Last week, my dad, sister, and I visited our cabin in southwest Montana. It was my first time at the cabin in six years, but it felt just the same: peaceful and quiet, and like time was standing still. Our cabin is super rustic – we call it “glamping”, glamorous camping – and we like it that way. Getting up our driveway alone requires half an hour and a four-wheel-drive, and the cabin itself is completely off the grid. There’s no electricity, no running water, and a composting toilet that we affectionately call “The Throne”. The only sounds you can hear from our little corner of the wilderness are the birds chirping, bees buzzing, and an occasional mooing cow in the distance. Not to mention our spectacular 70-mile view:
I wanted to explore a theme of “pioneers” because of Montana’s rich land use history, the ecology of the region, and my family’s connection to this area. My dad bought this parcel of land 25 years ago, several years before I was born. He built our tiny log cabin with the help of a few friends, and it continues to be a backwoods refuge for us; a place where we can be surrounded by nature and slow our heart rates down for a few days. My dad was a bit of a pioneer in this area, because when he bought the land, there weren’t very many people living there. Now we have more neighbors, but I think it’s neat that my dad was one of the first people to build on that land. At least, the first in a long time.
The real pioneers came to Montana around 12,000 years ago, when humans crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America and became what are now known as Native Americans. In fact, the oldest known human burial site in North America is in Wilsall, Montana. The Lewis and Clark expedition went through Montana, and fur trappers frequented these parts as well. But the discovery of gold in 1852 changed Montana’s history forever. Settlers began to migrate west to Montana, and started to build towns, mining operations, and infrastructure. Today, many of these settlements have turned into ghost towns, with decrepit old buildings that give visitors a glimpse into the pioneering days.
There’s actually some evidence of past mining activity on our property in Montana:
As we were driving along a mountain road near our cabin one day, we saw this interesting juxtaposition of old and new mining in this area:
In southwest Montana, you get the feeling that everyone is a pioneer in their own sense. Even the local newspaper agrees:
This idea got me thinking about a different kind of pioneer: ecological species. In a natural environment, there are often disturbances, both natural and man-made. Some examples are forest fires, development, cattle ranching, and floods. Disturbances often harm or destroy various organisms, and leave an area looking very different than it was before. But eventually, new species move in and repopulate the area, bringing it back to what it was before or creating a new kind of environment. The first species that move into a recently disturbed area are called pioneer species, then more species move in until there is a new complex community there. This whole process is called ecological succession.
Because we’ve owned and visited this land for 25 years now, we’ve been able to observe the process of ecological succession firsthand. I dug through an old album to see what our property looked like when my dad first built the cabin, and compared them to what I saw during our trip:
Where slopes were basically barren twenty years ago, we found a bunch of these little guys springing up:
It’s still a mystery to us why these huge changes are taking place, since there was no obvious disturbance on our property. But because we’ve owned this land for so long, we do get to observe these magnificent natural changes. I really appreciated this time to immerse myself in a place where you can still see nature taking its course. One day at the cabin, we got up early enough to see the sunrise and climb a nearby 10,600 ft mountain. After huffing and puffing through the altitude changes, and signing the climber registry at the summit, I felt a bit like a pioneer myself.