Outdoor Education in Glacier National Park: The Most Beautiful Classroom

This summer, I completed my Beyond the Classroom Experience with the Glacier Institute, a nonprofit based in Columbia Falls, MT that focuses on outdoor education in and around Glacier National Park. I was hired as an outdoor educator intern for Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, the Glacier Institute’s location that focuses on youth outdoor education. Big Creek served an important purpose in a lot of kids’ lives this summer. For most of them, it was their first time interacting with kids their own age since schools were shut down. Outdoor education also provides a unique opportunity for them to challenge themselves, learn new skills, and develop a connection with the environment that will hopefully foster positive environmental behavior in the future. Aside from leading team building activities, I got to help teach the campers about land stewardship, navigation, fly fishing, and other wilderness skills.

I got to teach lessons about benthic macroinvertebrates and their importance to the environment as a part of our fly fishing classes. Campers were instructed to find as many macroinvertebrates as they could in Big Creek so we could identify them together. I was surprised at how much fun everyone had looking for all the macroinvertebrates, and campers wanted to spend more of their free time looking for these cool bugs!

The global theme I chose was Global and Public Health, with my specific challenge being that I wanted to improve public health by connecting people to their environment in order to make healthy, sustainable lifestyle choices that support not only individual health and wellness, but also community health. The Glacier Institute allowed me to focus specifically on youth, and I was able to spend an entire summer observing how the environment brought kids together after months of isolation from both their peers and their ‘normal’ lifestyles. I quickly realized that outdoor education was only a small part of what we were doing for our campers. Along with many returning campers, we received numerous grateful emails from parents describing how a week at Big Creek gave their kids a break from all of the stress and uncertainty that the pandemic caused in their families. I learned so much about the pandemic through the campers’ eyes, and I feel like I have a totally different understanding of youth in the age of coronavirus.

As a part of our stewardship lesson, campers learned about invasive species like spotted knapweed and why it was important to give back to the landscape that provided them with so many fun adventures. Campers helped pull tons of knapweed in the Flathead National Forest throughout the summer.

One of my goals for the summer was to explore how youth develop a sense of place attachment because positive environmental behavior is often initiated by feeling a strong connection to the world around you. With the campers, this came in the form of hands-on exploration of the natural world as well as learning about stewardship. However, I also wanted to explore my own feelings of place attachment. I know that history and traditions are things that make me feel stronger connections with the world around me, so I decided to create a small side project I called the 2020 Homestead Hunt where I tried tracing the footsteps of the North Fork Valley homesteaders. I pulled from numerous sources in order to find the original property locations of different homesteaders including the National Registry of Historic Places and previous research by archaeologists Douglas MacDonald (Final Inventory and Evaluation Report: North Fork Homestead Archaeological Project, 2009) and Patricia Bick (Homesteading on the North Fork in Glacier National Park, 1986). When Glacier National Park was established in 1910, there were 44 North Fork homestead sites located in the park. It was a bit of a scavenger hunt because most of these sites were not on any map and I had to use multiple research sources to try and pinpoint locations. Some sites still contained historic structures while others had been burned over and overgrown with new vegetation.

Pictured above is an old basement where Johnnie Walsh established his claim. From 1918 to 1925, his property was the location of the Kintla Post Office until it was moved to Polebridge. I am holding the 1986 paperwork from the National Registry of Historic Places that described the general area and helped lead me to the unmarked location.
This homestead was built by Rudolph Matejka in 1908, a twenty-three year old from Nebraska. While the homestead remains off of Glacier National Park maps, it has been restored by the Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates.

Another thing I loved about the Glacier Institute is that they thought it was important for us to explore the park in order to get to know it as well as feel more connected to the place around us. I feel so grateful to all the Glacier Institute staff for showing me around and giving me opportunities to see such breathtaking places.

I had such a memorable experience with the Glacier Institute, and I left feeling touched by my amazing coworkers, campers, and the landscape that became my stomping grounds.

This ancient lone ponderosa pine officially earned a waypoint in my GPS. I found it while on a bushwhacking expedition for three different homestead sites. Along with it’s very tiny ponderosa offspring, it was the only ponderosa left in the area. It’s so old that it would have been around when the homesteaders were first building their homes.

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