While backpacking during the first few weeks of my 2021 Conservation Across Boundaries course, my biggest internal debate was whether to look up or down. If I look up, I appreciate and take in the unbelievable views, but no more than three seconds later, I find myself tripping over a rock or a deep imprint from a bison or pack horse. So most of the time, I remain focused on the terrain in front of me, taking the occasional risk of falling flat on my face, weighed down by a 40-pound pack.
Hiking through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I reflected on how surprised I was at the different landscapes Montana and Northern Wyoming have offered. From high alpine ecosystems in the Snowcrests, to thermal areas and large expanding valleys in Yellowstone, to the rocky mountain terrain in the Bob, these areas have varied drastically within a span of 350 miles.
Learning about the wilderness and stepping into it have proven to be very different experiences. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, “wilderness” is defined as, “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” I carried my own expectations about the wilderness to be serene, peaceful and remote, which in some aspects it is, but there have been disruptions that demonstrate how this land is not “untrammeled.” Not to mention that this definition omits the histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples who have been connected to this land far longer than Western society often presumes.
As I walked through these landscapes, I reflected on the loneliness of our human species. I was talking with my instructor, Eva, and she told me about “species loneliness”: more than half the human population lives in urban areas and most don’t interact with nature, only with other humans. But from these backpacks, I’ve interacted and been present with so much wildlife. I’ve been in the presence of a grizzly bear in Yellowstone, watching him dig around the wildflower filled meadow eating cow parsnips. Knowing the bear could hear and see us was exciting, and he simply ignored us and went on his way. In Yellowstone, we came very close to bison as we hiked, and we had to be mindful about our pace and noise levels. Walking slowly, as to not imitate a hunting pack of coyotes, I noticed the bison’s gentle demeanors and apparent playfulness as they rolled in the dusty wallows. At a break in our hiking, we came upon an empty wallow, and Julia, a fellow student, dragged me down with her to roll around in the dusty crater. I now understand how much bison enjoy those wallows. These experiences gave me space to be more intentional about my actions.
We have interacted with place through plant studies. I sat with a plant for an hour and observed as much as I could, made my own hypotheses about the plant, and then looked it up in a field guide. The plants I wanted to identify and learn about were the cinquefoil, in the rose family, and the common harebell, belonging to the bluebell family. After studying them intently, I identify them frequently along trails and my ability to do so has created a connection to and appreciation for those plants.
In classes we’ve talked about our impacts as recreationists. We’ve questioned whether outdoor recreation leads to stewardship. Most people who ski, mountain bike, or backpack (to name a few) may appreciate the outdoors, but recreation itself does not directly result in protective actions. In a High Country News article titled, “Your Stoke Won’t Save Us,” author Ethan Linck asks if there is a connection between a person’s outdoor recreational activity and their environmental views. A person’s attitude towards the environment has more to do with whether you see “…beautiful trails…strewn with hiker trash, or…in the middle of a forest glade, you’ll find a faded can of Coors.” People will visit National Parks and care about doing their part and keeping the place “pristine,” but often they’ll leave their cars idling to take photos of park entrances or wildlife.
Something our Western culture often doesn’t recognize is reciprocity; we enjoy places without giving back or thinking about the impacts we leave behind. As a recreationist myself, I sometimes wonder, “am I a good one?” But in reality, it’s hard not to have an impact wherever you go. Not even two miles from the wilderness border, we encountered a bear sow and her cub. Frightened, they ran away, and it made me think about my impact and whether or not my recreation imposes on other species. What I’ve learned from classes and readings is that place attachment can connect recreation and action. Place attachment is the emotional bond between person and place and often leads to a sense of stewardship. This course provides a way for me to more deeply observe, be more intentional and thoughtful about my actions, and further engage my curiosity.
From the start of the last backpacking trip of our course, I have not only noticed my curiosity increase, but the entire group’s as well. We intently walked around Gibson Reservoir hunting for fossils, listened at night to the different birds, and have become semi-expert navigators and map readers in the wilderness. We walked through burnt forest, crossed rushing rivers and woke up to thunder and lightning. From migration connectivity to transboundary conservation, my new knowledge of the outdoors has helped expand my lens on the environment and the impacts I make.
Anna Cline is transferring to the University of Montana in the fall of 2021 where she will study Forestry.