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North Fork connectivity

University of Montana students head to Polebridge to learn about mountains, community

  • 8 min to read
UM students and faculty snowshoe

University of Montana students and faculty snowshoe on the road to Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park recently during a weeklong field course on the geography of the North Fork of the Flathead River. The popular course illustrating land connectivity and community in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem is in its 10th year.

POLEBRIDGE – The snowflakes alongside the trail sparkled like strewn crystals, and here and there, animal tracks brushed and scooped the path.

A snowshoe hare? A fox? A wolf, maybe?

In snowshoes, the students tromped to the edge of a bench, and the sun shone as they looked across the North Fork to Rainbow Peak shouldering the season's snowfall, then below to the meadow.

Geography professor Sarah Halvorson

Geography professor Sarah Halvorson, who teaches the course along with Graetz, talks to the students.

Sarah Halvorson, a geography professor at the University of Montana, and Mitch Burgard, an expert on fire for the U.S. Forest Service, led the excursion.

In the early settling of the North Fork, a man built a house there near Bowman Creek, and the homesteaders hauled a piano to Covey Meadow, the instructors said. On some nights, surely a reveler heard the howls of a wolf pack once the musicians slept and dancers quieted.

Here in the Crown of the Continent, 20 UM students gathered for a week in January to learn about Montana's mountains. Connectivity is the theme of the class taught in winter by Halvorson and Rick Graetz, a geography lecturer at UM who created the course a decade ago.

For the wolf, the grizzly bear, the lynx, the elk, land connectivity is key, the tissue building the wide landscape where wildlife roam.

"Where connectivity ends, that's the end of the boundary," Graetz said.

For the people – old hippies, retirees fleeing Seattle, the historian, the pianist, all the people choosing starry nights over street lights – connectivity is a theme as well.

Disparate groups connect, forge relationships and protect wilderness together.

Loners seasoned from harsh winters build bridges with enchanted millennials, sharing stories and chocolate cake, and finding again the wonder that first drew them to the open spaces near the stretch where Montana touches Canada.

On their first night in Polebridge, Susie Graetz foreshadowed the week for the group, a band of adventurers and learners, of future geographers, business owners, accountants, and a culinary artist and doctor.

"If you open up your hearts and your minds, you'll see it: There's magic in the North Fork, " Graetz said.


The wintry adventure started early on a Sunday morning with students piling up gear in the parking lot outside Stone Hall and gathering in a classroom to hear the lay of the land from Rick Graetz.

The group would caravan up to Polebridge, at the northwest entrance to Glacier National Park, pausing along the way for brief talks from Graetz and Halvorson about features in the landscape, then stop for a lengthier spell at the UM Flathead Lake Biological Station for lunch and a lecture.

Lunch was BYO.

"Does everyone have their lunch? I have mine. I have a chocolate bar," Graetz said.

UM geography lecturer Rick Graetz

UM geography lecturer Rick Graetz, center in red coat, talks to the students during a stop at the UM Flathead Lake Biological Station. Graetz started the course 10 years ago.

In fact, he had an entire chocolate cake. This year is the 10th anniversary of the course, and Rick and Susie, photographers and writers who have produced more than 30 books, brought the dessert to celebrate the longstanding relationship between UM and residents of the North Fork.

After a couple of hiccups, including cargo racks freezing shut from the cold, the students piled into SUVs, and the caravan hit the road.

Just outside Arlee, the line of UM cars pulled over, and Rick Graetz pointed out a long drainage and unusual moraine along the Mission Mountains. Then, Halvorson shed another perspective on the mountains in the sacred heartland of indigenous people, the Bitterroot Salish, the Pend d’Oreille and the Kootenai Tribes. 

"Mountains are their cathedrals," Halvorson said.


At first, the magic of the North Fork eluded Brandon Bowden, a junior who wore glittery earrings and drove a Hummer.

The trip was his first time "snow camping," in this case, spending the night in a cabin with a wood stove for heat. It was his first foray into an outhouse and first time strapping on snowshoes.

On the snowshoe outing up Bowman Creek, Bowden temporarily lost his favorite mug, and he fell behind the rest of the group when a shortcut didn't pan out. At first, he felt frustrated to have to catch up.

