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10/10/2012

A Weekend in the Mountains

When my boss suggested on the first day of work that I attend an outing tracking grizzly bears in Montana, I wondered whether or not he was trying to rectify a mistake he thought he’d made in the hiring process. Taking the suggestion on good faith, I said I would be thrilled to go and started making arrangements.  Working with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors program, sponsored a grizzly bear tracking expedition into southwest Montana’s Tobacco Roots Mountains the weekend of September 21st . Participants from all over the country - service members, and biologists, and ski patrollers with their teenaged children, spent two nights camping in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.  Using simple techniques, we looked for grizzly bear DNA, the discovery of which would be the first evidence of the species in the Tobacco Roots since the 1930s.

Basin (1)Arriving at camp slightly delayed due to a possible mountain lion sighting, (when recounting any trip I am always certain the animal in question was, in fact, there) we were treated to pasta with meat and veggies, compliments of our guides.  Our campsite was perched above South Boulder Creek and offered panoramic views of 9,000ft peaks whose trails possibly hid the evidence of grizzlies we hoped to find.  About twenty of us sat together in a circle and indulged.  People made small talk and told stories of their travels and future trips planned.   Excitement, if not anxiety, wandered through the stories, tomorrow’s adventure promising to offer some release for our nerves, which for me, were caused by the fact that we would be actively looking for bears.  As a native of New York City, I never thought I would find myself in this situation, and have to admit it was slightly surreal. 

The next morning, my customary cellphone alarm was replaced by the bugling of a male elk, a sound that cannot be described.   Following a breakfast of eggs and bacon, our group broke down into three teams and the expedition began. My team climbed rolling switchbacks to a mountain lake just below 9,000ft, and in the afternoon plunged down three miles of steep downhill terrain.  Along the trail we stopped to collect data, photographing evidence and marking waypoints on our GPS.  After nearly seven hours on the trail we met up with the rest of the group at camp.  The anxiousness of the night before was gone, and the excitement from a day in the mountains had taken its place.  We were strangers mere hours before, but now we shared laughs and recounted the stories of the day like old friends.  I learned that bear meat is greasy, and that on a fracking rig, the engineers are usually talked about behind their backs.  An anthropologist from Seattle and I discussed the merits of living in Brooklyn, and a Texan writer who lived in Connecticut, showed me pictures of the black bears that visit her yard. 

Claw w.Book (1)Bedtime was earlier that night and I am not sure I quite remember falling asleep. I slept well and woke up refreshed.  With another hearty breakfast under our belts, we were back on the trail and into the mountains.  After a second day of data collection, we debriefed in the parking lot and loaded up the vans for the drive back to Bozeman.                      

While the purpose of this trip was to collect data relating specifically to bear activity, our goal at Mission Outdoors is to encourage people to go outside and explore for the many good reasons there are to do just that.  Last weekend reminded me of one in particular.  The outdoors is a great place to get to know someone.  It is a place to learn about hunting from an Army Vet from Indiana, or last winter’s snow quality in the Madison Range from an 8th grader.  Now I know a little bit about what it is like to work for a fracking operation in North Dakota from someone who has done it, and have learned from a biologist how to find raspberries in the wild.  We were a small group that came from many different backgrounds: the outdoors brought us together.  I can collect information by reading magazines or going online, or even watching TV, but there is nothing like learning from people about what they do and who they are.  I am thankful to all the participants for sharing a weekend with me in the mountains and look forward to my next adventure.   

--David Tucker, Mission Outdoors Operations and Programming Coordinator 


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