Glacier Institute Executive Director Anthony Nelson recently appeared on the KGEZ Good Morning Show. Listen as he shares all the information on Guided Hikes & Tours, Educational Programs Offered, & the work being done to restore & Preserve Big Creek Kids Camp with hosts John Hendricks and Robin Mitchell! Click the play button below to listen.
This is the KGEZ Good Morning Show with John Hendricks and Robin Mitchell.
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Hosts: And today we welcome the Executive Director of the Glacier Institute. A happy dude today. We’ll tell you why he’s so happy here in a little bit. Anthony Nelson, good morning.
Anthony: Good morning, good to see you guys.
Hosts: You too. Yeah, and we’re gonna save that part for the last, okay? The happy guy stuff.
Anthony: Sounds good.
Hosts: But we really do need to understand all that you guys do at Glacier Institute.
Anthony: Yeah, yeah, thanks for asking. So we are the official education partner for Glacier National Park and for Flathead National Forest. And basically to boil it down is, we’re trying to get everybody to fall in love with the outdoors through education. You’re not going to care about something that you don’t know anything about, and so we teach a wide variety of different courses to help people, in varying levels, fall in love with the outdoors.
Hosts: So how do you do that?
Anthony: That’s an excellent question! So we operate Big Creek Outdoor education center up in the North Fork, it’s how a lot of people know us. A lot of local kids here have gone to Big Creek and we’ve been doing that since about 1988. This is our 40 year anniversary. So the Glacier Institute has been around since 1983. And Big Creek, we bring about 1500 kids a year up there. School groups in the fall and the spring, and then in the summer, we’ve got all kinds of summer camps and outdoor camps for kiddos to come out. And we do everything from wading around in the stream, looking at macro invertebrates, to doing some geology courses and talking about bear safety, which is obviously really important out here. So we start young with those kiddos.
Hosts: Such a cool opportunity. They’re young and inexperienced. What about visitors to the area?
Anthony: Yeah, so excellent question. We just recently, here about, this is our third year running this program, we’ve been doing what we call guided day hikes or educational day programs in Glacier Park. And those are from our office right in Columbia Falls. And the idea is that you can come with us for a full day in Glacier National Park, on one of the most popular trails in the park. You can choose from the Highline or Hidden Lake Overlook, or Avalanche, or otherwise, our Complete Going to the Sun road, is what we call it, designed for folks who can’t do a lot of hiking. But all of those are designed to kind of give you that base set of knowledge of Glacier National Park and about the flora and the fauna and history, kind of at an entry level. And we’ve been seeing those become really popular. People have been signing up for those quite a bit, which has been great to see. And the exciting part for us is that we’ve got those people in the vehicle with us for eight hours. And by the end of the day, they’re gonna be excited about Glacier National Park. They’re gonna have learned something really important and a lot more value to their trip here.
Hosts: You know, what you’re doing is very important for a variety of reasons. But what strikes me is my experience in the back country, you know, it came from my dad and my grandfather and most of the men in my life, including my teachers and everybody else, everybody was into the back country. They were hiking, they were, you know, camping and hunting and fishing. We’ve kind of lost that in successive generations. I also was in Boy Scouts and we were out all the time, all the time. In fact, I was talking with John Lupton about this the other day from Snappy Sports Center. His dad, B.J. Lupton, was the bugler at Melita Island, Camp Melita. And we knew each other back then. We’re both very young. But the point is, is that those institutions aren’t as prevalent today. So the opportunities for young people to really get introduced to the backcountry properly, they’re… You gotta have a place to do that and that’s where you guys fill that gap. And there’s something comforting if you’re a visitor to go with somebody who’s been there before and it gives you confidence that you’re gonna enjoy yourself.
Anthony: Yeah, absolutely. And you’re so right about the lack of opportunities for kids these days to get into the outdoors. I mean, when you look at the statistics, it’s pretty staggering right now, kids that are not ever getting an opportunity to go camping. And then you start looking at the statistics of how much screen time kids are spending right now. I mean, kids ages eight to 12, on average, are spending six to seven hours a day on screens. And then for that same age group, they’re sleeping on average about 10 hours a night. You start doing the math and it is not very much time in the day that they are awake and not on screens. And so that is, it should be a little bit alarming to us and very different from the way that I grew up where, you know, the parents would just kick us out in the morning and say, hey, come back at dinner, and we’d just be outside all day.
Hosts: And just think about this, if the power grid went down, a lot of people wouldn’t know what to do, I suppose. You know, what do you mean? There’s no cell phone service.
Anthony: There is some truth to that. Yeah, that’s actually been an educational component for people just coming into Glacier National Park. It is a very new thing to be in a place with no cell reception. And so there’s actually, we’ve been doing some education on that of just, hey, If you have an emergency, you’re not gonna be able to just dial someone in immediately and they’re gonna show up and help you. A lot of times there’s a little bit more work involved in that, so yeah. A lot of things to teach.
Hosts: I got a note here, it says ask you about Avalanche Lake.
