L&L Backpacking Trip

Last week the Landscape & Livelihood students embarked on a five-day backpacking trip into the Swan Mountains. The trip started off with an exciting hike up to Upper Holland Lake where the students had their second black bear sighting so far this semester! Upon arrival at the lake, students had some well-deserved time to relax, spent some time discussing Leave No Trace principles, and shared many laughs getting settled into their tents.

  View from the camping spot at Upper Holland Lake.     Photo by Lily Lang

View from the camping spot at Upper Holland Lake.

Photo by Lily Lang

The next morning students discussed their pre-program reading ‘Bounding the Land’ by Eric Freyfogle before hiking up to the shores of Sapphire Lake. Along the way, everyone noticed a distinct change in the forest structure as we shifted into sub-alpine fir and whitebark pine dominated stands. In recent history, whitebark pine trees have fallen prey to blister rust, a non-native fungal infection. The infection has devastated the whitebark pine population which has ultimately led to a cascading effect on the Clark’s Nutcracker, a bird species that co-evolved with the whitebark pine and relies heavily on their seeds for their diet.

  Learning about whitebark pine and blister rust on the trail up to Sapphire Lake.     Photo by Meredith Fraser.

Learning about whitebark pine and blister rust on the trail up to Sapphire Lake.

Photo by Meredith Fraser.

Angela, a student from Boise State University but originally from Northern California, comments on seeing what remains of the Whitebark pine stands and what it’s like learning about things while immersed in our outdoor classroom:

Learning outside of a traditional classroom setting not only makes it more fun, but it allows for me to witness the topics we are discussing up close. We walked through a graveyard of Whitebark pine which are rapidly decreasing in population because of blister rust infecting them. In a classroom that may have been difficult to imagine but seeing it right before your eyes makes it real. But on a happier note, the backpacking trip was really rewarding. While bonding with everyone, I also got to be in a wild place. I could feel the connection to the landscape that people have talked about throughout history. The lessons about geology, weather patterns, watersheds, and various species were exciting because they existed right in front of me in this amazing valley- not 1000 miles away in a classroom where it has little relevance. This experiential learning style allows me to further understand the intricate landscape and current changes it is undergoing mainly because I am fully immersed in the place.
  In the evening, students learnt about headwater ecology and the slow passage of water on the landscape whilst sitting on the shores of Sapphire Lake.     Photo by Lily Lang

In the evening, students learnt about headwater ecology and the slow passage of water on the landscape whilst sitting on the shores of Sapphire Lake.

Photo by Lily Lang

  Camping spot at Sapphire Lake .    Photo by Meredith Fraser

Camping spot at Sapphire Lake .

Photo by Meredith Fraser

The next day students headed out from Sapphire for the day and hiked up the Holland Lookout. With a surprisingly clear day and standing at an elevation of around 8050 ft., we had a perfect view of the Swan Valley and Mission Mountains to the west and the Bob Marshall Wilderness extending as far as the eye could see to the east. It was the perfect vantage point to learn about and visualize the geological history of the area. The students were then able to practice their map and compass skills, taking bearings on visible peaks and identifying the location of a prescribed burn visible from the lookout.

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  Practicing map and compass skills at Holland Lookout.     Photos by Meredith Fraser

Practicing map and compass skills at Holland Lookout.

Photos by Meredith Fraser

After a wonderful two nights at Sapphire Lake, students hiked back down to Upper Holland Lake for their final night in the backcountry. The afternoon was spent learning about the subalpine ecology and doing some field journaling, allowing the students to document and better understand the wild place around them.

  Field journaling time on the shore of Upper Holland Lake.     Photo by Angela Malliaras

Field journaling time on the shore of Upper Holland Lake.

Photo by Angela Malliaras

After a final feast of ‘thanksgiving in a pot’ we felt the first few raindrops of the trip so far. Once the bear hang had been hoisted up out of reach for the night, most of the students piled into a 3 person-tent, filling the campsite with laughter.

  Students taking cover from the rain.     Photo by Lily Lang

Students taking cover from the rain.

Photo by Lily Lang

  Rainy sunset over Upper Holland Lake.     Photo by Angela Mallarias

Rainy sunset over Upper Holland Lake.

Photo by Angela Mallarias

Overall it is safe to say we had some of the best weather in the history of L&L backpacking trips with only the one rainy evening on our last night, which was nice enough to bring down the dust for our hike back down to the valley bottom in the morning.