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Teaching the Crown In Polebridge, Montana

By Sarah Halvorson

For the second consecutive year, UM students had the opportunity to learn about the Crown of the Continent ecosystem during all of its wintery glory. Based out of the close-knit town of Polebridge, a UM Geography course, “Montana’s Mountains” (GEOG 138, 3 credits), was held during the week of January 19–22, 2009. The course, first taught during Wintersession 2008, is the brainchild of Rick Graetz of the University’s geography faculty.

This year, Graetz was joined by the department’s chair, Sarah Halvorson, to provide a hands-on and field-based learning environment centered on the unique cultural and physical landscapes of Glacier National Park (GNP) and the North Fork of the Flathead River. Polebridge (winter population: 25) is situated just outside of the GNP boundary and “off-the-grid” in the floodplain of the North Fork. This year, a total of 21 students participated in the course, effectively doubling the town’s population during the week!

In addition to lectures by the Geography instructors, GNP officials, U.S. Forest Service staff, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and residents provided historical context, background, and science-based information on a range of subjects. Topics included geology and physical geography, the history and role of forest fires, tourism and recreation management, wildlife biology, cultural heritage resource management, climate change, park management, water rights and policy, and changing cultural landscapes.

Following the morning instruction, instructors and students embarked on field excursions with snowshoes. Three different treks took students onto the bench overlooking the North Fork, into the foothills of the Livingston Range via the Bowman Lake Road, and along the frozen floodplain of the North Fork, a river with Wild and Scenic designation.

The outings provided the opportunity to observe firsthand a number of fundamental aspects of the area: the orographic processes and workings of glaciation evident in the magnificent Livingston Range; the results of wildland fires on forest succession; mountain weather and climate; the winter activity of wildlife such as wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, elk, moose, deer, snowshoe hares, river otters, and bald eagles; and evidence of the human history and impact, both ancient and contemporary, in the area. The field observations even included an international component, owing to the fact that the North Fork is at the center of major transboundary energy development disputes between the U.S. and Canada that threaten the integrity of the entire Flathead basin.

Much of the area is covered in deep snow and a blanket of cold in the winter. Nevertheless, the community of Polebridge offers students a connection to individuals and a community that is deeply involved in caring for and protecting the natural capital of the area. Historically, Polebridge served as the commercial center for homesteaders, including Ben Hensen, the homesteader who gave the little town its name in 1920.

The Mercantile’s baked goods, dinners at the Northern Lights, and the cozy setting of the North Fork Hostel easily made up for the lack of electricity and indoor plumbing when the temperatures hovered at or below zero each day. One student summed it up in this way: “I really enjoyed the intimate setting and the field work. I feel that the week-long immersion in the course was great for learning.”

Student evaluations of the course underscored its important role in connecting UM students in meaningful ways to the land and to a landscape that has incredible conservation values and cultural and scientific relevance for Americans, as well as the global community. The most beneficial aspect of the course for one student was “being in the area of study. If we were sitting in a classroom, I would have retained maybe half as much.”

Another student commented, “I really enjoyed this Wintersession course because the students were responsible for their own perspective of the place.” This very personal connection to place that was gained by the students this January will be incredibly important for the future trajectory of environment-society interactions in the Crown of the Continent.