The scent of pine filled the air in Schreiber Gymnasium as kids visited different tables and booths learning how to crosscut saw wood, identify species of fish and slide down a handcrafted slide at the Foresters’ Ball Community Forestry Day on Saturday.
Families and children who attended the University of Montana-affiliated event had the opportunity to learn about the environment through hands-on lessons from nearly a dozen groups and organizations.
The gym, which the UM Forestry Club transformed into an outdoor woodsman wonderland of sorts for the ball, created the perfect environment for families to play and learn. Pine branches adorned the basketball hoops, log cabin structures covered the walls and freshly cut wood chips littered the floor.
Kids walked underneath a mounted moose head that marked the entrance to one cabin-like alcove where Heather Robertson and Owen Oster showed them how to use a crosscut saw to cut a “cookie,” or a slab from a mounted log.
They each held one end of the pliable saw and moved back and forth until a slab of the stump fell onto the wood chip-laden floor.
Robertson and Oster, both juniors at UM, are co-captains of the UM Woodsman Team. The student-run group competes in Collegiate Timbersport events such as ax throwing, pole climbing, crosscut sawing, log rolling and chopping in the spirit of traditional logging practices.
“It’s kind of like a track meet but instead of track events, it's logging events,” Robertson said, adding the group has their home event in Missoula during the last weekend of April.
Robertson and Oster have volunteered to help set up and work during the ball for the past three years. They said they’ve been working on building the structures for about a week.
“Foresters’ Ball is the dance whereas today, kids and families can come and check out the cool logging town that we built without having to be at the dance,” Robertson said. “They can come learn about the outdoors and conservation and learn some new skills like shooting a bow.”
At a table outside the structure, Ashton Clinger, a senior at UM and an education officer assistant for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Kadie Heinle, the UM student chapter president of the American Fisheries Society, helped kids identify animal species.
Clinger stood beside several furs laid out on a table and explained the differences between grizzly bears and black bears: the distinctive shoulder hump of a grizzly bear, the short rounded grizzly ears compared to tall and pointed black bear ears, and the straight face profile of a black bear compared to a dished face profile of a grizzly.
Clinger pulled out a lighter brown fur from under the table and asked whether it belonged to a grizzly bear or a black bear, explaining that black bears’ fur can have many color variations so it’s never a good idea to identify a bear based on its color.
Similarly, Heinle asked kids to identify different species of fish on display. Which one is this, she asked, pointing to a northern pike.
Amber Ishler came from Frenchtown to attend the event with her niece, Riley, who correctly identified the northern pike and a cutthroat trout.
Ishler held bear posters that Riley and her friend, Tessa, won while the girls pointed to different fish.
The girls said their favorite part of the day was seeing owls from the Wild Skies Raptor Center.
Over at the Wild Skies’ table, Jesse Varnado held a great horned owl named Frith with a glove-covered hand to protect himself from the bird’s talons.
The Wild Skies Raptor Center provides care, rehabilitation and release of injured wild birds, in addition to dedicating some birds to educational purposes.
Varnado explained different adaptations of the birds to kids who moved as close to the bird as possible. The adaptations included specialized velvety plumage that helps the birds stay quiet so they can hear prey better and approach them undetected.
Across the room from the owl table, a kid zoomed down a handcrafted slide built by students. Kids entered the slide through a doorway and climbed up a set of stairs until they reached a platform leading to the slide, marked by branches and small lanterns. One after another, the kids came to a stop in a pile of wood chips cushioning their landing.
Erinn Guzik came to the event with her son Liam after hearing there would be a slide. Guzik attended the dance during her years as a student at UM but she said this is the first time they attended the Community Forestry Day.
Liam said his favorite part of the event was the slide as he pulled back on a bow and aimed an arrow at an inflatable archery target.
Osten said the students in the Forestry Club got wood from “everywhere” ranging from Lubrecht Experimental Forest to donated wood from nearby mills.
They used the wood to build everything in the gymnasium, from the slide to the wood chips, and piled leftovers behind the building where a group of volunteers used chainsaws to cut firewood.
Ben Chappelow, a board member for the Forestry Scholarship Association which helped present the Community Forestry Day, attended the event to inform visitors about the association. His group works with students and student organizations of the UM College of Forestry and Conservation to provide financial support as well as mentorship and advocacy.
The association is currently working on building a structure where the Woodsman Team can practice. Chappelow said they’ve built the frame but they’re still looking for volunteers or donations to pay off loans for concrete, doors and windows. He hopes they can have the project finished by the team’s home competition in April. In the meantime, they’re looking for more people to take an interest and become involved. Chappelow said Community Forestry Day seemed like a good place to start.