Facing Main

Once the Newbie

Our reactions and the stories we tell people who live here or come to visit matter

By Maggie Doherty

I was new here once, too. 

I came here all alone, and didn’t know anyone. What I did know was that as a Michigander, I couldn’t wait to be in Montana. I was 22 when I arrived in the Flathead, and I had a lot to learn: about life, about myself, and how to be an outdoorswoman in the West. Luckily, I had new friends and co-workers who were more than willing to teach me.

Take my first camping trip in Glacier: I knew to get a permit to camp at Sprague Creek but I didn’t know that you could get a fine for leaving your cooler on the picnic table while you went to launch your kayaks on Lake McDonald. My co-worker Deb was gracious with her hard-earned Montana knowledge and helped me understand that even though it was a front-country campsite, bears were a major cause for concern and it was critical for me to store my food properly. Deb also took me to ski Logan Pass when it opened, an endeavor of such magnitude that this Great Lakes kid had no idea that that type of skiing was even possible. Remembering that afternoon with Deb and her friend from Bigfork as we toured the pass on cross-country skis to this day remains one of my most cherished memories. 

Over the years, I’ve learned to backcountry ski and understand the risks the terrain offers. Although I was raised on lakes and spent a lot of my childhood paddling in a canoe with my dad, the rivers we boast here took on an entirely different learning curve. In all the different adventures and misadventures, I’ve learned how to lessen my impact on the landscape, how to assess risk, and how to locate that meaningful connection between people and place. 

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the backcountry, and have journals full of the many missteps that don’t result in disaster but minor discomfort. What I appreciate is people like Deb who didn’t scoff – at least not to my face – about my newness and my lack of knowledge when it came to backcountry skiing or bears. Instead, Deb told me what to do and how to act in a way that made me love the adventure even more. She didn’t just teach me skills but also made sure that I understood where I was. Glacier wasn’t simply a national park. It also belonged to the Blackfeet, a sacred home. 

Our reactions and the stories we tell people who live here or come to visit matter. At times, it can impact our safety, like with food-habituated bears. A lack of knowledge can result in an avalanche or drowning. Other times, a dismissed newbie like I once was, might come to loathe wild places, dismiss them and their importance to our environment, our culture, and our wellbeing. It might destroy our favorite campsite or fishing hole. Instead of inspiring awe and wonder, it can mutate into irritation and disgust. 

There are a lot of new people here, and I want to be more like Deb when I’m at the trailhead or floating down the river. Kindness and a wilderness education go a long way in keeping Montana high, wide, handsome, and I’ll add: kind. 

Maggie Doherty is the owner of Kalispell Brewing Company on Main Street.

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