Extended Insights
Extended Insights

Oct 23, 2007, 14:16

By Rosemary McKinnon, MSW

Summer is a glorious time in Montana. The days are long. It stays light till 10:00 p.m. The skies are blue and the water warms up enough for swimming and boating. The snow has almost finished melting in the high-country, the flowers are in bloom and the high country trails are open for hiking. On the ranch students recently spent the weekend bucking bales of hay to put in the barn for winter. This weekend some of them will drive down to Flathead Lake to a friend’s orchard to pick cherries for the whole campus to enjoy.

We drive down Lost Prairie Road in a cloud of dust noting that the grass is dry and turning brown, and we begin to worry about forest fires and step up our practice drills. Four years ago there were ferocious fires in Glacier Park. The smoke plumes were visible across the mountains on the drive into Kalispell. Yet it is also possible to have snow almost at any time of the year in mountain country. Some years ago John and I were hiking the Hi-line trail in Glacier Park with our three young daughters in mid August to spend a night at Granite Park chalet. There was a freak snowstorm that night which dumped a foot of snow and closed Logan Pass. That same night there was also an encounter between a backpacker and a grizzly sow with cubs. Both were using the same mountain pass in the blizzard. It was a sharp reminder of the speed with which danger can arise in the back country. Dr. Tim Corson, as you all know by now, was recently injured in a similar freak accident.

We want our students, your children, to experience the glories of this natural world safely. We have designed our calendar and our curriculum to take advantage of what Montana has to offer. We take three week-long breaks in the summer months to allow for off campus team trips, one long and two short. A couple of years ago our teams began to include parents in some of these shorter trips. These have, by and large, been important events. Parents have enjoyed time with their sons’ and daughters’ teams in Glacier Park, at Hot Springs and in various other locations. They have forged bonds with other parents and with staff and had opportunities to get close to their sons’ and daughters’ friends and teammates, to observe their struggles and successes. Parents have laughed and shared together and enjoyed some of Montana’s superb scenery. Some have continued to meet with one another long after their children have graduated.

These wilderness experiences take a lot of planning by our staff. For example, Team 2 put in for the lottery to canoe the Smith River back in February. Katie Boyd, the Team 2 weekend team leader, who is also an experienced river guide worked with Victoria and Mary’l to organize a number of pre-trip training exercises to get the whole team ready. Back in mid May the staff held canoe training on chilly Lake McGregor. They took the students out one rainy weekend on the local Fisher River to experience river currents and to drill dumping and righting their canoes without panicking. Just to make sure that they were prepared, they took a final trial run on the Swan River with a local canoe expert. Mary’l and Victoria planned together with Katie, and the team’s two senior leaders, for food and gear to last for 6 days on the river and prepared for various contingencies. The result was a resounding success. No one even dumped her canoe!

Other teams planned and executed other kinds of trips. Team 4 had a new team member with an injured knee who could not hike long distances, so they planned to make a base camp and took day hikes in Glacier Park. Team 6 was headed for backpacking in the Anaconda-Pintlar range. But Amy felt the team was not ready. So she and the staff stayed on campus a couple of extra days to practice working together as a team, doing low ropes experientials and trust exercises with the help of Greg Windham. When the staff was assured that everyone was working well together they left campus. They, too, had a successful trip. The boys’ teams carefully planned and executed their three day trips. Team 5 changed plans after a new boy’s brief run-away and productively stayed on campus. Good team work made all these trips successful.

We are impressed that these experiences create deep bonds among students and staff. They encourage competence rather than addiction and dependence. They promote the efficient and frugal use of resources, resilience in the face of stress and unexpected problems, and promote a sense of place. The majority of our students have attended wilderness programs prior to coming to Montana Academy. They experienced successes after substantial struggles at home. Our trips provide the opportunity to reconnect with these key experiences and to remind them of what they learned. The grandeur of the natural world puts human struggle, pain and doubt into perspective. Life reduces to its essentials. This experience is the more valuable because most of our students come from cities where they have not experienced the pleasure and solace of the natural world. Many have had little opportunity to explore nature and learn to love it. They have lived relying too much on TV, spent too much time on computers, and too much time indoors. Yet this is the generation which must repair the damage done to the earth in 200 years of industrialization. Our students, your children, can only engage in this task if they learn to love the natural world and – and become willing to fight to save it.

About the Author: Rosemary McKinnon is the Admissions Director of Montana Academy, Marion, MT, 406-858-2339,,

© Copyright 2012 by Woodbury Reports, Inc.