09 February 2015

Traveling in the Backcountry: the essentials

A cold sweat chills me from under my backpack straps. The rhythm of my ascent up the clean white mountain side hypnotizes me. Slide-clack slide-clack. My skis cut a new climbing track up the wind-drifted slope. I climb up along a sub-ridge with a friend, past twisted sub-alpine fir trees barraged by wind since germination. It's a struggle to keep grins off our faces despite the steep grade and wind-hardened snow. It's a bluebird day in the Rocky Mountains and that is hard to beat.

Exploring backcountry terrain in winter is inherently risky, so there are a few things I bring along in my backpack and in my brain to try to minimize that risk or avoid it altogether.

  • Shovel - a light and sturdy aluminum shovel is absolutely essential for a good winter backcountry kit. Not only is it necessary for digging test pits to evaluate potential avalanche hazard, but shovels are great for digging out tent pads, fire pits, and are even great to sit on if you want to stay out of the snow. 
  • Cord - bringing a length of nylon cord (4-6 mm thick, at least 10 m long) is a great idea. It's a necessary part of proper test pit procedures, can be useful in rescue scenarios and has a host of other uses.
  • Probe - it is really important to continually check the depth of the snow pack you're traveling across. Probes are collapsible, graduated aluminum tubes that can be poked down through the snow to measure its depth. They are also essential for a successful rescue in the case of an avalanche burial.
  • Avalanche beacon - always be wearing your beacon and have it turned on from the time you leave the trailhead to the time you get back. Make sure every member of your party knows how to use their beacon, and make sure to practice with them (and the rest of your safety gear) before you get into potential avalanche terrain. Keep in mind: beacons will not guarantee your safety. Do not rely on them.
  • Small repair/survival kit - you never know when gear is going to malfunction. Bindings, boots, and snowshoes can break. Bringing a small bag with a multi-tool, knife, headlamp, extra batteries, ski scraper, lighter/matches, and thermal blanket can really be a life saver--especially if you're a worrier like me.
  • Avalanche forecast - always, always, always check the avalanche advisory from your local avalanche center before you decide where you're headed, or even whether you're going out at all.
  • Knowledge and common sense - the best way to survive an avalanche or exposure in the backcountry is not to get in a bad situation in the first place! Be up to speed on safe snow travel, route-picking, avalanche avoidance, and snow science, and know the area you're going to play in. If you've never been there before, go out with or talk to someone who has.
  • A Plan - make an itinerary for your day. Write down notes or thoughts after you read the advisory, map your route if you've never been there before. Record what you see while you're out for future reference. Let someone know about your plan back home. Talk about your plan while you're out with your partners. I have found that this helps me maximize my experience in the backcountry. I don't waste time deciding where to go, and it helps me make more confident safety decisions.

We crest the main ridge. We're entering the slope a few hundred feet east at a safe entry point that's not too wind drifted.Wind blows snow into our faces. One last safety check. Boots tight, bindings secure. I watch my friend descend onto the face, a sheltered slope still clinging to some good snow. He makes arcing turns as he paints a portrait of sheer bliss.

Butterflies fill my stomach and the sun-laden snow seems even brighter. He makes it down and signals for my descent from a safe location. One last check of the boots and I roll over the edge.

28 January 2015

Educating our Educators: equipping teachers with tools for place-based education

Being involved at the Montana Natural History Center has given me the unique opportunity to interact with a variety of people from across Montana. From preschool teachers to university professors, and from field scientists to young aspiring naturalists, there are two common and binding characteristics that I have observed: a strong sense of place and love of learning.

Last weekend wrapped up the final session of the 2014-2015 A Forest for Every Classroom (FFEC) program. This program is a collaboration between a host of government agencies, education non-profits, universities, and environmental organizations that provides place-based education training for educators. FFEC's mission states that it is "a dynamic professional development program for educators focused on place-based approaches to education. Teachers who participate in FFEC gain experience, form relationships and increase their own knowledge so that they are able to foster student understanding of and appreciation for their natural and human communities."

I am fortunate enough to have gotten to attend two of these sessions as MNHC's FFEC intern. Over days we spent in the pristine larch groves and snowy track-riddled forests of the Swan and Blackfoot Valleys, I canoed across fog-hooded lakes before sunrise, listened to stories about horsepacking through wilderness and toured active timber harvest sites. Our group also had the opportunity to experience the tribal material culture that is as much a living part of that landscape as the mink we tracked in and out of a frozen creek.

During my time with these teachers, I began to see something that goes unnoticed by many in America today. I saw a deep connection integrally tied to landscape and hardworking people who were trying to find the best ways to communicate that to young people of all ages. I saw kindergarten teachers learning how to integrate place-based education into play time and high school teachers learning how to integrate more out-of-classroom learning into their curriculum. I saw teachers from small rural schools interacting and networking with each other, sharing ideas and building friendships.

I think these educators, with their diverse backgrounds and personalities, embodied most what I truly appreciate about people: true empathy. Their commitment to providing young Montanans with quality leaning opportunities is wholly noble and undoubtedly supported by A Forest for Every Classroom.