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Local Knowledge: A lifetime of learning

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A young Paul Swenson sits at his family’s cabin in 1975. PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL SWENSON


Hello EBS readers. I am a new contributor to EBS and would like to tell you a little about myself and the column that you will read in subsequent editions. To do so I would like to take you on a small historical journey on how I arrived at this point in time.

I am a third generation Montana educator, starting with my grandfather who taught elementary school in Butte, Montana, in the 1930’s and ‘40s, then moved to Bozeman in 1942 during the potential Axis threat to our nation’s copper supply during World War II. Here he spent his career as an elementary principal until the mid 1960’s. During the summer months, he and my grandmother would camp at Greek Creek, fishing and enjoying the peaceful days along the Gallatin River. He tied flies and built flyrods that he would sell to any interested fisherman he met along the way.

My father was born in Butte but spent the majority of his life in Bozeman. He attended Montana State University in the 1950’s, majoring in Physics, to later return and become the chairman of the Physics Department in 1970. There he taught, researched, and administered a growing faculty until his retirement.

Swenson holds up his catch at Greek Creek in 1968. PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL SWENSON

My mother grew up in Thermopolis, Wyoming, the daughter of a petroleum geologist and her amazing mother. Mom tells many fascinating stories of spending time with her family in the wilds of Wyoming. She also attended MSU in the 1950’s, pursuing a nursing career. She also returned to MSU and worked in the student health service where she retired.

In the summers during college, my dad worked at the post office at Mammoth, Wyoming, in Yellowstone National Park. My dad’s passion for fly fishing led him to develop a love for the fishing and backcountry of Yellowstone, which he shared with his new girlfriend (mom) who also had an incredible connection to the outdoors because of her upbringing. Eventually they got married and had three children, my two sisters and me.  

In 1970 my parents made a life-changing purchase for our family: a cabin across the highway from the Almart Lodge, now known as the Cinnamon Lodge. The family would move from Bozeman to the cabin for the summer. Except for tennis and swimming lessons and getting groceries in Bozeman (there was no Big Sky at the time), we were always at the cabin.  

Every day we would do some activity—hiking, fishing, floating the river, picnics, cook-outs, playing games, and many others. During these adventures we would learn about our surroundings and how to embrace the outdoors. We did not have a television, it was before VCRs and computers, so we had to create our own entertainment. Amazing what a kid’s imagination can do with a couple sticks or playing with some frogs borrowed from the neighbor’s pond.

I entered Montana State University to study geology and physics. Sciences that combined my passions for the outdoors, both sides of my family tree, and how the universe works. But when I graduated, the oil crisis of the mid 1980’s destroyed the job markets in geology. So, I went to graduate school at Stanford University and finished my masters in 1988. When I was done there were still no job offers that met my expectations

Swenson and his dad pack through Hilgard Basin in 1974. PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL SWENSON

Therefore, I moved back to Bozeman and became a ski bum and bartender at Bridger Bowl, and a fishing guide in West Yellowstone. After two years of this lifestyle, I felt a need to do something else, to give back to my community. I returned to MSU and received my credentials to teach science, which I did for the last 32 years, in Bozeman, Billings, and then here in Big Sky. Teaching was a truly unique and fulfilling experience, to share my passions with my students and have them learn about the incredible place where they live.

Now I am retired, 2022 was my final year. As I thought about what to do with my newly acquired time, I noticed some former students writing for EBS. “What if I could share the knowledge gained through a lifetime of experience, and educating others, to write a column for our local paper? Would it help residents and visitors alike better understand, appreciate, and respect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?” I asked myself.  

So here I am, writing for you. Over the next few months while reading this column I hope you gain new understanding and perspectives on this region. If nothing else, maybe you will think, “Huh, that’s interesting.”

Paul Swenson has been living in and around the Big Sky area since 1966. He is a retired science teacher, fishing guide, Yellowstone guide and naturalist. Also an artist and photographer, Swenson focuses on the intricacies found in nature. 

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