surface to gulp down a fly.


>This photograph gives a little sneak peak as to why we backpack, for the serenity that only an alpine lake can provide. We reached Jordan Lake on the fifth day and were graced with this incredible sunset. As the sun sank over the mountains, the sky turned fantastic shades of pink and blue. Every minute brought about a different scene as the lighting changed and the sun slowly disappeared. It was hard to believe that this was the beginning of our school year, and exciting to know that the semester would be laced with even more time in the backcountry.

 This stream illustrates all the life that the bodies of water we experienced housed. We saw a trout that had braved the swim all the way up this stream from the lake to reside in a little alcove underneath the bank of the creek. While walking along it, we also got to see a muskrat swimming around in the water and quickly dart into its shelter when our shadows surprised it. Even the smallest areas of water such as a creek or a stream are teeming with life, and these two creatures were just a few that we got to observe.

This photograph was taken at the end of the trek near Woodbine trailhead. We hiked in silence down the trail next to the river, hearing nothing but the rushing water. The path of the river is unchanged; the incessant current goes where it needs to go, as did we that morning. It was time for us to return to civilization, though we would have been happy to permanently reside in the woods. The river carried us downstream and took us where we needed to go at the time, but the current of the water is hard to resist, and we will be drawn back eventually.

Entry 3: Carly Stinson, Camille Kintzele

The season of fall is a time for reflection. It is the end of a cycle, but also the beginning of a new one. For our fall trek to the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness we did a loop that took us up onto the Beartooth Plateau. Since we were disconnected from our lives in the city, the simplicity of our days allowed us time to observe the changes around us. Since this area was so untouched, we were able to see the natural cycles that have been occurring over and over before our time.
Often summer is the season when we get out and hike, when everything is obviously full of life. The meadows are full of colorful flowers. Glacier lilies popping up right after the snow melts or mountain shooting-star flowers blooming. Venturing out in the fall made identifying plants often more difficult because they couldn’t be identified by their flowers. As colder weather approaches, we were able to see the plants begin to decompose. This was rewarding because it allowed us to observe and appreciate the less distinctive features of plants. As we increase our knowledge of the plants and animals, we increase our understanding of how the ecology of the area works.
By experiencing some of the cycles in nature, we were able to understand some of the cycles in our own lives. On night five of the trek, the sun went down over the stillness of Pinchot Lake. The sun had already set on us, but we could still watch by the water’s edge as the mountains lit up and the clouds with color. The sunset reminded us that each day the sun will rise and set, just like it has for millions of years. It is a reminder that sometimes we look too far in the future and do not take time to enjoy the moment that we are in. Being in the Wilderness allows us to slow down and focus on the things that are really important in life. Suddenly our cellphones and hot showers don’t seem as important as we remember them.
Each time we go into the Wilderness, we get a deeper connection to the landscape, ourselves, and the people around us. We return to civilization refreshed. As we grow, the Wilderness often remains the same, but we are able to understand and appreciate it differently. Going into the Wilderness is an opportunity to drop the baggage we carry around and hit reset in our own lives. We remember to focus on what is important to us. Like Wilderness, each time a cycle restarts we become rejuvenated and more full of life.
We are excited to observe the changes from the cycles both in nature and our lives

Andrew Thomas and Lizzie Dahler watch the sun set at Pinchot Lake

Pinedrops would be recognizeable by its yellow bells, but they had turned reddish brown in preparation for fall.

Tiny in comparison, Jackson Holte looks out on the mountains

Wounded Man Lake

All of Group 1 in a meadow near the top of Jordan pass

Entry 4:  Zoë Leake and Andrew C.
Plugging In
I am looking out across this lake at a peak with two small glaciers and the oldest exposed rock in North America. The Absaroka Beartooths are supposedly one of the wildest places in Montana, and have been my home for the last five days. As I look out at the water and the peaks and the most beautifully rich blue sky dusted with white clouds, I consider myself privileged to be in this place in this moment.
Fresh cold mountain air fills my lungs and I know what it feels like to breathe. Unpolluted by man and society, my lungs are no longer struggling for air, no longer constricted by emissions. Yes, I can actually breathe. With each breath I can hear the loud sounds of the city dying; the city lights no longer giving light to the night, with no polluted clouds to block the stars. With this “death” of societal morns comes new life.
All I hear is the singing of birds as they wake in the morning, the squirrels squeaking as they chase one another. This loud noise is happening everyday, all around us, and I have been a witness to it. The night is lit up with the stars of the universe, a true light in the dark. With the night comes a new sound – a quiet sound with the nocturnal animals waking to fill the night with life.
As I wander through the mountains, I feel the cool breeze, the earth between my toes. I begin to understand that this is how life has been since before man ruled the earth, and I begin to resent the static-like sounds of the city. It is not the sound of the Earth, spoken through the wind rustling the leaves or a tree falling and a sapling taking its place. or the sound the water makes at alpine lakes as the wind billows tiny waves into boulders.
             I realize I am just like the dirt beneath my feet. Out here I am not a man. I am not a woman. We are of the earth. Our entire being rests on the shoulders of breathable air, clean water, and sustenance. I am humbled by Pink Mountain Heather, which seems to grow effortlessly in a rugged and unforgiving environment while I have spent my whole life struggling to grow in an environment where everything is at my greatest convenience.
            “How near to good is what is WILD!” says Thoreau. Let us be good and let us be wild.


