Story and photos by Julie Hotz, EBS Contributor
The Montana segment of my expedition across portions of the western U.S. began on June 23, when I rode into West Yellowstone by bicycle. On July 23, I left Montana on foot, walking out through the Purcell Mountains.
Entering the state from Yellowstone National Park, I stopped to take the obligatory “bicycle-propped-up-next-to-the-‘Entering Montana’-sign” photo. As I hopped back on my bike and cycled into Big Sky Country, I cried tears of relief. A month prior I’d left my front door in Los Angeles and ridden through the heat of the Mojave Desert; circumvented the Grand Canyon; cycled through the valleys and over the mountains of Utah; pedaled for a brief stretch in Idaho; and passed the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.Arriving in the final state of my ride, relief rushed over me. I didn’t want the ride to end, but I had a deadline. On July 7, I was set to begin hiking the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. The PNT, which begins at Chief Border Crossing in Glacier National Park, stretches more than 1,200 miles through the mountains via trails, Forest Service roads and bushwhacking to Cape Alava, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula.
Hiking instigated this expedition, but biking to Glacier from LA was a crucial element. It provided me with transportation to Montana, and it allowed me to begin an adventure from the stoop of my apartment, to see parts of the country slowly, and to remind myself and others of alternative forms of transportation. Most importantly, it allowed me to work with the Bozeman-based nonprofit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.
ASC spearheads research projects to gather information about our ever-changing ecosystem so we can make proactive decisions, enabling us to protect the environment for the long term. To do so, ASC mobilizes outdoor enthusiasts to help obtain data and samples.
Since research can be costly, time consuming and logistically difficult, the idea is that when an adventurer is already traveling in a remote place, he or she can obtain data that might otherwise be too cumbersome to gather. This form of science is essential – not only because we need to understand how we’re affecting the world around us, but because it empowers and involves the individual.
On my bike ride, I began by logging data for the ASC Roadkill Survey – a collaboration with the University of California-Davis Road Ecology Center – which aims to understand how our driving habits affect wildlife in an attempt to reduce collisions. Once I was through the desert, I gathered water samples for ASC’s microplastics research, a study cataloging the amount of tiny plastic particles polluting water sources worldwide.
To some, it may seem most important to test the waterways nearest cities, where the risk of contamination is highest and where more people reside. But as I rode through Montana, up the idyllic valleys with winding rivers, and walked over small creeks and past mountain springs, I became convinced of the importance of starting with the source –what we assume must be pristine land.
In September, ASC is launching a targeted microplastics initiative in Montana’s Gallatin watershed. There, I noticed the plastic that previous travelers left behind. Unfortunately, this doesn’t come as a surprise – I cannot begin to describe the amount of trash I saw while pedaling endless stretches of highway this summer.
When I jumped into Lake McDonald upon arriving in Glacier I felt revived, and I hope generations to come have this same opportunity. As I traipsed across Boulder Pass and saw the small glaciers remaining in the park, I wanted to push the pause button on their retreat. When I bushwhacked down the backside of Northwest Peak toward Davis Mountain and saw that Montana was on fire behind me, I wanted to protect this land that had given me so much in the past month.
Montana schooled me a few times on the road and in the backcountry, but it also brought me joy. I felt at home here, surrounded by beauty ranging from delicate to grand. This is reason enough to continue research and asking uncomfortable questions:
If humans are affecting such wild landscapes, how far-reaching is our impact? Are we risking our health, even in the most peaceful of environments?
If we wish to protect the places we hold dear, the mountains that move us, and the rivers that bring us joy, we must work together to find answers.