Providing a Gateway to Glacier Country

By Beacon Staff

More than 20,000 Flathead Valley kids have waded in cold-to-the-bone streams, fondled vibrant-colored smooth rocks, touched muddy deer tracks and heard the rattle of woodpecker bills on dry trees. They’ve slept in bunkhouses and roasted marshmallows on a crackling fire. For many, it was their first time in the woods.

Glacier Institute hopes it won’t be their last. The local nonprofit institute aims to introduce the next generation of land stewards to the wilds of Glacier National Park and Flathead National Forest. As the educational organization embarks on its 25th anniversary summer, it faces both the challenge of getting children into the wilderness and doing so for a bargain. Executive Director Joyce Baltz says, “Affordability is key.”

Baltz points out that 50 percent of the children in Flathead Valley have never been to Glacier Park – a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve less than 30 minutes from Flathead Valley. “We feel proud of the fact that we get them there,” she says.

But Glacier Institute targets adults, too. Last year, more than 800 adults took classes – dabbling in the Crown of the Continent’s geology, birds, wildflowers, history, rivers, fish and other wildlife. Some learned to pick mushrooms; others followed lynx tracks in the snow.

The institute was born in 1983. Ursula Mattson, who worked as a field educator in Glacier Park, envisioned a program similar to ones in other parks. In her search for potential instructors, she teamed up with Lex Blood, a professor of geology. She knew the Park Service and Glacier Field Camp; Blood had Flathead Valley Community College contacts. That first summer, the pair debuted eight adult classes in a partnership between the park, college and Glacier Natural History Association.

“From its beginning, the institute has been a labor of love by a lot of volunteers,” said Mattson, now a physical therapist in East Glacier. “It’s a testimony to how many people love Glacier.” By the time she left the institute seven years later, it had doubled its course offerings.

In 1988, the institute added Big Creek Outdoor Education Center – a Forest Service ranger station – launching its acclaimed series of school programs and summer camps. More than 1,200 kids from 25 local schools annually attend the Discovery School, most spending two nights and three days at Big Creek. One Lakeside Elementary School teacher has brought her class up for 17 years. Last summer, through the Forest Service’s More Kids in the Woods program, 35 at-risk inner-city kids from Houston came to sink their hands into outdoor science.

Getting kids there is a feat. Glacier Institute undercharges by half for its Discovery School. “Every single kid that goes to Big Creek is on scholarship,” says Baltz, adding that the $92,000 program relies on being subsidized by donations, Millenium Memberships and grants. “We’re determined to keep kids coming and keep scholarships at half price.”

For its 25th anniversary summer, Glacier Institute introduces 15 new offerings to its curriculum of 60 single-day and overnight camp programs for adults, teens and children. “We try to add a handful of new classes each year,” says Field Camp Program Director Kelly Roth. “We have Glacier groupies who need something new.”

New adult programs include illustrating plants, macro photography and watercolor landscapes. One four-day backpack trip explores the park’s geology and changing climate at Jackson-Blackfoot Glaciers.

Roth designed the new Youth Adventure Series for kids – one-day programs offered in July and August. Kids can learn how animals and trees survive fires, how to build emergency shelters in the woods and find clues to wildlife habitats. Baltz, who has 8-year-old twins and a 10-year-old daughter, quickly endorses the programs from a parent’s point of view: “I can drop the kids off, get in the park, and go hike Ptarmigan Tunnel with my husband.”

In addition to their youth camps, Big Creek is also running a new three-day family camp in August. For kids and their accompanying adults the camp introduces families to the outdoors with hiking and evening campfires. “It’s ideal for those who have never roughed it,” adds Baltz.

To celebrate its anniversary, the institute will sell commemorative posters, featuring an Ed Gilliland photograph of Swiftcurrent Lake and Mt. Wilbur. It will also host a family party at Big Creek on June 21.

At Big Creek last summer, one student from Houston asked, “Who painted the rocks in this river?” Giving the child the chance to touch those rocks is the goal of Glacier Institute.

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