WRFI loves receiving updates from our alumni!  It’s particularly meaningful to hear about how their courses have impacted their lives once they’re back at home.  Michaela is a University of Arizona student and participated on WRFI’s 2012 “Wild Rockies Summer Semester.”


When Bethany Swanson first came into my anthropology class, the upper division course that as a freshman I was not supposed to be in, I had no idea she would change my life. A bright and early 8am class, she cracked a huge grin and I wondered how much coffee it took to get her here in front of us, I myself was gripping a thermos full of it. She proceeded to greet us and delve into details of a program that greatly appealed to me. It was called the Wild Rockies Field Institute and all of their courses were conservation themed field classes.

The options that you could choose from for your field course included all of the things I had grown up doing outside of class with my family: kayaking, biking, camping, hiking, etc. I had never dreamed that the activities I dabbled in outside of class could ever mesh with learning in class. Yet here she was, proposing just that, and I knew I had to be a part of it. I spoke to her after her presentation and got myself well on the way to signing up for a two-week restoration ecology course. It was not in the cards for me to go on that trip, with too low of enrollment, instead destiny had it that I go on a two month course; little did I know the impact it would have on my life decisions.

Before my WRFI course experience, I felt that I was still a youth. I felt that my ideals and lifestyle were determined by me but that that was the only way I had power. After my experience I realized that I could affect change in more ways than just through how I live my life. I have shared my readings with my family. I have turned three different households of highly right-wing conservative college students to recycling, in homes where that idea would have been utter nonsense before. I voted for the first time since I turned 18 and had registered, and I convinced everyone of age that I spoke to about voting to do so. I know I can reach those that I elect through citizen letters, and thanks to my WRFI course, I know how to write them. I got my grandfather to cancel his newspaper subscription so he now gets paperless news online. I decided to preceptor for a Soil, Water, and Environmental Science class for the Fall semester where I shared my summer conservation experiences with Shell Canada, Jumbo Valley, and organic farming with the class and my honors section. These are just some of the ways that I have been affecting change since I got back from my trip, and it will continue to grow as my life progresses, because I realize now that even these little things matter.

For me, it’s been the greatest accomplishment and adventure of my life thus far. It’s been little more than five months since returning home from the backcountry but I talk about it every day. I don’t just talk, I revel. I remember and reflect. The return has been just as impactful so far as the experience itself. I am adjusting to the return with this knowledge and different more economical lifestyle.

Before the Wild Rockies Summer Semester I was unaware of the extensive invasive species issues that most areas are facing. My citizen letter research on the Saguaro National Forest invasive problem near my place of residence as well as my participation in two weed pulls has called to attention these realities. I plan to redraft my citizen letter and mail it in addition to volunteering at the weed pulls that occur once a month. During this research process I discovered that there also exists a significant amount of land partitioned from Saguaro National Forest to my college, the University of Arizona for research. Named the Desert Research Station, a young plant scientist did some graduate work there on the ecosystem and the potential effects of invasive buffelgrass on the area. She did this work in the year 1992, the year of my birth, I would like to dedicate my honors thesis for my undergraduate degree to working within that area and updating the research. To see just what the past two decades of invasive integration has done to the ecosystem, specifically the plants, there. On an even further professional level, I plan to minor in sustainable plant systems in addition to my plant science major whereas previously I had not declared a minor. This change is a direct result of being so exposed to conservation biology on the trip as well as restoration ecology.

I sometimes find it hard to articulate just how this whole process made me feel. Conveying the past two months where I lived, breathed, ate, and incessantly was consumed by conservation much as a sponge absorbs water. Perhaps one of the easiest to convey would be the restoration work I felt privileged to be a part of in Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge. Efforts there were concentrated on habitat for the native endangered fish called the Arctic Grayling. Working to further the meandering stream of Amelia Creek we helped the surrounding area to make it more fish-friendly. We removed decaying dams and then transplanted willows along the edge to provide shade cover in the area in which the wood and nails had previously resided. We deepened the stream and removed extensive woody debris that had begun to allow for sediment buildup so that more oxygen would be in the water for better habitat. We also spent an extensive amount of time clearing out a path that can one day reach Odell Creek, a larger creek that is customary spawning for this particular species of fish and plays a role in establishing vital habitat for it. We even put up posts to protect the creek from grazing allotments along the edge. This work made me feel redeemed, as though I could actually do something to help the endangered species. After reading extensively on the mismanagement of grayling historically, it was mind-blowing to change that and assist on a project that WRFI students have been working on for years. It was empowering, and has inspired me to do work in the Sweetwater Reclamation Wetlands of Tucson, Arizona, my hometown.