Entry 5: Andrew and Lizzie
The following events have been dramatized to heighten emotions and make Andrew look good.

I stood staring up at the great cylindrical tubes of rice, grains, and crushed beans towering over me. My mouth went dry. My hands started to shake. My right knee itched. I snatched at the plastic bags and started to fill them with random amounts of bean powder, vegetable soup mix, and white rice. My heart stopped pounding and I relaxed, I had the food, the people would be fed. Just as I was about to head to the register a friendly but tired looking good food store employee stopped me and said "sir, you have to put the product number on the bag so we know how to price your dry goods. " I mumbled something and turned back to the silos. It was only then that I realized each one had a label with calories by weight. Oops. It was okay. I had the food, the people would be fed. I quickly scribbled down the product numbers, paid, and fled the good food store.
A group of unsuspecting scholars two days away from doom. 

I hope Andrew got the right food, I want the people to be fed.

I had carried the bag of rice and vegetable soup and bean mix for four long days, hoping every step of that way that it wouldn't tear and desperately waiting for my chance to prove I was the greatest backpacking chef to ever honor the wilderness and civilization program with my presence. The night had come, Lizzie and I squatted by the twin whisper lights as they whispered lightly at the pots of water placed atop them. As the stronger stove brought its contents to a roiling boil I poured the bag of mixed ingredients into the pot. It almost overflowed with dried food and I still had a third of a bag left. My stomach dropped. The calculations were wrong. I could feel my aspirations turning to dust as the muck in the pot bubbled occasionally
The so called “Crunch Wrap Supreme” and a beautiful fresh fish.

Andrew I think you brought too much food.
There was so much diversity in the species around us and so little in our diet. 

Twenty long minutes had passed. At this point the rest of students had gathered around the stoves, their eyes trained greedily on the brown mush. They resembled a pack of wolves, ragged and anxious. Occasionally someone would offer a comment like “ you should stir it” as I was stirring it. Everything started to burn. They rice just wouldn’t soften up. Evan, our guide and guiding light, pointed out that the rice would probably never soften up. What had I done? Had I failed all my new friends? The shame was unbearable.

This is Andrew’s fault.

She had done it, she had mutinied, defected, washed her hands of me, and her betrayal was complete. The pot of rice and beans bubbled and burned as I gazed into it, hoping desperately to find some deeper meaning to all of this. If I couldn’t cook rice and beans in the backcountry what could I do?

We should just eat it.
We spent the trek surrounded by gorgeous scenery.

Just eat it? Could she really be suggesting such a thing? Fine, let them come, let them devour the poison I created with my arrogance and my ill planning. They descended and attacked the pot with spoons, sporks, and forks. They hungrily shoveled the hot brown mess into their mouths and to my amazement some of them smiled. What was happening? They came for seconds and thirds. They had their fill. It was almost as if they didn’t need a five star meal in the backcountry. I heard someone say heartily that they thought it was a 5 out of 10. Maybe a 5 out of 10 is the best kind of backcountry meal. Maybe it matters more who you share a meal with, than what you actually share with them. I looked upon them, no longer wolves, but my friends, happy and healthy, and I smiled. Lizzie looked down at the burnt layer of beans at the bottom of the pot, and then she glanced up at me.
At least we don’t have dish duty tonight.
Amazing chefs Andrew Thomas and Lizzie Dahler both thoroughly enjoyed their time in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. They hope for a future where there is enough wild spaces for everyone to enjoy “delicious” backcountry meals. 

Entry 6: Gabriel Adler and Lauren O’Laughlin

                After spending so much time anticipating the fall trek, it seems surreal that it is already behind us. The weeks leading up to the trek were full of fire belly. Missoula’s sky was clogged with smoke, and it initiated the fear we would be unable to escape it for our fall trek.  In all the chaos, it became obvious that once we finally set out on the trail head our lives wouldn’t slow down for the entirety of the semester.

                One of the best and most sought after parts of going into the wilderness is the ability to escape from society.  It is not always easy to be present in the wildness of the landscapes we traveled through. At times, you just zone out at the heel of the person hiking in front of you. Fish stalked lakes, man made and maintained trails, horse tracks and shoes, and the occasional abandoned trench coat are all reminders of human influence.  However, there were many times we were able to fully appreciate a moment.  As a group, we marveled over the pink skies of the sunset, the clear waters that carved through grassy meadows, the full night sky with subtle streaks of milky way, and the peaks rising up on either side of the valleys we moved through. The lakes seem clearer, the air seems fresher, the fish taste better but everything is relative. Up on the plateau the low hanging lenticular clouds were a reminder of how high we were.

