Saturday was not the best day to play outdoors.
The forecast high of 21 degrees was less than halfway there, and the previous storm's winds had crusted the snow like Styrofoam. The sky was primer-white, as inviting as an unfinished homework assignment.
So Jenn Lutman wasn't sure what to expect when she invited a dozen Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs and a bunch of University of Montana students to go animal tracking around McCormick Park. Could she lure them away from comfy living rooms, video games and a trip to the mall?
A bit to her surprise, the offer to brave the cold in search of critter signs earned a resounding "yes" at Saturday's first Outdoors Explorers Mentor Program gathering. After a quick lesson in track and gait identification from the Montana Natural History Center's Tina Hanke, everyone dressed for wind chill and headed for an irrigation ditch to see what they could find.
"Just getting them connected with their own backyard is really important," explained Lutman, who is interning with the federal Arthur Carhart Natural Wilderness Training Center at UM. "Then we can get more kids in the woods."
It sounds like something out of President Barack Obama's new America's Great Outdoors initiative, except the Outdoors Explorers idea was actually in the works before the national program was announced last week. Carhart director Connie Myers said this pilot effort could be the model the rest of the country could borrow.
In the opinion of 8-year-old Mathias Novasio, "Basically 90 percent of our school stays inside and plays video games." His 11-year-old brother Christian added, "the only time they go outside is for recess."
That may be a bit extreme, but the Novasio brothers were thrilled to learn their Big Brothers, Matt Kettelhake and Garret Buchanan, were game to go outside. Buchanan grew up in Bozeman and earned his Eagle Scout badge in Boy Scouts, so he already had the skills to step off the sidewalk. But Kettelhake grew up in Stockton, Calif., where either the forest or the beach was an hour-and-a-half drive away.
The point of the Outdoors Explorers is to get guys like Buchanan and Kettelhake together, so they can share the opportunity and initiative to take the Novasio brothers beyond the city limits. It's easy in Missoula, where a five-minute drive lands you at the edge of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, Pattee Canyon or Blue Mountain. The hard part is convincing kids getting out there is fun.
Twelve-year-old Star Berthelson had a pretty good plan. Her idea of a good time outdoors was a hike to a lake, where she could watch the bugs on the water and the fish that came to eat them.
"I like actually seeing it with my own eyes," Berthelson said. "It's funner that way."
Her Big Sister Ashley Jammaron put it in more adult terms.
"A lot of people my age, in their mid-20s, think with enough mac-and-cheese and a Wii, they don't ever have to leave the house," Jammaron said. "But there's a lot outside that you don't ever get to experience inside. It's a lot less interesting to learn about ecosystems than it is to hike to a lake and see it."
Lutman's new idea was to take Big Brothers Big Sisters, with its tradition of youth mentoring, and combine it with the energy and outdoor enthusiasm of a university student community. Saturday's gathering was the first attempt to mix the big-little pairs with members of the Montana Wilderness Association and the Carhart Center's own crew of federal Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service members.
"We'd like to think we're a little ahead of the curve," Lutman said. "We want to get at least five to seven (Big Brothers Big Sisters) matches out at least once a month. Next month, we're thinking of going snowshoeing. Then there's Glacier National Park, the National Bison Range, rock climbing - we just want more kids in the woods."