Then, the sun, the trees and the quiet began to dazzle him. He remained in the back of the pack, but instead of worrying, he started recording short video stories on his camera.

"I looked at the atmosphere. Look how beautiful and silent and pristine this is," he said. "That's where the magic started."

Bowden is a pre-med and culinary arts student who survived a rare form of pneumonia, a lung transplant, and counted 17 surgeries in six months. Through the ordeal, he felt his life had been nearly ripped away, and in the North Fork, he saw other people living on the edge, too.

There, they embraced the lifestyle.

"I come here, and I see how people can live so close to the brink of death, but they're living," Bowden said. "They're not dying. That, to me, is inspiring, to be honest."

Bowden falls asleep to white noise, and on the second night in Polebridge, he queued up "Downton Abbey" on his iPad. Halfway through an episode, though, he realized TV wasn't the reason he was on the trip.

"I started getting inspired by the beauty around me," Bowden said.

He turned off the iPad.

He drew in his journal, a crossword puzzle with the names of the people on the trip, with "Polebridge" at the center.

He stopped trying to drown the silence.


Forces of nature and human power shape the landscapes the students study.

At the biological station, the students stamped and shivered outside as Graetz told them about the work of glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. He eschews Ivory Tower speak.

"Glaciers in Montana represent the first grand larceny ever because they stole rocks from Canada," he said.

Inside, the group learned about a conservationist who founded the station and helped establish Glacier National Park. The research lab and education center on Flathead Lake counts itself as one of the oldest active field stations in the country, and Morton J. Elrod started it, said Shawn Devlin, assistant research professor.

Students Reid Hensen, Rhys McKinstry and Zoe Leake

Students Reid Hensen, Rhys McKinstry and Zoe Leake, from left, watch the alpenglow on the peaks of Glacier National Park from Polebridge. The location helps students experience the vastness and frailty of the Crown of the Continent, with a chance to see moose and elk, hear wolves howl and talk with local residents.

Elrod founded the station in 1899, and he didn't even unpack his suitcase before heading to the lake shore to collect samples. His first mission was to understand Flathead Lake.

"He really was an advocate of keeping Montana as pure and preserved as possible," Devlin said.

Later in the week, the students heard about George Bird Grinnell, from whom Grinnell Glacier takes its name, a naturalist described by the New York Times as the father of modern-day conservation. 

The students learned about those who paved the way in the field of conservation even as the residents of that wild country look to them to protect the wilderness and its creatures in the future.

In the 1970s, John Stone stumbled across this region of Montana, and he described it as one of the most special places on Earth. Stone, a newly-minted local who is moving to the North Fork from Seattle, loves the descent of the students on Polebridge in the middle of winter.

"They've got a lot of positive energy, and we're going to pass on the North Fork to some of them," Stone said.


Ask about the winter population in Polebridge, and a resident won't give a number right away.

"Well, there's Oliver."


"Will and Katarina."

And another pause. The list goes on, but not for long, and the number might reach 30 or so in all.

Polebridge is just 160 miles away from Missoula, but the bumpy road and remote locale seem to stretch out those miles, and the learning is different in this faraway place.

"One of the greatest pleasures of all to see is the look on their faces when we first pull into the North Fork Valley and the sun is on the peaks," Rick Graetz said.

Students and guest lecturers talk

Students and guest lecturers talk outside the North Fork Hostel in Polebridge during the field course.

The main classroom is the living area of Oliver Meister's North Fork Hostel, a room lit by propane lamps, furnished with at least a couple of rocking chairs, and warmed by a woodstove.

Tiny ermine skins rest on the rug atop a table. Meister's cat, also named Oliver, catches them, and Meister skins them and turns them into cat toys. The ermine are better mousers than Oliver the cat, said Oliver the man, but the hostel owner doesn't want the catch to go to waste.

On their first night in his home, students wrapped in puffy coats grabbed chairs or curled up on the couch and shared tidbits about themselves and their hopes for the class. Halvorson also asked them to share their spirit animal.

