Confidence, STEM, and Pooping in the Woods

Confidence, STEM, and Pooping in the Woods

Submitted by Bonnie Page (Franklin and Marshall College)

Although I had always admired scientists, I never pictured myself being one. In my mind, scientists were geniuses, those who only had natural abilities to excel in scientific pursuits and utilized their time to explore their interests in science, rather than struggling to keep up with the material. By senior year of high school, I thought it would be in my best interest to pursue something that I envisioned myself capable of instead of failing at science.

But then it was time to select my college courses, and throughout the summer I came to the conclusion that I could at least try taking a college science or mathematics course–after all, what harm would an intro course do?

By the end of my first semester, I was actually enjoying chemistry and my other STEM courses. Before college, the mere idea of research turned me off. In my mind, it was something more like a punishment than an interest. My professors and peers gave me a different perspective though, one that was full of wonder, discovery, challenge, and excitement. So, even though I had never pictured myself being a researcher, I began reading and learning more about various research studies and opportunities, and I decided to ask some of my professors about research opportunities on my campus.

After several meetings with my own professors and advisors, I stumbled across Dr. Williams in the Earth and Environment department, who I hadn’t met prior to a meeting I had set up with him through an email. A week later after telling me about his own research, he sent me an email about Keck. The opportunity sounded unreal–2 weeks in Glacier National Park gaining field experience, analyzing data in a real lab and working closely with expert researchers, getting published before my Sophomore year, and even receiving a stipend. It sounded too good to be true, probably too good for a Freshman who was hesitant about their STEM major and had just decided they wanted to try research. But instead of doubting myself or worrying about my lack of geological knowledge, I decided to get out of my own way and go for it. Even if I didn’t get accepted, I would still be proud of myself for trying.

But that’s the beauty of the Keck Consortium; they aren’t concerned about how many geologic terms you have memorized, your ability to receive nothing but As in your classes, or your unwavering confidence in your ability to do STEM. It’s about your passion, curiosity, and desire to push yourself and become an integral part of a team determined to learn and grow. I can guarantee you that no one is a professional in the beginning, and perfection is not a sustainable goal for science or for yourself.

Research takes time and patience. It begins with taking the initial step, then another small step, then another, and another. Before you know it, 5 weeks have gone by, you’ve pushed yourself to physical limits you didn’t think you were capable of, collected 21 core samples that date back to at least 13,000 years ago, seen some of the most astonishing alpine landscapes and wildlife of your life, and pooped in the woods. You’re basically Bear Grylls, but you’ve learned that mud is one of the coolest (and stinkiest) history books you’ll ever come across.

Sharing is Caring

Sharing is Caring

During our days at Glacier National Park, we were a subject of curiosity to the many park-goers crossing our path. From carrying loads of gear down trails to kayaking our coring raft on the lakes, we stuck out and people wanted to know what we were up to. This meant we had to get really good at explaining things, to individuals with a wide spectrum of knowledge. We each came up with an elevator pitch and tested them out, but soon realized that we had to pay attention to our audience as well. We encountered people with no clue about glacier processes and on the other end USGS researchers who did this kind of work on the regular. Finding the perfect balance between complex and interesting was a challenge, but after a lot of trial and error, it came naturally.
One day, while a part of our group was coring on Swiftcurrent Lake, a few students and I stayed on the stream entering Swiftcurrent to measure sediment concentration and water discharge. This meant we wore our waders, which to the public was a hit attraction! We were situated underneath a bridge which was frequented by hikers, so throughout the day people would stop and stare, prompting us to greet them and strike a conversation. Everyone we spoke to was super excited to hear about what we were doing and often asked intriguing questions. It was amazing to connect with so many individuals, to the point where knowledge of our work was being spread throughout the Many Glacier area. We also got to fill in the Rangers on our findings, allowing them to talk about it to visitors during hikes, who we would then run into around the Many Glacier Hotel or in our campsite! This research experience connected our group to people from all over the world, demonstrating clearly how not only the field work being done was important, but being able to share our discoveries as well.

Park Rangers: The Gatekeepers of Glacier National Park

Park Rangers: The Gatekeepers of Glacier National Park

“If you make a mess you will be out of the park by tomorrow morning” was one of the first phrases I heard after entering Glacier National Park. I was taken aback by this abrasive welcome, but as my time in the park progressed, I began to understand that park rangers not only have a duty to protect the park because it is their job, but also because it is their home.

