Gregg Treinish was cutting toward himself with a 12-inch kitchen knife as he carved up half of an avocado that he held in his palm.
Didn’t his mother ever warn him about cutting toward himself, he was asked.
“I’ve never done anything by the rules,” he said with a mischievous grin on his stubbled face.
That sentence could well sum up Treinish’s life. The 30-year-old Ohio native has blazed a unique trail. In addition to hiking the Appalachian Trail and working as a biologist and guide, in 2009 he was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year after trekking the length of the Andes Mountains in 2008 with Deia Schlosberg — walking nearly 8,000 miles in 22 months.
It was after that trip that he came to a life-altering decision.
“It was from being out there for so long and knowing there was a lot I could be doing to benefit the world that I wasn’t doing,” he said. “I found it was a shared feeling of people who spend a lot of time outside.”
Born from a walk
So in 2010 he and Schlosberg shouldered their packs again, this time walking 530 miles in a month as they trekked from the eastern side of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to the western side of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. Along the way, the two collected on-the-ground information that was given to scientists, such as the number and type of grizzly bear signs they spotted, roadways and habitat types. They also filmed the trek, a DVD titled “Connecting the Gems.”
In November of the same year, Treinish hatched the idea for a new group: Why not create an organization to do what they had just done — pairing adventurers with scientists to collect data? By January 2011 he had incorporated Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. In April he started working on the project full time. Now, the group is up to a second full-time person, program director Brendan Weiner, and has two part-time employees.
The ASC board contains some well-known explorers, including Bozeman alpinist Conrad Anker and Celine Cousteau, granddaughter of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.
“The support we’ve gotten from scientists, adventurers and the public has been mind-blowing,” Treinish said. “ASC has taken off much quicker than I imagined.”
The new organization has meant that Treinish is spending a lot less time than before in the field. But he still managed to travel to Alaska to chart the decline of yellow cedar earlier this year and tracked wolverines in winter. Still on his agenda for 2012 is an outing with Oakland middle school students and tracking pine martens in the Olympic National Forest.
“Definitely, the vast majority of my time is now behind the desk,” Treinish said. “But I really get a kick out of what we’re doing. We have a lot of excitement at the office.”
Last year, some of the adventurers he connected with were Montana State University scientists in Bozeman who collected the highest known plant life from Mount Everest.
“Yeah, it would’ve been cool to be there, but it’s happening enough that we’re getting stuff like that every day now,” he said.
This month, his group led a hunt for grizzly bear signs in parts of the Tobacco Root Mountains of southwestern Montana. Allan Ligon, 42, a part-time Bozeman resident and ocean biologist, signed on for two of the exploratory outings.
“It was a good learning experience,” he said. “I learned more about spotting tracks and trying to pick up on the signs and stuff that I hadn’t been attuned to.”
Ligon learned about the trip after hearing Treinish talk at the Bozeman REI store. Montana State University student Lisa Woerlein heard about the previous weekend’s trip from a friend’s Facebook post. Intrigued, she signed on and then called in her friend, Austrian exchange student Johanna Malle, to fill a vacancy at the last minute. Also on the trip was a musician from Vancouver, B.C., who drove 12 hours just to take part in the outing.
Rebecca Skeldon, with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, gave Treinish’s group a talk about grizzly bears before they scoured the woods near Branham Lakes, just east of Sheridan. She said groups like Treinish’s are great because they are free to the Forest Service and because the agency can direct them to areas they want checked out.
“What they find is biological evidence,” Skeldon said. “It’s something we can put into our conservation plans.”
Connecting with people
Treinish is enthused about the work.
“Every square inch of this planet we need to know more about,” he said.
His dream of connecting adventurers, citizens and scientists is being realized. And on the guided outings, such as the one last weekend, he’s educating a cadre of others to walk slower in the woods and see the many signs of wildlife all around them.
Wearing a green T-shirt with "Sesame Street" characters crossing a road in a re-creation of the Beetle’s Abbey Road album cover, he moves purposely from point to point, encouraging his entourage to look closer, look harder, focus. All the while he utilizes the forest as a large classroom, trying to engage his students in a serious tone, only occasionally using humor.
Within feet of the van he had just exited on Saturday, he was already pointing out plants — yarrow and harebell — and teaching lessons. The yarrow leaves boiled with a quart of water makes a good tea that can soothe stomachaches, he said.
A dead tree showed signs of pine beetle infestation, including sawdust below the trunk and sap pustules that indicated where the beetle larva had attacked the tree, eating its cambium layer.
Nearby, a lodgepole sapling showed signs of gnawing by a red squirrel. Looking closely, Treinish pointed out the teeth marks in the bark.
How can you tell the difference between a fir and a spruce? By feeling the needles: friendly fir, spiky spruce, he said. How many needles does a whitebark pine tree have? Five. Lodgepole pine trees have two. The night before, he gave a tour of stars in the night sky.
It may be information overload to some, a crash course in the outdoors, but Treinish’s varied volunteers seem more than eager to learn, ask questions and take direction. Treinish engaged and encouraged them.
“You’re starting to see these really subtle features of the landscape, and that’s what you need to start tuning into.”