Kalispell Montessori fourth- through sixth-graders set out on another adventure last week to their outdoor classroom in the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area. Accompanying the students was Flathead Audubon Conservation Educator Denny Olson.
While the wilderness offers many opportunities for students to explore, there are times during prime bird-watching months when the school’s outdoor classroom isn’t accessible.
“Unless you have hip waders,” Olson said.
According to the Flathead Community of Resource Educators, the natural area encompasses 442 acres of land and wetlands where water from Flathead and Stillwater rivers braids through sections. To make the short hike to the outdoor classroom easier year-round, Flathead Audubon partnered with the Montana Conservation Corps to build a boardwalk over an area prone to fill with water in spring. Kalispell Montessori teacher David Cummings noted last spring there was 3 feet of water.
Olson brought along neon tape on the recent outing to have students assist in flagging a proposed trail nearly a mile long for schools to use, whether public or private, on Audubon field trips.
Once flagged, the trail will be tracked by GPS and the proposed plans sent to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for approval, Olson said.
The Owen Sowerwine Natural Area is maintained by Flathead Audubon and Montana Audubon Society, which leases it from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
What also makes the trail and boardwalk unique is that it crosses through private property and was possible with the blessing of landowners Terry and Sally Welder. The Welders are longtime Montessori educators, and Sally is administrator and owner of Woodland Montessori School, an early childhood program in Kalispell.
Before the group arrived at the boardwalk, Olson stopped at the base of a tall quaking aspen to inquire why the leaves rattle in the wind, discuss the differences of birch trees and talk about the aspen’s medicinal properties.
Crossing the boardwalk, students walked single file, following narrow deer trails. In addition to keeping eyes on the sky for birds, Olson reminded the group to watch the ground for sinkholes on the leaf-covered trails. Cummings reminded students about recently seeing, and hearing, a chittering bald eagle near the field where they do morning stretches.
Along the narrow trail, students tied the bright tape to bare tree branches along the way. The goal is to do minimal clearing.
“We’re not interested in building a big, wide trail,” Olson said.
Part of the proposed trail has already been marked, with students replacing the biodegradable tape that has been paled by the sun.
Along the way, students in the back of the line found dried scat filled with fur and possibly a piece of bone. They contemplated what animal it might be from.
“And look, there’s a deer carcass right over there,” Cummings said pointing over to Olson at the front of the line who was holding up an intact ribcage and skull.
“I would imagine that someone probably shot at it, wounded it and never found it,” he said, pointing to a bone malformation where a rib had healed from some sort of injury.
The group also stopped near a group of black cottonwood trees.
“This black cottonwood tree you’re standing next to is probably the youngest that we have here,” Olson said, noting that high school students had taken core samples in the area as part of a study on cottonwood regeneration. “We found the youngest was 27 and the oldest about 167.”
He said the high schoolers are attempting to learn why there aren’t as many cottonwoods springing up to replenish the aging trees. He said possible reasons might be deer are eating the saplings, there isn’t enough flooding to create bare spots for new growth, or, non-native bushes are taking over.
“So the cottonwoods you see right here mean more birds,” Olson said, noting that more birds also means better bug control.
Walking a little farther, the group noticed they strayed a bit from the trail. Olson pointed upward to a taped branch and asked why someone would have flagged that tree versus where they were standing even if it might be a more direct path.
“In the spring when it floods that’s the high spot. This is the low spot, so I’m trying to stay as high as possible in this area,” he said before they continued toward the end of the trail to enjoy lunch in the outdoor classroom.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or email@example.com.