Matt Thomas Scholarship

20 Year Tribute

Help Us Reach Our $20,000 Goal


Dear Friends of WRFI,

Welcome to the Matt Thomas Scholarship page. We are celebrating the lasting WRFI legacy left by Matt who co-founded WRFI in a Missoula garage in 1993 along with Dave Havlick and Tim Bechtold. Back then, the idea that you could trek through the woods of the Rockies and earn college credit seemed crazy. Through years of advocacy, planning, and course development, WRFI kicked off its first field season in 1995 and has never looked back. In the ensuing decades, over a thousand college students from all over the country have experienced life-changing experiences and one-of-a-kind educational opportunities through WRFI courses.

In May of 2002, Matt returned from instructing WRFI’s Spring Colorado Plateau course in high spirits; tragically, he died unexpectedly days later. Grieving WRFI stalwarts established a scholarship in his name, to ensure that students might continue to reap the benefits of an outdoor education like no other. The Matt Thomas Scholarship was born of those efforts to aid deserving students in participating in Montana Afoot and Afloat, WRFI’s semester-long course that explores human and land relationships from the Bob Marshall Wilderness to Yellowstone National Park to the Tongue River Basin. Matt developed and instructed Montana Afoot and Afloat, and it has remained, to this day, WRFI’s flagship program.

2022 marks the 20th year since Matt left us–In tribute, we are working to reconnect with Matt’s friends, co-instructors, students, and other WRFI fans from those early years. If you have photos, stories, or memories to share, please submit them below on this page. As an additional celebration of Matt’s legacy, we are raising $20,000 for the Matt Thomas Scholarship fund this year–$1k for each year he’s been gone. Bolstering the scholarship fund will increase the fund’s principal to $60k, allowing us to invest the funds and award up to about $3,000 to Montana Afoot and Afloat students from interest earned. A number of leading donors have stepped forward and contributed over $13,000–meaning we’re already 65% of the way to our goal! If you can join us in growing the Matt Thomas Scholarship Fund, we would welcome your gift, in any amount.

Thank you in advance for sharing your memories and for your generous support of the Matt Thomas Scholarship Fund. We couldn’t be prouder of the legacy Matt has left us and of the large and growing WRFI community.

Gail Gustche
Development Consultant

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    Though it has been a long time since Matt died, the impacts of his philosophy, his influence and his impact continue to widely ripple out, touching so many, and in turn helping to protect the lands he so fervently helped his, and 20 more years of students come to better understand.



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    I was just visiting the wrfi website when I saw -in remembrance of Matt Thomas--I am truly sorry for the loss of such a wonderful man. I only knew Matt for about a week+, but in that time he left a huge impression in my thinking and the way I look at Mother Earth. I remember thinking that he was a walking library--he knew so much. I also remember the first day I ever met him and as we went through our packs he told us what we would need and what could be left behind--half of my bag was unnecessary. But what I remember most is how calm and peaceful he was and how I instantly felt at ease with his presence. Matt was a wonderful teacher--not giving you the answer right away--actually having a conversation with you letting you come upon the answer yourself. I now have a 15 month old son and live in the pocono mts of PA--I can only hope and strive to teach my son to live with the environment and to appreciate the beauty of nature as Matt did--and to instill within him such a love that he will always strive to learn more about his ecosystems and to question question question! I hope to be half the teacher Matt was!!

    I wish my best to everyone at wrfi and I am deeply sorry for your loss.
    colette canyonlands '99

    Dear WRFI

    I was on the first Montana Afoot and Afloat and it changed my life and inspired me in many ways. When I went to your website today to get your email address, I was extremely sad to see that Matt has passed away. He was a great leader and teacher and he allowed us to make our own discoveries throughout the course. I was looking forward to seeing him when I come to Missoula this fall... I am really sad that he won't be there.

    I am going to be there playing music at some of the venues up there during a solo acoustic tour of the NW and Rockies. A few of the songs were written and inspired by my experiences on MT Afoot. I wanted to share them with Matt because I haven't been in touch since then. I wish I was better at that...

    Do you have any info on any other coursemates, especially a guy named Ian who is not on the list on the website, but who went on the course and lived in Missoula? Anyway I am very happy to see that WRFI is so successful and I can't wait to be back in MT.


    I am very sad to hear about Matt's death. As a student on Montana Afoot and Afloat in 1997, I spent 2 months with Matt. I sincerely can say that Matt changed my life forever. Matt influenced, challenged, and encouraged me more than anyone ever has honestly. My life has not been the same since taking Montana Afoot and Afloat. In every big decision I make, I reflect on my experience on Montana Afoot and Afloat and about MT (he quickly received the nickname MT from our group). I remember Matt's passion for the Montana land; his querencia. He taught me so much about living responsibly and passionately for the land. I remember Matt's humor (I still tell stories about Matt all the time). His encouragement. Listening to James Brown and MT's head slightly bobbing back and forth. His home-sewn fleece pants and shirt. His love of garlic and Tabasco. I remember his hug when he dropped me off at the end of the course. My words are so inadequate to describe my feelings for Matt. He was beautiful.



    Hello to all at WRFI,

    I am writing to say my thoughts are with you right now. I heard the news about Matt. Although it has been four years since I took the canyonlands course, I often think of all that I learned from Doug, Dave, Meg, Woody, and Matt. I met two of my best friends on the course, Jesslyn and Casey, who recently got married (they also met on a wrfi course). When Jesslyn called me recently I thought it would be regarding post wedding news, or my plans to move out with them in a month. I could 't believe when she told me Matt had passed away.

    I teach environmental education now, and I often think of Matt when I myself am teaching - the way he would contemplate what he said before speaking, the knowledge he conveyed, and how he was so true to his convictions.
    (How he loved his coffee so much.)!

    Matt definitely touched my life, and we've lost an amazing person. It saddens me that he's no longer with us, and I can only hope that he knew what an impact he had on me.

    Thanks you guys-


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    Hi WRFI,
    It has taken me a while to organize thoughts and feelings and to just get up the guts to speak about Matt Thomas. I was able to spend two months with him on the Montana Afoot and Afloat course three years ago, and I have never had any experience that has had such an affect on my life as those two months. So much was uncovered for me, not the least of which was discovering a wilderness inside of everyone including myself, including Matt. His strong beliefs in how things should be and yet his revelry in how good life is was so honest and inspiring I know I am forever changed by his presence.
    I will never forget one early morning, paddling down the Yellowstone, watching Matt drifting ahead of us. I was overwhelmed by the excitement of everything that I had been learning and discovering and feeling, but still unsure of myself. I paddled up to Matt and asked him if he ever was lonely out here. He replied, how could anyone get lonely, when there is so much life out here. It was this and so much more that made it so clear to me that a person can really live the majority of his/her life outside, happily, and without sacrifice of a good life or constant battle with the rest of the world.
    I thank you Matt, and I can only hope that for all the roots you spread, your legacy will live on hundred-fold.

    I am deeply saddened to hear of this tragic news. This is a great loss to both myself and the many lives that I am sure Matt has touched during his stay here on this earth. We have lost a very compassionate, living and understanding man, and there will be an empty void in my heart and soul for many years to come. I can't put into words the profound affect that he has had on my life. I looked up to him like a big brother, I respected him as if he were my own father, and I talked of him like a hero, I will now cry for him like a lost friend.

    Matt Thomas, I will always think of you and visit the landscape that you loved so much.


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