TEPEE CREEK — With the hood of her maroon rain jacket pulled tightly around her head to ward off the relentless mosquitoes, Carolyn Hricko used a pocket knife to carefully chop an onion and green pepper for a burrito dinner. Her makeshift kitchen was a grassy meadow three backpacking miles inside the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in the Gallatin National Forest, an hour south of Bozeman. To the northeast, the last hour of sunlight cast a golden glow upon 10,289-foot Ramshorn Peak.
It was just another day at the office for Hricko, 25, one of four guides for the Wilderness Institute’s Citizen Science Program under the auspices of the University of Montana.
Through August, the institute is leading 14 trips into the WSA to collect information on the character of the area, including such items as weed infestations, man-made structures and trail damage. The data is then provided to the Forest Service as baseline information for future work.
“In some cases this is the only monitoring that we’re getting done,” said Chris Ryan, program manager for wilderness, rivers, outfitters and guides for the Forest Service’s Northern Region in Missoula. “We can then use that data to make management decisions.”
Since the program was created in 2005, the Forest Service has annually invested $40,000 to $50,000. The funding is matched by a grant from the National Forest Foundation, with some support from the university and other grants. Since its inception, the groups have surveyed four other WSAs and portions of the Northern Region’s designated wilderness.
“I consider it $40,000 to $50,000 well spent,” Ryan said, because forest employees have a hard time focusing on just one project as the institute’s groups can. And unlike other volunteer groups, the UM program takes up very little Forest Service time, she added.
The program resembles summer work crews created by wilderness foundations. The institute’s four trip leaders are paid to lead volunteer groups of up to six people and collect information while also teaching and practicing Leave No Trace camping skills. Along the way, they keep the mood light by donning unusual hats, acting out humorous woodland scenarios and providing sweet treats.
“It’s certainly challenging being a trip leader because they need a certain set of skills,” said Catherine Filardi, the institute’s Citizen Science program director.
“These are amazing kids they’re hiring,” she said. “They are so competent.”
Take Hricko, for example. Her resume includes a degree in chemistry and biology. She has worked as a wilderness trip leader in Colorado and a ski patroller, and she has traveled in Central America. She was one of four leaders chosen from a field of 75 applicants.
Hricko’s partner on the first outing of the summer was Emily Kern, 24, a graduate in landscape architecture. An avid skier, she was a leader during last year’s program in the Ten Lakes WSA in northwestern Montana.
The leaders are required to have backcountry skills, such as navigation abilities and a comfort level with backpacking and all it entails. They also must be able to identify plants; a science background is preferable to ensure the quality of the data collected.
Volunteers help out by taking notes and marking map points as their trip leaders record data on sophisticated GPS devices. On a recent trip, they also made notes on bear, wolf and coyote scat and tracks.
The volunteers willingly accept the hardships of the backcountry for a chance to explore new terrain.
“We’ve really had no problem filling up our volunteer trips,” Filardi said. “From a volunteer perspective, it’s very popular. Some are coming back for their third or fourth year. But we try hard to recruit new volunteers from areas near the study.”
That’s important to everyone involved.
“One of the opportunities is to get the public out into the woods to see what forest management is all about,” Ryan said. “Some of these people may have never backpacked before.”
This year, as last, Kern’s parents — Sharon and John Kern of Salt Lake City — volunteered to join her for a summer trip.
“It’s a blast to spend a trip with Emily,” said John, 56, a log-home salesman. “It’s neat to see her in a leadership role and to see her capabilities.”
Also volunteering for the trip was Jamey Furlaud, 25, a New York City native studying forestry for his master’s degree at UM. He became interested in the program after meeting Emily at the university’s rock-climbing wall.
“It sounded cool,” he said.
Like a big puppy, Furlaud was apt to run ahead, then back to the group, always straying off on his own in the vanilla-scented pines. The pull of the scenery was everywhere — cliffs overlooking verdant meadows in adjacent Yellowstone National Park or the snow-capped peaks of the blue Madison Range shimmering through waves of heat rising from the valley floor.
“We’ve got some beautiful places to explore,” Hricko said. “I’m excited about the rest of the summer.”
Back at camp, the volunteers share in duties by helping to prepare meals or hanging food at night to prevent bears from reaching it.
Dinners are provided for volunteers, a group gathering that involves everyone in some way — fetching water, lighting stoves, prepping vegetables or cleaning up. Volunteers have to provide their own breakfasts and lunches, as well as other backpacking and camping gear.
It was the second time that Jesse Dwyer, 30, of Hastings, Minn., had volunteered for an institute trip. A student at UM, he also works on a weed-spraying crew in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Dwyer said he enjoys the trips as a way to see different areas of the state and to meet new people.
Tall, muscular and bearded, Dwyer looked like he was built for backpacking and the woods. But he’s not into deprivation while in the wilds, at least not when it comes to food. Attached to his pack was a soft-sided cooler that contained a full gallon of milk, a frozen can of apple juice, frozen peas and a thick New York steak.
“My body responds well to food,” he said.
And two burritos weren’t going to be enough to satisfy this towering volunteer.