I think I’ve died and gone to Summer Camp.
This summer I’ve been given the privilege to spend two months taking field ecology courses at the Flathead Lake Biological Station through the University of Montana. Although I have learned and experienced many invaluable applications of restoration ecology through my work over the past five years, I have been craving a way to supplement this with formal education. The field courses at the Bio Station are built on practical research and field-based curriculum. This dream of mine to continue my education in the field was made possible by the availability of scholarships, my AmeriCorps education award from past internships, and the extremely fortunate fact that this program accepts non-traditional students such as myself. I encourage others who are interested in Montana/western ecology to apply for their scholarships, which open again in the winter! They also offer internships and graduate studies to conduct research with professors or education internships to assist with the classes.
The field station is situated on the east side of Flathead Lake, which is the largest lake in the west, with a greater surface area than Lake Tahoe. The station has permission from the Salish and Kootenai tribes to operate there. On the first night during orientation, a guest speaker from the local Kootenai tribe shared with us their story of Flathead Lake’s creation. To summarize, a red-winged hawk and a spruce grouse were married. Every day the spruce grouse would roam the woods, collecting berries for her husband while the hawk went out hunting. One night she went down to the shore to wash the berries and the great monster of the lake rose up from the waters and demanded that she marry him. She fed him the berries to appease him. Leaving terrified, she realized that she had no berries to take home to hawk, so she quickly picked some dirty ones. Hawk was upset when grouse got home, but she said that she wasn’t feeling well. This same routine went on for a few days, with spruce grouse feeding berries to the lake monster and getting closer to him.
One day, hawk followed her and saw that she was doting over the lake monster and became infuriated. He confronted the monster, killed the spruce grouse, and cursed all spruce grouse to be prey for all time, which is why everything wants to eat grouse now. He stabbed the monster, which fled, and started ingesting all of the water around the land. All of the animals were frightened, but hawk led the hunt and tracked down the water monster, which was now fully engorged, leaving the land in a drought. He killed the monster, causing it to rapidly flood, creating what is now Flathead Lake. There is a ridged section along the lake where the soil is red and the Kootenai say that is the body of the monster, still bleeding from the wound.
He ended the story by sharing with us some other Kootenai names for areas around the lake. He emphasized the fact that Flathead is a misnomer, as the Flathead people no longer live in the area. He despaired at the disconnection between people and place and history lost, which is shown in the fact that the tribes had names for areas that translated to, “the place where you catch fish” or “the place where the bear spared a fallen man” versus the arbitrary, nearly meaningless names we use now. He also cringed as we watched Park Service videos about bear safety and carrying bear spray. He said that when you’re in the woods, you can smell bear and see very obvious signs such as torn logs. I hope that my strong sense of smell will allow me to smell the fruity tracks of bear some day soon. It’s an adjustment for me to live in bear country, because the main thing you want to avoid is accidentally surprising a bear. I’m usually a pretty quiet hiker, so having to talk loudly or play music to let bears know you’re there and give them time to flee the area is not what I’m used to.
Getting to take these classes at this stage in my life and career has been an absolute joy. While most of the students here are younger and have only known life as a semi burnt-out college student, I get to experience these classes with a new vigor, appreciation, and wisdom. My entire week, (a full work week!) is now allotted to the things that I consider hobbies in my everyday life, such as observing nature, identifying plants, reading natural history books, delving deeper into ecology, and being outdoors.
This leisure and room for learning is compounded by my unbelievable housing arrangement, which is a cabin on the lake and three daily meals cooked for us. Not to mention the kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards that are readily available for students to use in the bay!
The first day of class dissolved any of my apprehensions about if I had made the right choice to take a break from working to take classes. I recently finished reading what is now one of my favorite books, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by the famous bryologist/traditional knowledge professor, Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is an eye opening book into the lives of mosses and personal reflections. Her passion for this subject is contagious and inspiring. When I got to class the next day, I found out that our research project would be to test moss and lichens to see how they respond to nitrogen and phosphorus applications. We spent the first day hunched over 16 plots, plucking Polytrichum juniperinum with forceps. I’m pretty ecstatic about this project because of all the work I’ve done, this is my first time getting to work with moss. Yesterday we started processing some of the samples, pulling them out of the fridge and pinning them stretched out to measure the size of green tissue, brown tissue, total length, and sporophores if present.
I cannot fully express how grateful I am to be immersed in this learning environment in one of the most beautiful places in the country.