                The days of the week quickly melted away at the foot of the trailhead and all that mattered was where the sun was at in the sky. There was no need for a watch, no appointments, no obligations. The thought of life back home occasionally popped in for a visit but was easily shewed away. With all this static and weight lifted from the mind it was easier to stand comfortably in awe at the world around. On our fall trek it became something of a custom to welcome a new view, or new landscape in with a list of loving appreciation:
                “I love the way the rocks pile at the base of the mountain.”
                “I love the way the river bends.”
                “I love the way the water polishes rocks along the creeks.”

                We learned about ourselves and our landscapes, but also each other. We spent most hours of this trip in our group, from the groggy good morning greetings to evenings spent huddled around a campfire.  We played games, we told stories, and we cooked delicious backcountry meals for each other. Some of us caught their first fish and a few more received their first ‘fish slap’.  In the beginning, we all varied in backpacking experience and had different expectations for what would come of the week.  But in the end, we all came out of this trip closer to each other and with a better personal definition of wilderness. 

Entry 7: Kaitlin Martin and J. Chance

                We participated in the Wilderness and Civilization Fall Trek of 2015 in the Absorka-Beartooth Wilderness with ten other students and two trip leaders.  We started our journey at the West Fork of the Stillwater Trailhead and hiked forty five miles through the wilderness, ending at the Woodbine trailhead.  Over the forty five miles, we spent a day journaling in the golden grasses of Breakneck Meadows, hiked up thousands of feet to the Lakes Plateau, summited Chalice Peak, saw a porcupine, sang around the campfire, yelled about Clark’s Nutcrackers, watched the sky light up at Jordan Lake, slapped each other with fish, and made memories that are bound to last.    

Anticipation for a wilderness experience was shared by all and formed the foundation of our bonds. A five hour car ride enabled new friendships to spark, and older ones to strengthen. By the time our feet hit the trail, we could easily say we were entering a new place together. Conversations waxed and waned as we shared silent admiration for the place we wandered through. Every night became a ritual, as we made camp and set up an epicenter of friendships and conversations around a warm and welcoming camp fire. Social bonds began weaving a web between individuals to make for a strong connection to the entire group.

During downtime and a layover day, individuals sauntered off into their own personal oblivion. What began as an assignment, quickly changed into a personal journey of observations. Forcing our attention to sit, observe, and translate what we were experiencing into our field journals enabled a beauty to radiate through the seemingly simple structures of nature itself. Ink spread across pages attempting to capture these moments of an experience. The act of field journaling directs our attention into deliberate thought and expression with the intent of understanding the natural world. It is a skill that we hope we all continue to exercise and develop. 

            On the Trek, we took our time to appreciate what was around us and reflect on our lives.  But, we also had time to have fun.  As we hiked for hours and hours through the trees and up switchbacks, singing, jokes, and strange dance moves helped us get through the day.  We came up with silly trail names, played pranks, and even slapped each other in the face with fish.  The humor that carried throughout the trip helped our group keep positive even when it got cold and hot, when our feet hurt, and when we didn’t get enough sleep.  It helped us discover each other’s personalities, made us stay in the present, and made our time in the backcountry thoroughly enjoyable.

On the fourth day, one of our field leaders, Tim, decided to lead a group to the summit of Chalice Peak.  There were five who decided to go including us, Tim, Lauren, and Lindsay.  We started off the day by hiking across the plateau, walking over the rolling hills, passing by whitebark pine and little lakes and ponds. As we gained elevation, the vegetation became sparse and the rocks became bigger.  We all wandered up, breathing hard with the thin air, but still in good spirits.  We took our time to pick up small fragment of glittering rocks and look back to appreciate the view sprawling in the distance.  Finally, we scrambled to the top, all in breathless awe.  At 11,200 feet above sea level, we could see our camp below at Woundedman Lake.  We could also see several other lakes that dotted the plateau including the pristine cirque that contained Chalice Lake one thousand feet directly below us.  We gazed upon the immense bulk of Montana’s high point, Granite Peak, and stared into the distance at the faint outline of the Tetons in Wyoming.  Spending four hours at the summit, basking in the sun, all of us sat and looked, reflected and appreciated all of what lay before us.    

Our final descent through the Stillwater Gorge was carried by bittersweet waters. A welcomed rest lay down-valley at the trailhead, but also the end our experience together. The sound of school, work, and relationships crept up to us, invading the wilderness. But, only with the realization that more adventures, both in wild and civil places, await this pack of wildfolk.