Sue was the first ranger I encountered in the park and her intimidating welcome made me nervous about the future red tape our research group would encounter. My second interaction with a ranger did not improve my apprehensive mind; as I wandered around the ranger station, I unknowingly crossed into the Rangers’ housing and was confronted by Ranger Diane.

However, within the first few days, my perspective changed as I started to see the park from the Rangers’ perspectives. Sue had been so strict with us because a juvenile bear in Many Glacier had followed a man back into the campground and stolen his food, causing the campground to be closed until the bear was caught and euthanized. After additional conversations, I realized that Sue thought of the bears in the park as her own children and did not want our lack of caution to cause another bear to become habituated and meet the same fate. Similarly, Diane snapped at my roaming because it was her home, and intense visitation in the Park has caused strain on their limited resources (https://missoulian.com/news/local/it-s-not-a-relaxed-environment-glacier-staff-share-challenges/article_825febea-03b1-520c-95e8-20b076fedee1.html).

Usually, visitors do not take the time or are not in the park for a long enough to get to know the rangers well enough to understand the importance of the park. By the second week, I and other members of the group often found ourselves feeling like we belonged in the Park – rangers in training!- as we could pass on advice we had learned from the rangers to other visitors.

One of my fondest moments, which encapsulated the close relationship we cultivated with the rangers, was when our group presented what we had found from our two weeks of research in the park. Many a time, visitors nod their head politely as they got caught in our gushing rants over the coring process, but unlike the visitors, the rangers shared the same excitement as us. Ranger Kara found our work so exciting that she even took notes to share with other rangers that could not make it to the talk. Kara had already been incorporating the results from previous Keck student research into her talks during ranger-led hikes; she described the cores and lakes as “history books of the park.”

Ranger Sarah was kind enough to let us keep some of our equipment outside of her house and when she was asked about the bulky pipes and boxes lining the front of her house she proudly exclaimed that she was assisting in research. Similarly, rangers in the park often mentioned our work to visitors as they explained the erosion process in connection to the lakes and glaciers. It was an unbelievable feeling when people in the park approached us and said they had heard about our work from the rangers. The rangers in Glacier National Park made our teams’ experience in the park incredible because it showed us how meaningful our research is to the Park and to the public!

Mooving and Grooving

Mooving and Grooving

Our first hike was memorable for two reasons. First, it was the first real hike I’ve ever been on and, second, it drained me. We started the hike with the intention of just going to Iceberg Lake (10 miles!) and returning back to the campsite. But, then the idea of going to Ptarmigan tunnel was tossed into the air… and of course we had to do it. The hike to Ptarmigan was beautiful and probably holds the most incredible views I’ve ever seen, but that does not mean the hike was easy. In fact, the hike was actually really hard. The moment we started Ptarmigan (an extra ~5 miles!) I could tell it wasn’t going to be a usual hike. First of all, unlike the trail to Iceberg, the trail was pretty void of people. This made our group feel a real intimacy with the wilderness around us. Second of all, after walking just a little bit on the trail, we came to realize that the trail had turned into one giant incline. Oof.
Nevertheless, we continued to push on. But, then another hardship came by our way. We all began to run out of water – more specifically I was the first to run out of water. This happened about halfway up the trail. That meant I had to go ~8 miles on a rationed water supply. And due to the heat that is always present at midday, this wasn’t an ideal situation. But, after careful consideration and water-sharing among the group, we decided that we could still make it, because, after all, when would be the next time I’d have to chance to make it up to Ptarmigan Tunnel or even visit Glacier National Park. So, with that reasoning egging us forward, we pushed on and I’m glad we did!
The views on the trail to Ptarmigan tunnel were, in my opinion, the most spectacular views I saw at Glacier. From the trail we could see dense packages of trees and the tan and pinkish mountains hovering over them. And, then at the end of the trail, we were granted a picturesque view of a valley that extended for miles and miles from a perch near the top of a mountain. And it was then, looking out into the valley, that I realized that this was going to be the most memorable view of my time at Glacier. And even as the days went on and I saw many beautiful sights, the view from the perch at the end of Ptarmigan still ranked number 1 on my list.

