Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Raised Watershed Wise

I am a Montana native who did much of my growing up in Missoula. I spent summers swimming in the cold waters of the Blackfoot River, learning to fish at the mouth of the Whitefish River, and sometimes even wading through the narrow channels of in-town diversion ditches. I’ve always been drawn to cool, flowing bodies of water. Now that I’m grown, I look back on the relationship I built with Montana’s natural bodies of water and realize how lucky I was to grow up with access to these areas.The fond memories I carry of summers spent playing in and around ephemeral diversion ditches in Missoula speak for the pristine quality of this landscape and the natural resources it offers to its residents. In the sixth grade I was given an assignment to write about my favorite place. I wrote my piece about a diversion ditch near my mother’s apartment. During the spring and much of the summer this ditch filled with clear flowing water. A layer of tiny rainbow pebbles littered the bottom and swaths of water strider insects darted across the water’s surface. Three billowing willow trees grew alongside the ditch and curtained the area off from the rest of the world. When the weather was hot, the dappled shade of the willows and the cool water of the ditch transformed the space into my private refuge.

Stacia in Idaho in 2011
I appreciate that I received an elementary education that valued and supported my curiosity and drive to explore. I attended Hellgate Elementary and Middle School from pre-K until 8th grade, and during those years I participated in several field trips made possible by the Watershed Education Network. Memories of these field trips have stayed with me throughout my life, and I believe they played a significant role in the maturation of my relationship with Montana’s rivers and streams.

Participating in WEN field trips as a child allowed me to grow-up with a well-developed understanding and appreciation of my local watershed ecosystems. I learned about the water’s chemistry, the physical structure and behavior of a river, and the diversity of organisms living beneath the surface. When I entered high school and began traveling beyond the Northwest, I was surprised to find that rivers in other parts of the country hardly resembled those I had grown up knowing. My homesickness for the Clark Fork was especially strong when I visited cities where channelized rivers, corralled by concrete banks, flowed slow and thick with sediment and algae.

Much of my interest and love for streams and rivers can be attributed to a desire to uncover and interact with the many varieties of organisms in and around these areas. At home in Missoula I had memories of fishing stones from the bottom of rivers and turning them over in my hands in search of caddisfly nymphs tucked away in their cases of cemented sand and wood. I had spent every spring for as long as I could remember kneeling at the edges of rivers and creeks in search of nearly invisible fish fry. I hung a poster of native frogs and toads in my bedroom, and bought field guides to help me identify species of garter snakes I found sunning themselves on river banks.

In the spring when I was around nine or ten years old I attended a WEN field trip where we caught and examined macroinvertebrates from the riverbed. Several weeks later I was visiting my grandparents in Whitefish and playing at the edge of the Whitefish River, several yards from the back door of my grandparents’ house. Remembering what I had learned during my WEN field trip, I decided to take my river exploration one step further. I armed myself with a plastic bucket and a pink butterfly net from the dollar store and made my way into the slow moving water of the river. I positioned the netting in front of my toes and shuffled my feet into the stone and silt of the riverbed until yellow-brown sediment clouded the water around me. I lifted my net, hoping to find it teaming with the wriggling bodies of mayfly and stonefly nymphs. A few small stones swung in the netting and I reached in to fish them out. When I grabbed for the stones something hard, sharp, and very much alive, spasmed at my fingertips. Startled, I jerked my hand back and dropped the net into the water. After regaining some composure, reclaimed the net from the water and took another look at the big crawdad flopping inside the pink butterfly net.


Moments such as this one carry a lot of importance for me. As a child I felt I was simply spending my summer vacations at play. Today, I look back on this type of explorative play, and realize how much it has impacted who I am as a person and the things I most value in life. I want to make a conscious effort to continue to engage with local watersheds through recreation, conservation, education, and art. I am excited to have recently reconnected with WEN, an organization which has been a presence in my community for much of my life. WEN facilitates opportunities for volunteers like me to engage with my community and my water resources, and plays a major role in engaging and educating young Missoulians about their watersheds.

Fishing in the Blackfoot

            I believe my love for Missoula and the surrounding landscape harkens back to my earliest roots, for that I thank my teachers, community, and family. After graduating from Hellgate Middle School I went on to attend Big Sky High School and became heavily involved in the school’s science and creative writing programs. I decided to stay loyal to my hometown of Missoula and attended the University of Montana in pursuit of my Bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology. It seems I can’t bring myself to leave Missoula, as I’ve opted to join UM’s creative writing program and will be earning my MFA in creative non-fiction over the next two years. No matter where life takes me next, I know I will always be drawn back to Montana’s Rocky Mountains, the plants and bugs and fish that have been precious to me all my life, and the waters of the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, and Bitterroot Rivers.

Stacia Hill
WEN Volunteer