Observational Ecology

In addition to our interactions with the local people, great emphasis was given to our understanding of the land.  We spent time everyday exploring the woods and the water.  We practiced the lost art of a naturalist; giving up end goals and destinations in exchange for close observation and timeless discovery.  Days were dedicated to finding mushrooms, catching aquatic species, and tracking wolves.   Keeping journals of our findings, we documented new sights, sounds, and smells.  We used group discussion to interpret our findings, map and compass to orient our path.

The Swan Valley is a geologic wonder.  Carved by glaciers, mountains rise on either side and hold acres of federally designated Wilderness.  Grizzlies traverse the diverse forest types and feed on the abundance of huckleberries.  We did the same.  Learning about forest fire regimes, plant communities, and the interconnected webs of energy throughout the ecosystem I grew in my appreciation for the natural world.  We spent days hiking the creeks, wading through ponds, and enjoying a fen (a rarity in this region).  I learned about new species on the macro and micro scales.  I learned the importance of a keen eye.  I learned the complexity of managing a forest.

My observation, experience, and memories will continue to drive me to be engaged in conservation efforts.  We as humans are damaging the earth, but ecosystems are resilient.  When we communicate with the landscape and align our goals with nature, the beauty can remain.

Students and Instructors stand at the edge of a pool dug by bears.  Black and Grizzly bears will frequent these holes during hot days to cool off and to play.

Students and Instructors stand at the edge of a pool dug by bears. Black and Grizzly bears will frequent these holes during hot days to cool off and to play.

The Human Aspect

A significant aspect of our course was the interaction with the rural community of Condon, MT population 548.  We spent many afternoons exploring the jobs of these people and learning the skills of the valley.  We toured the sawmill of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, we discussed policy with environmental non-profits, and we visited an active prescribed forest fire.  We explored the ways of ranching, timber harvesting, and value added products.  We tracked bears, debated fisheries health, and studied wolves with wildlife biologists.  For me, it was eye-opening to see the multiple layers of connection between the locals and the land.

Beyond understanding the community members’ beliefs and livelihoods, we had the privilege of listening to their stories, meeting their families, and sharing meals.  The homestead that we lived on had a large garden.  Before the first frost came through the valley, we harvested vegetables (picture below) and prepared dinner for over 30 people from the town of Condon, we spent a day working from sun-up past sun-down chopping and delivering firewood around the community, and we hosted a Halloween party for all ages.  For one weekend, each student was paired up with a valley resident to live as a local.  My peers spent their days with local artisans, young families, retirees, real estate agents, and avid outdoorsmen.  I was able to spend my weekend harvesting firewood, building a porch, and meeting neighbors.  My host was a long time Swan Valley resident who is well known for his animal tracking skills, winter camping adventures, and humility.

My field course allowed me to meet many of the dynamic and goodhearted people of the Swan Valley.  I thank them for opening up to us as students; for sharing their homes, their time, and their company.

Photo taken by Leah Swartz.  Students harvest produce and serve dinner to over 30 community members.  From left to right: Laura Arvidson (Northwest Connections), Madeline Rubida (University of Montana), Chloe Bates (University of Vermont), Cody Dems (University of Montana)

Photo taken by Leah Swartz. Students harvest produce and serve dinner to over 30 community members. From left to right: Laura Arvidson (Northwest Connections), Madeline Rubida (University of Montana), Chloe Bates (University of Vermont), Cody Dems (University of Montana)

A Semester in the Swan

After two months of backpacking the Bob Marshall Wilderness, living with grizzlies, and exploring the beauty of life in a rural community, I have returned to Missoula.  I have spent the past two months living in a refurbished barn with nine other students from UM and around the country.  We lived, learned, and explored as a group.  We continually engaged in conversation amongst ourselves and with community members to understand the complexities of natural resource conservation.  Conservation of the environmental, economic, and social aspects of the human and land interaction.

Condon, Montana is a rural community located in the Swan Valley (North of Missoula).  The Condon community and surrounding landscape adapts to complex and changing issues; issues that challenge ecosystems on a global scale.  Interactions between human and land occur internationally.  Water scarcity, economic growth, population stability, and natural resource extraction are pressing issues around the world.  Rather than approaching these topics from the broad scale, I chose to study a rural community in which the issues are present every day.

As a student at Northwest Connections we explored the water, the mountains, and the fields in an attempt to understand conservation.  We challenged our thinking and collectively worked towards broadening what we see. 

Looking east from my bedroom.

Looking east from my bedroom.