On WRFI’s 2021 Conservation Across Boundaries course, our first section of backcountry travel started in the Snowcrest Mountains of southwest Montana. Our trip started by following the East Fork of Blacktail Creek and very quickly we started our ascent into the lodgepole forest where we would travel for the next seven days. Within our first few miles on the trail, we came across an old brittle skull of an ungulate that we examined for distinguishing features. It had seen many seasons and was weathered beyond recognition. It was a simple and somewhat common observation for that area, but I could sense the gears turning in my mind, and in the minds of others; a sense that we needed slower thinking in order to better understand and grasp where we were.

We spent that night by a tributary of the East Fork. It was still just the first couple of days of our course, so bedtime arrived early and the conversations would wait for tomorrow. When morning came, so did the dew. I slept under the stars like our fearless leader Katie. However, I was not prepared for such a wet morning in my sleeping bag. We hit the trail later, climbing in elevation fast. Our environment changed as we gradually got higher and higher. Everybody felt it. I could see the gears turning again as heads swiveled back and forth. We came across an overlook where some pictures were in order.

Owen, one of the students, pulled out his camera. We recognized some yellow flowers surrounding the trail. We had identified them earlier that day as alpine sunflowers. On one, there seemed to be a butterfly stuck to the stem. Weird. Before moving on, somebody let out an astonished, “OH MY GOSH.” Upon closer inspection we saw that a small spider was consuming the butterfly attached to the underside of the flower! In seconds, students were on their stomachs with their packs still on trying to get a better look at this incredible act of nature.

It was a Goldenrod crab spider as yellow as the flower itself. One at a time students took turns watching the spider mimic the flower with its legs hanging off the petals in the wind. We spent the next twenty minutes in awe of this shared experience. The spectacle sparked a need for the combined efforts of the group to find more, to share more. Our gears began to turn as a unit, sharing all kinds of ideas. However, it was not always like this. Becoming comfortable enough to share and make observations paired first with vulnerability.

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Going back to the first day I entered WRFI as a Missoula student I was convinced the transition to this program would be a walk in the park compared to starting a new semester at UM. However, the minute I arrived at Silver Park with my over-stuffed bag and knapsack full of writing utensils and toothpaste, it all came rushing down on top of me. All of a sudden I was ten years old again getting ready for summer camp. Except it was not my family dropping me off, and it was not my best buddies I was about to embark on a long lazy summer with. Only a few hours into meeting my new classmates, I could feel my jaw getting tight from grinding my teeth to agonizing silence. No amount of small talk could relieve the sensation I had in the back of my teeth. I felt tired, but my feet were jumping off the ground, vibrating like a sewing machine.

I was nervous.

The first person I met was Owen. Tall, lean, wearing a tucked-in synthetic blue t-shirt, with khakis and hiking boots. His glasses had built-in UV protection, so I couldn’t see his eyes. That made me feel weird. He walked up to me with a smile spreading ear to ear as he introduced himself. I thought, dang, he has been preparing for this a lot more than I have, maybe I should have prepared more for this mentally? Moments passed, and across the parking lot I saw more students heaving backpacks across to the sidewalk. More sunglasses. Names came and went as more came. I could feel my teeth tighten further.

I saw the fleets of Patagonia jackets and new sun hats appear across the four picnic tables we were placed at. I couldn’t help but look down at my brown corduroys and regret not taking my parents up on that new pair of pants. Stupid. After a few hours of orientation and discussion we found ourselves sitting in the grass, only the students. And once the conversations started, they couldn’t seem to stop. Owen asked a funny rhetorical question; we all laughed.

Slowly we began to recognize our intentions for enrolling in Conservation Across Boundaries were the same: a desire to take time during this journey to earn our observations and recognize our environment with intention. Although it took some time to recognize that in one another, our community now has a law in writing stating that all wildlife observations must be declared to the group no matter the situation, with the penalty of jail! In the van.

Something as small as one spider can make all the difference.

Leeland Gentry is currently a student at the University of Montana, where he studies Parks, Tourism, and Recreation Management.

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