Thursday, February 21, 2008

Place, Belief, and Potential

Place, Belief, and Potential_

Reflections from the North Fork
________________Lucy Beard__Geog 195______________

There is a wonderful series produced by National Public Radio titled "This I Believe", in which anyone, from any background, is invited to submit a personal essay outlining their core belief to the nation. These essays, read on air, have the capability to really move listeners: at times when listening I have found myself accepting, identifying with, and even appropriating the speaker's belief. Something about witnessing another person's honest exposure of what they hold dear and true allows me to see and in turn believe as well. These essays are never propaganda; in fact they must specifically refrain from any campaigning or attempt to sway their audience. Instead, I find myself convinced of some new idea by clear and heartfelt presentation. I had this same experience while staying in Polebridge Montana for a week in January. Listening to locals and those invested in the area and seeing their passion for their land and lifestyle awakened a parallel feeling in me, and I realized more fully the importance of this place.

Polebridge sits thirteen miles away from the Canadian border, in the valley of the North Fork of the Flathead River. Glacier National Park's dramatic Livingston range rises up to the east, and the less formidable but still remote Whitefish range marks the western edge of the valley. The nearest major town, Columbia Falls, is thirty-five miles south down a rough gravel road. Very little of the land is privately owned, and even less has been obtrusively developed. During the summer, Polebridge is "busy", with river floaters, tourists, seasonal residents, and those seeking access to the wild backcountry of northwest Glacier making regular appearances. Even then, Polebridge is a quiet place, the kind of place that seems impervious to change when compared to the explosive Flathead Valley to the south. But in the winter, the community is wonderfully still. Wildlife outnumbers the human presence by tenfold, and the humans that do stay year round are quiet, unobtrusive, and deeply connected with the land they inhabit.


I and my classmates joined these people for five days in January as the inaugural Crown of the Continent field course. The objectives of the course were to explore the area's vast and numerous ecosystems, immerse ourselves in North Fork culture, learn about issues and opportunities in the area, and of course have FUN. All these objectives were met and more. Morning lectures were hosted by a variety of people with various connections to and experiences in the North Fork. Our afternoon hikes offered brilliant views and the chance to experience first hand the things we learned about wildlife, geography, fire presence, and more. Each individual so generously and enthusiastically shared their knowledge of different aspects of the North Fork and why it is special to them.


Perhaps one of the most unique characteristics of Polebridge is that everyone is there on purpose. The community is too small and too out-of-the-way for individuals to happen upon it and fall into a career without working for the opportunity. Therefore, each resident has a strong relationship with the place, and has chosen to maintain the simple life. I suspect this is a phenomenon consistent with tiny remote communities, but is likely exaggerated here because of the beauty of the place. The few days I spent there found me with a calmer demeanor, more directed energy, and a clearer understanding of what I was doing. I can only imagine the long term effects of living in the shadow of Glacier's magnificent peaks. Though their lifestyle is not ideal for all, each of the wonderful characters of the North Fork we met have their own distinct love and belief in Polebridge.

We got to know Oliver, the German native and world traveler who recently took over ownership of the North Fork Hostel. For him, Polebridge offers a chance to live quietly in and closely to some of the most fabulous country he's seen, as well as continue expanding his understanding of the world through travelers staying at his hostel. Additionally, Polebridge life and the hostel give Oliver something to fight for and believe in- he routinely attends meetings for community zoning and planning. These meetings are a great source of frustration to him because although the majority of the community agrees on issues like growth, road management and resource extraction, the archaic viewpoints of Flathead County officials and neighboring Canada's businesspeople continually resist any sensible ideas. However, Oliver doesn't seem to have any shortage of hope, or belief that eventually others will come to see what he understands as the beauty desirable qualities of Polebridge.

Another community member who shares Oliver's belief in the value of preserving the North Fork is John Frederick. The honorary "mayor" of Polebridge, John works tirelessly to prevent his home from what he sees as invasions. Ingeniously, John actually bought into the company proposing the dreaded coal mine in B.C. in order to "raise hell" at the stockholder meetings. This mine site looms just above the headwaters to the North Fork River and would jeopardize the purity and health of the whole northern part of the Crown of the Continent.

There is more to this diverse place than purely environmental concerns. For the residents of Polebridge, their neighborhood fosters their belief in a unique and precious quality of life. For Heather, Deb, Kevin, Bill and the others, this is a quiet place to raise a family close to the land and away from the "rat race". Running businesses (The Northern Lights Saloon and the Mercantile) that cater to tourists and visitors offer the chance to interact with people from many different backgrounds. For Heather, Polebridge provides inspiration for her art and music, as well as the time to develop her talents. Her children are growing up with a sincere appreciation of the land and modern technological advancements. In addition, they're developing a sense of community absent from much of our generational isolated culture. Living in Polebridge doesn't allow taking things like sewer systems or instant communication for granted.

Polebridge and the surrounding valley are not only special to locals. Because it borders Glacier National Park and is part of a contiguous ecosystem, the North Fork is of a great interest to park employees and scientists. Matt Graves, head of the West Lakes Interpretive Center, spoke of the area's biodiversity, and the importance that has to people visiting the park. Tourists and adventurers love Glacier and NW Montana, and the thought of any change to these areas deeply concern them. Matt believes in the power of this place to convince people their actions can and will make a difference in both the preservation and destruction of our wild lands, and that they will be inspired to take responsibility for the place they enjoy. Scott Emerick, the local Park sub-district ranger, generously took us on a tour of his backyard- the Big Prairie Meadows of Glacier Park. He shared the joys of being a ranger in this quiet removed district, a la Ed Abbey. Scientists such as biologist Jack Stanford sing praises to the lingering pristine nature of this country- quickly becoming a relic in our world of global pollution. Jack hopes people will wake up to the dangers of compromising our last pure places. Fire ecologist and prescribed burn specialist (Dennis Devoche and Mitch Bergard respectively) stress the importance of the North Fork Valley as a laboratory for studying fire patterns and influence on landscape and community. They spent an afternoon physically showing us these effects; in part because they truly enjoy hiking through burned areas, and in part because they care about sharing their understanding and educating the public on the positive and necessary sides of fire. All of these people could do these jobs elsewhere, but they feel passionate about this place and believe it is a critical element of the world. And those who come to visit Polebridge, whether from far, far away, or just up from Columbia Falls all find the town occupying a special part of their hearts. I know this to be true for myself. All of my visits to Polebridge have convinced me of it's importance in our world. I believe this because I believe in the importance of all wild and free lands, but also because I have seen firsthand the way the North Fork can take over the hearts of those who find it. Even for those who never see the place may enjoy hearing of it's magnificent landscape, vastly diverse wildlife, maverick citizens, and old fashioned lifestyle. I feel all people have (perhaps deep down inside of them) a distinct desire to protect our native lands, and perpetuate the romance of wilderness. As long as we remember to tap into that urge, and cultivate respect for the land within society, the importance of places such as the North Fork will shine out and lead people to work tirelessly to protect them.
This I Believe

1 comment:

Herr Oppenheimer said...

Beautiful
She truly understands.
A sense of place.