I awoke just before 5 a.m. on Friday, April 22, in anticipation of another memorable day spent working on behalf of a wild Yellowstone Country with student participants from our 2010 Yellowstone Leadership Challenge. Service work or what we like to call “Giving Back” is a big part of our youth focused programs and our effort to inspire teenagers to become active participants and environmental stewards in their communities.
As I loaded my truck for the day’s festivities, I did so with a cold wind biting the back of my neck as the temperatures were hovering around 30 degrees. There was a dusting of snow on the ground and signs of blue sky with the brightest stars still shimmering in the early morning hours. We would be picking up a dozen members of the YCG Clan in Livingston, but first had to journey to Bozeman to pick up vehicles from our friends and partners at Big Sky Youth Empowerment.
While I tried to embrace whatever the weather threw at us knowing that it was completely out of my control, I like so many other Yellowstone Country residents have been growing tired of the winter like days still bombarding us this late in April. I always remember Earth Day as a spring celebration, jeans and t-shirts as we walked the forests surrounding Missoula or Coeur d’Alene, cleaning up trash, but this day felt more like a Bridger Bowl ski day than it did the season before summer.
My tolerance for the cold temperatures and flying snow that had accompanied the first month of spring ran out as I traveled over Bozeman Pass at 7 a.m., slowly grinding my way up the hill with no pavement in sight. The roads through the canyon were sketchy at best and upon entering Bozeman which clearly had been dumped on the night before, I watched sedans struggle to cleanly pass through intersections without swaying the back end of their vehicles like the wagging tail of a dog.
After arriving in Bozeman I picked up one of our mentors who participated in all of our Yellowstone Leadership Challenges, and our first River Guardian Fly Fishing School as a student, and was now giving back by driving one of our loaner vehicles for our field day into the park. We arrived at Dave Granger’s house (the Program Director for Big Sky Youth Empowerment and a special friend of YCG) who was already out front walking through the several inches of freshly fallen snow, cleaning off the running vehicles and filling them with windshield wiper fluid. This is how Dave and BYEP roll, here is a guy who works with 60 plus youth all winter long, and on his day off he is up bright and early, readying their Suburbans for our day in the field before his daily sojourn to the closed Bridger Bowl ski area for his morning ski where he earns his turns.
Thankfully, by the time we began our journey back through the canyon and over the pass things began to warm up and what was a sheet of snow covered ice just an hour before, had now turned into a sloppy mess making for a much safer drive back to the Paradise Valley.
While a handful of students weren’t able to meet us at Town and Country in Livingston with the somewhat slick side roads, a dedicated and motivated group of YCGers eagerly greeted us as we bumped into the parking lot with Caribbean reggae bringing some sense of sanity to the winter-like situation. With some overly excited students, we packed into the vehicles and began our journey southward to the boundary of Yellowstone National Park.
Early into the drive I told the students of my drive north two hours before, and how just as the light began to bathe the valley they call Paradise with enough daylight to make out all of the four leggeds which abound in the river basin this time of year, I was lucky enough to witness a red fox sprinting across the highway and bounding through the fields in a high paced pursuit of the Gallatin Mountains.
We spent most of the drive south in a passionate discussion about bison which have been so prolific throughout the Gardiner Basin for the last six+ weeks. It was the first time any of the students had crossed the cattle guard—built back in March in an effort to keep bison from traveling north into the Paradise Valley—which represents a sign of progress for bison even if the guard itself is a futile attempt at keeping bison where “they” the government agencies want them.
Unlike weeks past when more than 500 bison were seen roaming up and down the Gardiner Basin, there were few buffalo to be seen as the Montana Department of Livestock are back to their antics and have successfully been hazing bison back into the park for over a week, leaving an empty feeling resonating from the land. When we did finally find a handful of bison at Corwin Springs—a few miles north of the park’s boundary—they were in pursuit by two DOL agents on horseback. This was very upsetting to our students as they couldn’t understand why bison were being hazed back into the park when we had already seen bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer and elk peacefully grazing on private and public land outside of the park.
From our DOL encounter we made our way to the site of our 2011 Earth Day service project at the Gardiner dump. This facility—a stones through away from Yellowstone National Park—is the site where one of my favorite Yellowstone bears of all time, a 500 pound nearly black male, was captured for getting into garbage during a bad whitebark pine crop during the fall of 2010. The most frustrating thing about this is that the garbage at the dump isn’t properly stored to keep bears out and because of this, the bear I call the “Birthday Bear” was eventually euthanized for behavior deemed unacceptable.
Our project for the group of ready and willing teenagers was to walk up and down the river, north and south of the dump to clean as much garbage as possible. Although the roughly 20 green cans just above the river are surrounded by chain-link fence, with the winds that constantly rip through the basin, along with the hoards of ravens who congregate in obnoxious numbers throughout the winter, garbage ultimately ends up strewn up and down the river’s edge for hundreds of yards to the north and south.
By the time we had finished up, we had bagged over a dozen 30 gallon trash bags of garbage and had hauled out over 400 hundred pounds of metal in the form of car engine parts and rusted old railroad relics. Getting the kids unplugged for the morning, it was a memorable experience for all to spend a few hours walking the banks above the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48, looking out over the world’s first national park, occasionally watching ravens, bald eagles and the recently arriving osprey soaring in the thermals above the hurried waters of the Yellowstone.
After those hours of good, hard work, we entered the park and journeyed to Swan Lake Flats which was still firmly in the grips of winter, so stark, brutal and cold. Just 1300 feet below in the town of Gardiner, spring is struggling to return with the slight greening of grasses, so one can easily see why the bison have ventured to these greener pastures in the numbers they have. If ever there was a testimony to why our beloved bison need the land outside of the park, this was certainly it.
Before heading back to Livingston, we rewarded our troops with a dip in the enigmatic waters of the Boiling River which is a favorite stop for our Yellowstone Leadership Challenge program participants. While immersed in the waters, I watched proudly as one of our students spoke to a couple from London, England, about the plight of the bison and what makes this such a special place to call home.
While Yellowstone offered us much to be inspired by throughout the day, it was the words spoken by the students who had just refueled their spirits in the wilderness often called wonderland that was most inspiring. They spoke about the joy of “being back with our YCG family and team,” and their ability to “simply be ourselves among this special group of friends and family.”
While walking to the Boiling River one of our students, a 15-year-old girl told me, “Before I participated in the Yellowstone Leadership Challenge I really didn’t like living here, I didn’t think there was much good about this place and simply couldn’t wait to get out. But since that first YCG program that I participated in, my feelings about this region have completely changed. Yellowstone Country really rocks!”
And I awoke on this beautiful Easter morning with a bright blue summer-like sky and sun radiating off of the snowy summit of Electric Peak to these words from one of our YCG super-star participants…
“Hey coach.... I love your passion and spirit.... it keeps me going for what I believe in and it makes me a stronger person... keep up what your good at... keep preaching and reaching out to others to believe like we do..... I have been working on my writing and hope to send you it when it is finished.... I hope it helps people see what we do....... Love Always, Kaitlyn, member of the Yellowstone Country Guardians”
These young people are not only the future guardians, but they are the here and now of Yellowstone Country!
With Much Love,
Michael Leach, Director and Founder