Mountains on the Horizon

Mountains on the Horizon

I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen a real mountain before in my life. I’m from Georgia where the greatest topography we have is the Appalachian Mountains and The Big Chicken. So, you can imagine the awe on my face as we drove through the Blackfeet Reservation and could see the mountains on the horizon. The ground transitioned almost immediately from flat, farmland to gigantic peaks. It was truly an unbelievable sight.
The idea that kept me awake at night (literally) was how massive these mountains were. It was hard at first to comprehend that these mountains were actually sedimentary rocks. When you look at a mountain face, you’re literally seeing back in time. Each layer represents a unit of time, and the scale of these layers can date by billions of years. Even now, I still can’t picture the massive amount of time it took to layer each rock unit on top of each other. I’d look at a mountain face and stare for minutes trying to wrap my head around it. Still, even after camping in Glacier for two straight weeks, the mountains didn’t look real to me.
One idea that tingles my geologic mind is the crazy things you can do to rocks to make these beautiful landscapes like Glacier National Park. You can form a rock underwater, fracture it, melt the rock, form layer on top, melt it again, then build a mountain out of it. That’s just crazy to me, and Glacier represents one of those special places where a fascinating geologic history occurred. Along lots of the mountains, you can see folds ranging from only inches across to folds along the entire face. You can see fractured layers, amazingly different colors, and even magmatic intrusions (the famous sill!) On top of all that, throw in some glaciers and then you got a beautiful landscape with insane topography, lakes, and huge valleys.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the mountain life. This rocky place is home to diverse and resilient plant and animal life. These mountains are an integral part of the life here. Mountain goats, mountain lions, wolverines, and even moose make this area their habitat. Lodgepole pines, whitebark pine, lichens, and the alien-looking bear grass succeed in the harsh conditions of this terrain. They add color and character to these mountains. All of this life contributes to the already beautiful views of this park.

Food Food FOOD!

Food Food FOOD!

Submitted by Jacob Watts (Colgate University)

While in Glacier National Park pushing cores into sediment meters below and hauling around the massive raft on which the cores are taken, one sure does work up an appetite. Most days we would not even consider finishing on the coring raft until 5:30 pm. And don’t even think about getting into camp before 6! The work was grueling at times, but we had moments of laying back on the raft eating the lunches we made earlier that morning. In complete bliss, I got to take a break and look up at the glacially carved mountains surrounding us on three sides. It’s those times of exhausted accomplishment that I lived for, PB & Nutella sandwich half melted, dripping from my sunchapped lips. My only thoughts were on the mixed nuts and beef jerky that were scattered in the bottom of my well worn lunch ziploc. But! Not a second to spare, the past (in the form of a lake sediment core) awaits! And up we sprung up, ready to get our next core.

As the day came to an end, kayaking our loot, the cores, back to shore, I plan the night’s meal. On shore we mentally inventoried our food supply and took a poll to decide that we wanted stir fry for dinner! Keep in mind, we were all crazy hungry at this point. So what really happened when we got into camp was a mad rush to get the food out of the back of the van and in the pan! I was usually in charge of getting out the stove, lighting it, and prepping the spices for the stir fry, while a small army with knives and cutting board frantically cut up vegetables to be thrown in at a moment’s notice. All the while, all 8 students shoved dirt stained hands into a chip bag for our traditional chips and salsa appetizer, far beyond the point of washing our hands before dinner. We are truly in the wilderness now, I thought as I stirred the veggies and salting the pasta.

The meal was delicious and the campsite was dead quiet, only the ground squirrels could be heard bravely scampering over feet to nibble the scraps as soon as they hit the ground. This was another moment of exhausted bliss, satisfied that my stomach was full and so were my friends’ after a long, fun day on the raft. I shamelessly didn’t even bother to help clean up, because I did my part in cooking for the group, plus, my hammock was just too tempting. As I laid in the hammock, I couldn’t see anything, mainly because my eyes were closed, but I could hear the clinking of silverware being washed, the signs of a meal past. Similar to the cores that we gathered, a record of the past, I thought as I fall asleep with a full stomach and a content heart, probably dreaming about food.