This trip facilitated an epiphany for me, as a young member of my community learning about these ecosystems and their interactions so extensively I can make a difference by volunteering and spreading the word. I am not a weak belittled component of this society; I am a knowledgeable resource yet to be tapped, yet to be realized fully, yet to entirely blossom but with plenty of time to do so. It started with birth, reinforced heartily by my experiences exploring the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor but it does not end until my last breath—Arnor Larson taught me that. An incredible mountaineer in his prime, a persistent activist and admirable handyman in his older years and yet he can still hike and articulate to me just how much a mark nature has left on his hardly feeble mind despite all the time that has passed and all the acts of inhumanity he has seen.

Journal Entry:

 “July 6, 2012 –A Layover Day—

Hiking to Scapegoat was a rather large accomplishment for a layover day. And despite not having class, I still learned an incredible amount (as is typical of WRFI Summer edition 2012). I felt like I truly understood wilderness principles yesterday and today most certainly reinforced them. It’s not every day you get to hike in a woodland/montane/subalpine zone and learn that cow parsnip should not be used as toilet paper because it can cause allergic reactions (photosensitive and/or skin irritant); find out the corn lily/skunk cabbage with parallel veins and large leaves is good for toilet paper but toxic to eat; the alpine forget-me-not is the Alaska state flower; moss campion lives in the alpine and is really old/ like the old-growth of a forest 50+ years; dryads, anemones, alpine spring beauties, and pasque flowers [and their anemone-like seed pods], growing atop a barren landscape; see a USGS plaque plastered in a rock from the year your father was born; learn how to triangulate a specific location using a topographic map and a compass; climb on top a waterfall; navigate the steep side of a cirque glacial bowl using a game trail; singing lyrics to the “Sound of Music”…ALL in 8 hours. Not to mention considering the dichotomy of this glorious wilderness you got to enjoy but others can’t even though they own it just as much as you. Only in a WRFI course can you experience this all without having class and still manage to eat curried lentils with rice and yogurt pretzels for dessert. AND THEN…you get to watch the intermingling of a white-tailed deer! as it explores the kitchen uphill, wearily eyes your instructor, who is sitting quietly on a rock reading, and have it less than 10 feet away from your body with no fence or obstacle in between you. Welcome to life everyone…just welcome.”

A Poem, by Michaela Brumbaugh

My Sense of Place 

I am from the sunbaked soil where prickles stab your feet and sunburns and Rainbows are the order of the day.

My parents water their plants and I watch on eating and working toward the same.

I am from warm hugs and sunsoaked tea, watermelon eegees, flan, and authentic tortillas.

Where I’m from there are human-sized bubbles of cold air and everyone knows a thirstbuster costs ¢86 with tax.

Where the saguaros dapple sunsets and I see pinks, purples, yellows, oranges that fade to city lights and sparkling antennae.

The familiar sound of Tucson—a rattle—fills my ears, always on the lookout, mindful and cautious but not fearful. I am ready—always learning and missing what I know.

I have come to rain soaked forests where moss greets my feet and snowpatches and hiking boots and uneven tans are the order of the day.

My companions bandage their worn feet and sunscreen their bodies and I watch on eating and working toward the same.

I have come to warm hugs, and gravity filtered water, watermelon algae, cheesecake, and wheat tortillas.

Where I have gone there are ancient mountains manipulated by ancient glaciers and everyone knows that the water at the terminus is purest.

Where the view takes your breath away with its vastness of rock, of ice, of peaks and cols, of greenery beyond belief that fades to sparse vegetation with seracs and icefields.

The familiar sound of the Purcells—the clatter of talus and shale seeming like glass—resonates through the terrain as I cross the moraines, always on the lookout, mindful and cautious but not fearful.

I am ready for the world that awaits—always learning and nostalgically reminiscing what I know.