"I've lived in Montana my entire life, and I've actually never been up here," said Marcus Mayer, from Sidney.

Said Dalton Swan: "My spirit animal is a macaroni penguin." If anyone had doubts, he said, watch him walk in snowshoes.

With introductions over, Rick Graetz wished the college students a good night with a warning: "No staying up 'til 2 raising hell."

But looking up, for a moment, is required.

On one cold walk that evening, teaching assistant Meghan Montgomery stopped mid-step and looked up at the night sky. The stars glittered.

"This demands attention."


The class put the students face to face with environmental threats, and it showed them the way people can propel change in response.

At the biological station, they saw the apocalyptic results of the invasion of mussels in freshwater across the country. On the snowshoe outing in Glacier, Halvorson told them that visitors are heading to the park for "end-of-time tourism."

"People are coming here to see the last glaciers in Glacier National Park," she said. "That's the first thing on their mind. That's hugely profound."

Last year, the park captivated Noelle Reiter, who worked for a rafting company near Glacier and decided to return.

"I was here this last summer and got to see it in all its beauty, and then after I heard about this class, I wanted to see it in the winter and covered in snow," she said.

Rhys McKinstry, a freshman

Rhys McKinstry, a freshman, was the youngest member of the recent North Fork course. "It's depressing to learn about climate change in this setting because I like to ski a lot," McKinstry said. "But information is power, I guess."

Reiter is from Worden, a small town outside Billings, and her parents owned the grocery store there. She's a business management major because she was comfortable learning about the field, but she's thinking about studying recreation management after hearing about tourism in Glacier.

She values the learning outside the classroom, and the way communities come together, the one in the North Fork, and her own classmates during the week.

"You just end up becoming family and really close friends," Reiter said.

The relationships matter.

During one lecture, Michael Jamison, Glacier program manager for National Parks Conservation Association, and Dave Hadden, executive director of Headwaters Montana, talked about forming a coalition of natural allies and natural opponents to protect the Whitefish range.

In hard negotiations, mountain bikers, hikers, and snowmobilers hashed out their differences around a table every week for months, and in the end, they came together around a document that got ahead of the U.S. Forest Service's planning. The agreement got a nod from the agency, and the hard-fought victory had one curious result.

"Everybody got more, and that, to me, that blew my mind," Jamison said.


On their second night in Polebridge, the students got their own taste of building community. 

They came together at the community center in the North Fork, a log cabin sparkling with lights, a beacon in the middle of the dark North Fork. A piano player tickled the ivories while Rick Graetz presented a slideshow, and students mingled with the locals.

At the podium, the Graetzes, Halvorson, and Hal Stearns, husband of UM interim President Sheila Stearns, shared their gratitude for the course. Former UM President Royce Engstrom and former Provost Perry Brown had supported the class, and Rick Graetz said he considered the people of the North Fork his bosses, stakeholders in UM.

North Fork resident Bill Walker

North Fork resident Bill Walker, right, talks with student Reid Hensen while fellow student Noelle Reiter talks with Walker's wife Lois during a gathering at the community center in the North Fork. The gathering is a chance for the UM students to talk with and learn from local residents, who in turn treasure the visits from the students.

"The University of Montana's address is Missoula, but our home is every community in this state," he said. 

Indeed, the instructors consider the community members their partners, teaching alongside them, Halvorson said. At the center, one student made plans to visit a resident later in the week to see his solar system, and another student asked about the local who grew a fig tree in a greenhouse.

"We just really treasure and honor everything that you share with our students," Halvorson said. "We would not have this course if it weren't for you."

Polebridge is among the reasons Montana is the last best place, Stearns said. The students were banding together, becoming their own community of learners, taking in lessons from the North Fork.

"We've been a place of survivors and a place where people would take chances," Stearns said.

After the presentations, local Joyce O'Hara said the relationships go both ways; the community gains from the youngsters, the infusion of fresh ideas they bring.

"We love it," O'Hara said. "You've got all these young minds that come up. My husband calls it the pixie dust effect."

Michael Eidum, a geography major from Helena

Michael Eidum, a geography major from Helena, and other students listen during a presentation by a guest speaker at the North Fork Hostel.

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