Science Made Real

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Science Made Real

Zane Roush, Head Writer

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Have you ever wondered when the proceeds of Science Circus go? The festival showing physics, chemistry, earth science, and biology experiments and booths raises nearly 10 thousand dollars each year. But where does this 10k go? It’s not to the science wing for new beakers and bunsen burners. It goes to the Science Seminar Class, a top tier class offered to seniors who are interested in pursuing science fields outside of high school. The class focuses on the ethics, morals, and soft human side of the cold hard science. The funding goes towards the Science Seminar class trip. In April of each year, Mrs. Sampson leads her students on a week-long trip to Seeley, Montana. I was part of the most recent trip, and the experience makes Science Seminar one of the best classes offered at Helena High.

Day One

11 students and Mrs. Sampson departed from Helena High around 9 a.m. and began the drive north to Seeley. About 45 minutes into the drive we made our first stop at the Mannix Ranch, a small 3rd generation ranch outside of Ovando. The Mannix Ranch stands out due to their fairly progressive tactics in land management and resource conservation. This includes stream restoration, rotational grazing, and conservation easements, or agreements to practice conservation in exchange for money or other things. Students talked with 2 generations of ranch owners, discussing all sorts of topics from top soil to predator management. This was definitely the highlight of the day.

The day continued, and students met with biologists and conservationists from the Blackfoot Challenge, a nonprofit that aims to restore and manage the Blackfoot Watershed, a 1.5 million acre area in central/ west Montana. Students learned about 2 main studies: the first was on Grizzly Bears, where students learned about their growing presence in the area and in Montana, and what is being done to manage them. The second was on the endangered Trumpeter Swan, and its reintroduction into the Blackfoot watershed. Both of these species have faced challenges in the area, and both require vastly different management strategies.

The day ended at the Rich Ranch, a small dude ranch owned and operated by Rick Rich and his family. His ranch would be the home base for the next few days, with students staying in cabins on the property. Along with the cabins, the ranch holds several spring-fed ponds, which are stocked with pure-strain Westslope Cutthroat trout (that’s a mouthful). Students helped Rick Jore, a man who has raised these fish for over 50 years, to stock these ponds with fish. As we worked, Jore talked about how he got into the profession (at the age of 16 in his bathtub) and the science and biology behind raising fish.

Then starving, we gathered around the campfire for dinner. After roasting hotdogs and smores, students dispersed to fish, shoot pool, and soak in the hottub.

 

Day Two

The day began with 8am breakfast, and a discussion of the day’s agenda. The group made their way into Seeley Lake, a town of 1,600 people to visit the ranger station, and a character named “Gus.” Students spoke with Quinn Carver, the district ranger for the Seeley Lake area, about the history and functions of the Forest Service. This was moderately interesting, and students were happy to stretch their legs on a short hike to “Gus,” the world’s largest Western Larch tree. Gus claims a height of 173 feet and is around 1,000 years old. The grove that Gus stands in is one of the oldest groves of Larch in the United States, and the guide, Rick Rich, told us how the area was almost logged into oblivion before early conservationists saw the importance of these ancient trees. The grove is home to many species, including woodpeckers whose rattlings could be heard as we walked.

 

Again, this day concluded with dinner at the Rich Ranch and students using the various ranch amenities.

 

Day Three

After filling up on breakfast, the group headed toward Cottonwood Creek to speak with Ryen Neudecker, a fisheries biologist from Trout Unlimited. She talked about the importance of the small streams when looking at the health of big rivers. The main idea was that to restore large rivers to their near-pristine origins, you focus on the small tributaries that are impacted, whether that be by mining or cattle grazing. Neudecker talked about how Trout Unlimited has been working with ranchers to develop methods for grazing cattle and irrigating crops that don’t impact the health of the streams, or harm fish. This was interesting to students, many who didn’t realize that the reach of Trout Unlimited extended past banquet fundraisers.

After that, we got an opportunity to go onto the Blackfoot/Clearwater Game Reserve, which serves as a wintering ground for massive herds of elk. The guide, Scott Eggman, has been studying elk for most of his life. We talked about his studies in the area, and then helped him take reference pictures for a controlled burn planned for the area next spring.

After four miles of hiking and standing in the wind all day, we were happy to return to the bus and the ranch, sharing our favorite songs while soaking in the hot tub long into the night.

 

Day Four

On the final day, students awoke slowly, tuckered out from a late night and three days of near nonstop action. With only two stops left on the trip, we were antsy to get back to Helena and our own beds. The first stop was at Mountain Creek Taxidermy, owned by Rob Henrekin. This humble, high school-educated taxidermist is one of the most decorated in the state, known for his immensely life-like pieces and his willingness to take on massive projects. He has worked on animals from all over the world, including Alaskan Grizzlies, European Ibex, and even a tiger! As we ogled the massive animals hanging from the walls and crouching in too-real poses, Henrekin spoke about his profession and how life may not pan out how you want it to, but you’ll always make it work.

We returned to the ranch for checkout, and Rick Rich lead us to visit the horses and mules. While we fed them, he gave all sorts of cowboy wisdom, and told his family story, which was jaw dropping to those paying attention. Saying goodbye to the horses, we loaded the bus and headed to the last stop.

The final stop was at Swanwoods, a small business that handmakes beautiful wooden bowls. The owners, Martha and Jerry Swanson, are in their 70s and settled down in small town Montana to create their art. They are the last people you’d expect to be thriving and loving what they do (Jerry has a pH.D in Mandarin Chinese), but these two folk love their life in the hum of the workshop and the meadowlarks singing in the fields. After spending over 180 dollars on bowls collectively, we pointed for Helena, exhausted, dusty, and feeling more wisened.

 

After returning from this trip I felt as if I’d gained more worldly knowledge. I hadn’t learned any new skills or vocabulary, but speaking to so many interesting and passionate people made me see new perspectives and appreciate the world in a different way. I recommend this class to anyone who enjoys getting elbow deep into the human side of science.

 

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