By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BOZEMAN – On April 2 at Bozeman’s 406 Brewing Company, the Montana Wilderness School will host a scholarship fundraiser launch party from 5-8 p.m. That morning the school will also begin its 30-day Indiegogo campaign, to raise money for Montana students needing financial support to attend the summer wilderness programs.
“Programs like ours tend to be cost-prohibitive,” said Montana Wilderness School co-founder Josh Olsen. “Scholarships are a critical part of the school … if we can get some folks to chip in some money, that adds up to life-changing experiences for Montana youth.”
The school will run its first programs this summer including a 20-day course in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Other programs consist of a “Mountains to Missouri Course” and a mountaineering program in the Pioneer Mountains. The Pioneer course attendees will spend 20 days mountain climbing, learning alpine skills and traveling over snow, if conditions allow.
The 25-day Mountains to Missouri Course includes backpacking along the Rocky Mountain Front; packrafting on the Dearborn River; a shuttle around the Missouri River dams in Great Falls; and canoeing on the Wild and Scenic section of the Missouri, through the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
Olsen hatched the idea for the Montana Wilderness School with co-founder Gar Duke, after the two met in March 2012 at a Wilderness First Responder course Olsen was teaching.
“We started skiing and climbing together and both had that vision – we wanted to do something for Montana kids,” Duke said. “We felt like there was this niche that was open.”
Duke worked for Outward Bound on and off from 1995-2006, in the organization’s Colorado School teaching mountaineering, backpacking, canyoneering and rock climbing, as well as its Costa Rica and Maine-based Hurricane Island schools. The Bremerton, Wash.-native moved to Bozeman three-and-a-half years ago after sailing around the world for more than four years.
Olsen grew up in Havre, Mont. and worked for outdoor schools in the Kalispell area while attending college at the University of Montana in Missoula. He ski patrolled at Silver Mountain in Idaho before moving to Bozeman in 2010 where he worked as a patroller at the Yellowstone Club.
“Growing up in Montana, I thought it was interesting there weren’t a lot of expeditionary programs in [the state],” Olsen said. “Typically kids would have to leave the state, and I thought that was unfortunate. We have great wilderness areas and public lands. I thought there should be a program getting kids on their public lands.”
Duke says one of the school’s goals is to get a diversity of Montana youth into the wilderness. He and Olson have reached out to a number of communities including tribal and rural ranching towns, and sent fliers out to every Montana high school last fall. They hope to raise $40,000 to provide up to 10 full scholarships through their Indiegogo campaign, offering high school students with varied backgrounds an opportunity to get outside and problem-solve together.
“It’s fundamentally important for kids to connect with wild spaces,” Olsen said. “People will only protect what they care about, [and] people only care about what they’ve experienced.”
Olsen added that as kids grow up to be the decision makers for Montana, the value they place on public lands will determine the state’s conservation legacy.
“When youth go back to their hometown they’ll value these things as they become citizens and voters … ensuring the protected landscape,” he said.
The Montana Wilderness School is currently accepting applications ahead of its first program, slated to begin at the end of June.