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FINDING COLGATE IN THE MONTANA WILDERNESS

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Allison Gleason '98 on Little Bill
by Allison Gleason '98

The first bag I packed in preparation for my college years was not exactly filled with a typical college first-year's contents, because my Colgate career began on Outdoor Education's Adirondack Wilderness Adventure. It went on to include such memorable experiences as scuba diving in Australia's Great Barrier Reef and researching fossils in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park. With wilderness playing such an integral role in my college experience, the chance to formally end with a trek on horseback into Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

The vast expanse of our nation's fourth largest state has held a strong personal fascination for me for quite some time. In late July, I joined fellow '98 grads Bethany Tietz, Chapin Brackett and Amy Williams, rising seniors Kirsten Ostberg, Becca Newhall, Marta Kirsis and Kelley Barker, former geology professor Jonathan Swinchatt and President Neil Grabois, appropriately clad in a three-point cowboy hat and brown corduroy pants, on horseback. Under the leadership of geology professor James McLelland (affectionately known as Chief), a professional outfit led us through rocky river flats, past lakes and meadows into the high country, and back down again, covering more than 60 miles. Our guides and hosts were Kehoe and Theresa Wayman, their 13-year-old son Jeff, and their wrangler, Hugh, of Ronan, Montana. For the past six years Kehoe has been leading hunting and sightseeing parties as one of about six local outfits licensed to lead parties into the Bob. He seemed to know every trail, fishing hole and scenic view in the entire area, and eased into each camp as if it were a familiar chair. Theresa told us, "My grandparents started an outfit 56 years ago. I grew up with (the Bob) as my back yard." Named after an early 20th Century explorer/author/naturalist, the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex can be found just south of Glacier National Park. The complex is actually several different wilderness areas and national forests, and it remains largely undisturbed by human activity. The spine of this wilderness complex is the impressive Rocky Mountain chain, a manifestation of the Continental Divide. This series of peaks and ridges reach over 9,000 feet high, and form the resistant walls of an intricate network of glacial valleys that rest 5,000 feet below.

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Life on the trail; Kirsten Ostberg '99 with "trail art" and President Grabois
The Bob also serves as a natural habitat to scores of wildlife, including bald eagles, wolverines, mule deer, elk, moose, black bears, mountain goats and mountain lions. In fact, it is the relocation area for what Park Service employees term Glacier's "troubled bears," a population of some 150 grizzlies.

We drove north from Missoula -- passing within an hour of Ted Kaczynski's famed backwoods hideout -- to Holland Lake, near Codon, MT. Nestled into a glacial valley, guests of the lake's lodge enjoyed the summertime benefits of snowmelt from the ferocious Montana winters. It was to be the last running water, heat and electric light we would see for the week.

At the Holland Lake stables, each rider was introduced to his or her horse. My horse, the aptly named Little Bill, was a small, walnut-brown equine with a straw-colored mane. On the trail, Little Bill assessed immediately that I was not an experienced rider. He slowed to a convenient pace, stopping often to eat. I found myself not minding the lazy gait, because it gave me more time to soak in the scenery as we wound our way up through the green aspen forest and onto the mountain pass that was the gateway to the Bob. From this high vantage point, all of Holland Lake spread out beneath us, and the motorboats looked like bugs skating on the shimmering water. I had already snapped an entire roll of film when Chief casually mentioned that this was probably the most unimpressive scenery we'd experience all week.

After the initial ascent through the mountain pass, we approached Big Salmon Lake and trekked along its perimeter, stopping for lunch on the far shore. Charlotte Peak, formed from massive tilted layers of Cambrian carbonates, dominated the lake's other shore. Big Salmon Lake is fed by the South Fork of the Flathead River, and we followed its banks into a meadow known as Murphy Flats, where we eased out of our saddles and pitched our second night's camp.

We then left the river and headed east up into the high country near the Continental Divide. Above the tree line the landscape suddenly transformed into alpine meadows and crumbly cliffs that formed an enclosed pasture known as the Amphitheater. Some of us took a day hike up the Amphitheater walls, to the ridges above where we could see the peaks of Glacier National Park, and beyond, to Canada.

By nightfall, the Amphitheater was a planetarium as the sky filled with stars and an eerie green glow. It was my first sighting of the Northern Lights.

Chief roused us daily, "Wake up, it's another beautiful day. You aren't going back to sleep, are you?" Days on the trail could last up to seven hours, and we could cover more than 20 miles of terrain. The topography ranged from rugged, precipitous ridgetops to gently sloping alpine meadows and forested river gorges.

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The group at trail's end
The descent from the Continental Divide carried us through particularly rough terrain. Talus and assorted rock debris, a result of the winter avalanches, littered the alpine meadows. The 52 horseshoes sounded like a thousand china plates smashing to the ground as we moved along. However, everyone managed through. Each horse and rider pair developed its own unique combined personality -- Becca and Rooster or Kirsten and Snooger, for instance. These unlikely pairings often provided the evening's laughter, with many rounds of "horse gossip" as the day's events on the trail were retold around a campfire under the stars.

Despite the isolation and natural beauty, it was agreed this trip was not exactly "roughing it." Theresa's culinary arsenal included a fully operational stove/griddle and several coolers of fresh meats and breads -- even six dozen eggs. One meal featured filet mignon wrapped in bacon, complete with biscuits, potato salad and chocolate cake for dessert. Chip and Amy, both veterans of Colgate's outdoor education leadership program, commented that this was the first time in four years that they had absolutely no say in what was on the packing list. Of course, when all the gear is carried on a mule train consisting of 20 pack animals, the true sense of carrying your own weight is indeed lost.

Back in the lowlands, we were reunited with the South Fork River and enjoyed a day off. Relaxed after fly fishing and swimming in the icy river, we were ready to head out of the Bob. This last leg of the trip was not without some hardship. Ailments on the trail forced Kehoe to lead one horse the last seven miles home, while Neil traded his mount for a more even-tempered mule named Eagle. Snickers ensued as news of a university president taking a "half-assed vacation" travelled up and down the horse gossip circuits.

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Horses grazing at the Continental Divide
On most nights after dinner, many people enjoyed a hand of cards. Others preferred just talking, sharing old memories and creating new ones. The group's flyfishers would return as late as 10 p.m., triumphant with the day's catch. The fish that weren't released were cleaned and fried for breakfast. Bethany and I listened as Chief and Swinchatt relived memories and told stories that went back 40 years or more. Might this be us some day, we wondered.

Sitting in our tent one night, in the first hour of darkness, Amy, Bethany, Chip and I all agreed that our Colgate experiences -- starting and ending in the wilderness -- had come full circle. We'd each go our separate ways now, but not without taking another very special memory away from Colgate with us.

I told Chief how glad I was that I had taken the opportunity to experience this one last trip with Colgate, in the Montana wilderness. Grinning at me from under his cowboy hat, my good Chief simply said to me, "It would be wrong not to."