As a Tucsonan, snow is rare for me to see. As an Arizonan, camping during a snow storm is even rarer. In Upper Teepee Basin of Montana not only did I get to sleep through a snowstorm in a tent, I got to eat dinner during it, taste the snowflakes on my mouth, hang all our food away from the reach of bears and see how the snow affected the ecosystem. This experience made me realize the gravity of nature at work – the interactions of water, plants, and animals and their coexistence. Conservation biology is complicated because everything in nature is interdependent and interrelated – a fragile balance and symbiosis.
We didn’t know it would start out like that in the morning. It started out like any other morning. As leader of the day, I got the bags down from the bear hang and boiled water. We trekked up a mountain from Skyline Ridge, the sun beating down on us and our heavy backpacks as we passed through patches of snow in our gaiters. What I was not expecting was the peak we reached to be snowpacked – preventing us from using the trail to access a subalpine meadow down below called the Upper Teepee Basin. We lunched amidst that snow, our instructors Brian, Kelsey, and Pat all went to scout a new trail ahead to see if we could make it into the valley. A sheer cliff drop, scaling off a mountainside with forty pounds plus backpacks, and a few potential bear sightings later – we were bushwhacking down the valley and shoe skiing along the way. As so the snowed-in pass gives way to steep terrain and a lush subalpine meadow; a testimony to adroitness, we all survived with just a few falls along the way.
The meadow was astoundingly full of life despite being so high up in elevation. I walked around in reverence, the forb at my feet growing in the ground damp from heavy snow melt but not swampy. There are glacier lilies which are an edible favorite of grizzly bears; abundance of alpine wrens; the snow buttercup and the pygmy buttercup (the latter to be weary of for rash as a skin irritant and poisonous if consumed). Venturing down the way, a marshy stream bank flowing with snow melt-fed streams meanders by watering the globeflower and white marsh marigold. Grasses, willows, and a multitude of wildlife evidence are also present. Squirrels, the Clark’s Nutcracker, grouse eggs, a grouse female, robins, elk scat and ungulate tracks imply the broad scope of their ecosystem—not to mention the lodgepole and whitebark pine we see or the western meadows.
Each plant has its own role to play in this ecosystem whose extent might not be fully recognized at a cursory glance. Take the whitebark pine – it’s in rapid decline because of climate change. Increasingly high temperature during the winter allows its natural predator the bark beetle larvae a break from the cold and increase in generations over shorter time. It infests the tree, overwhelms it and kills it slowly, making it more vulnerable to drought and disease. One of the foremost diseases preying upon the weakened whitebark pine is blister rust. The extirpation of this keystone species affects the Clark’s Nutcracker birds, who cache the pine cones for food, and the squirrel who also caches, and the grizzly bear that raids their caches, and the humans who in turn face more grizzlies when they search for food – unable to fatten up for winter hibernation on the lessened cones. Nature is a symbiotic circle – more complicated and fragile than most humans have yet to realize.
Later in the evening after a wind chilled day, we gather over a pasta dinner in a tree surrounded haven from the wind. Suddenly, just as the sun dipped below the horizon of the trees along the surrounding mountains, snowflakes began to gently fall over our meals. We scarfed down dinner and rushed through our duties – cleaning dishes, brushing teeth, the bear hang, and stashing our packs safely away from the weather and in our tents. And then we reveled in the gentle snow storm that so delicately engulfed the forest – our kitchen, packs, tents, bear hang and us in a deep, albeit invited, layer of snow. Winter in June?! I was ecstatic.
As Faren, my tent roomie, and I sat in our tent listening to the snow gracefully insulate us, while she finger combed my hair and I read the Conservationist’s Manifesto aloud, we truly understood conservation. We understood just what the author was getting at. It was important to continue to experience nature in its diversity – precipitation, wind, snowmelt, snowed in passes, and sheer cliffs barren due to avalanches and landslides. Thinking about all the plants we had seen and evidence of wildlife – I couldn’t help but see the awesome power of nature but also its fragility and dependence on the proper temperatures and conditions for survival.
It was in that moment that I realized how fragile nature was but it was the next morning that I also witnessed its resilience. As the sun rose, the snow melted, and the groundcover glistened with moisture – the glacier lilies sprang back up, the birds chirped, the trees swayed dripping water every which way, and the stream was still running. Persevering through the night, the snow melt-fed stream continued to run, its path guided by the roots of willows, the globeflower, and the white marigold daisy regulating the marsh and holding down the soil from erosion. Despite their environmentally stunted growth, they all came back – seemingly unharmed by the wondrous snow whose watery remains shimmered on the crevices of leaves. Not every day do I get to experience these things. Sometimes I have to sit back and ask myself – is this real life? Everywhere we go we learn about plants, animals, human-nature interactions (i.e. Leave No Trace principles), the world and experience is our classroom and the currency is knowledge. Experiential learning – where knowledge is shared constantly and used just as much. Whether it’s what not to wipe with because of potential allergic reactions or how the Forest Service uses cairns and blazes on trails without using outside materials – it sticks with you more than a professor’s lecture in a fluorescent lit lecture hall where you see slide after slide of PowerPoint; as one of many rather than one of few, struggling to retain the material presented so blandly.