Montana is blessed with some of the most spectacular wilderness areas in the country. These special places have come to define our state in the minds of most Americans and for most of us who live here. But actually, getting out into the wilderness and enjoying it can be a very trying and even dangerous affair. That’s why even a born-in-Montana baby could use a little education before heading out into the wild woods and one place they can get it is at the Montana Wilderness School (MWS).
The school’s mission is to provide empowering expeditionary wilderness courses to youth that foster personal growth and cultivate a conservation ethic through connecting with remote landscapes and wild places. The school is designed to handle young people between the ages of 14 to 18 years old and no previous experience in the outdoors is required.
Communications Manager and Development Assistant Claire Kleese, who was raised in the Bitterroot Valley, said, “Our belief is that wilderness areas in Montana are extremely important and powerful spaces that offer amazing classrooms of knowledge gained through experiential hands-on learning.” She said spending extended periods of time in these places offers young people opportunities to be away from our human-built world and become immersed in the rawness of nature.
According to Kleese, by experiencing challenging situations on a multi-week wilderness course, students have opportunities to deal with a diverse group and different leadership styles, and the ability to communicate and collaborate with others to solve problems and accomplish objectives.
This is not a school for “troubled” teens. It is not a drug rehabilitation program and does not accept emotionally disturbed kids, nor are they set up to handle the developmentally disabled. But they are set up to handle kids who are economically disadvantaged. While the school does charge a fee for its classes which covers the costs of food and transportation and pays the teachers, it is also a tax exempt 501(c)3 non-profit and provides scholarships for students who qualify for financial help.
“We have never turned away an applicant because they couldn’t afford it,” said Kleese.
The expeditions take place all over the state with some scheduled in the Bitterroot Valley.
“We believe that positive personal growth and greater self-actualization will be achieved as students work towards realizing their full potential through the challenge of problem solving on their own terms while rising to meet the demands of their expedition,” she said.
The expeditions, which involve learning everything from backpacking to rafting, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, and horse packing, can last anywhere from 10 days to three weeks. Participants are not just learning how to ride a horse, use a compass or fly fish, they are also building confidence and developing character; being physically active outdoors in beautiful Montana landscapes; increasing competency in many outdoor technical skills; learning how to work together with a diverse group of peers; and increasing their knowledge about Northern Rockies conservation issues and the importance of our public lands and wild spaces.
The school is only five years old but has grown dramatically from the five students who participated the first year. This year they already have 104 registered students. The classes/expeditions are limited to about 10 participants and include two instructors and an intern.
Gar Duke, one of the founders of the school, said, “The pieces that make me most proud are the bridges we continue to build. Bridges between these diverse young people supporting inclusive relationships and team-building, as well as the bridges being built between young people and the outdoors. Living in such a divisive time in our country and one where youth are less connected to the outdoors than ever before, it gives me hope to be part of an organization that focuses on inclusion, connection, and empowerment, and provides opportunities for life-changing and transformative experiences for our important young people.”
More information about the school may be found at www.montanawildernessschool.org.