Anthony: Ask me about Avalanche Lake, well, that’s an excellent thing to bring up, I guess. We do a guided day hike to Avalanche Lake. Maybe that was what the note was about. That could be, yeah. It is obviously one of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park, and probably one of my favorites, to be honest with you. I’ve done several tours on the Trail of the Cedars there at the beginning. It’s just about a mile of hiking, one of the park’s only ADA accessible trails. And I could honestly, walk that trail for eight hours and educate the entire time keeping you captivated.
Hosts: Oh, I’m sure you could, yeah.
Anthony: It’s an extremely beautiful and important place, an important ecosystem for us here.
Hosts: Now when you say ADA trail all the way up to the lake.
Antony: Oh no. No, no, just the first kind of, yeah, the Trail of the Cedars there is the part that’s beautiful. well-graded boardwalk and trails.
Hosts: See, now I’ve been up to the lake, that’s why I was asking. Yeah, I wonder why you’re…
Anthony: Not so much, not so much. Yeah.
Hosts: Well, someday I’m gonna make that hike up to Avalanche Lake after the lake is frozen.
Yeah, oh, it’s beautiful. I’ve seen pictures of that, about people ice skating out there on the lake and it’s before the snow hits it and it is crystal clear, like glass.
Anthony: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. My aunt does that every year and is sending me pictures and it is absolutely gorgeous. Yeah, there’s something pristine about the park in the winter and a lot of people miss it, to be honest with you. We do some winter courses in Glacier National Park and certainly gonna be doing some more this winter, including some snowshoeing programs. So we hope that people will check that out as well.
Hosts: Well, let’s go into that and some of the other programs you offer at the Glacier Institute right after this.
Hosts: And today we’re talking with the Executive Director of the Glacier Institute, Anthony Nelson. Anthony, I’m just, I’m curious how you came to all of this.
Anthony: Yeah, that’s a good question. My background is not in outdoor education. My background is in wildlife biology. I went through a long series of different jobs to get to this point, including being a zookeeper for about 12 years.
Anthony: Working with a wide variety of different creatures. Which has given me a really cool perspective, as far as the creatures that we have here in Glacier Park because I worked with them closely with a lot of them daily. And it certainly brings a cool component and a safety element, honestly. I look back at pictures of me as a child in Glacier National Park walking around and looking at pictures of me far too close to a Rocky Mountain goats, much like many tourists we see these days, I was that kid. And after having worked with them for many years, I can tell you, you do not want to get close to Rocky Mountain goats. Make sure that you give them good distance when you’re up on the trails.
Hosts: Well, how about the outdoor skills that you teach? How did you learn those?
Anthony: Yeah, honestly, I grew up outside. We just camped and fished and we were just outdoors all the time. And some of it was honestly survival. I grew up in Minnesota and parents would kick us outside and it’d be… you know, 10 degrees below zero, and you just have to figure out how to stay alive. And I think a lot of kids are missing those kinds of opportunities today.
Hosts: Oh yeah, when I was a kid, I went to Hedges and two blocks away is where we lived. So I would walk two blocks to Woodland Avenue. And back then, you just go down into there, and it was all wild lands. And there was a little bit of a slough down there, and we called it going down the Gully. And we would go down there and every day after school, we just head down the gully, you know, and look at the animals and, you know, capture a frog or two.
Anthony: Yeah, yeah, just be there.
Hosts: Yeah, exactly.
Anthony: Just like for an extended period of time.
Hosts: Yeah, and it was two blocks away from my house. That is, I mean, there’s homes down there now. And, you know. There’s no opportunity to do that anymore.
Anthony: That actually is an excellent segue to something kind of exciting and fun that we’re working towards right now. There was some big press releases that came out here a couple of weeks ago. We have had it in our vision for the Glacier Institute for a couple of years here that we knew, someday in the future we wanted to try to do a nature center in the Flathead Valley, somewhere in between Columbia Falls and the park. And kind of had it as a distant dream. Talking about it. Working towards it. Well, an opportunity came up with a chunk of land. It’s a 142 acre piece of land, just right in the Columbia Heights area. And we are going to try to get that piece of land for the Glacier Institute to put a nature center there, for the exact thing that you’re talking about. Creating places for kids and families to come and experience the outdoors, in a place that’s safe, a place where there’s opportunities for some education to happen, and certainly a place for schools to be able to come out for just the day or just a couple hours and have some of those outdoor experiences that kids are missing so much right now.
Hosts: And once they get a little taste of that sort of thing, then perhaps we can expand into other areas.
Anthony: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, that really is the goal. You know, we’ve operated Big Creek and Field c=Camp inside Glacier National Park, and we have a lot of these really in-depth programs. We’ve done that for a long time, but what were seeing right now is that the attention span is getting smaller and smaller for folks. They’re willingness to sign up for multi-day programs is getting less and less. Big Creek, we could sell out for kiddos and our demand is high at Big Creek. And so, we are going to continue doing that always, and we are really push towards doing multi-day programs out there. But the single day and shorter programs, that are going to be so, so important to do. If we’re able to secure this Nature Center, which is a big if at this point because it’s a $3.5 million property. We have the ability to sell our chunk of land in Columbia Falls, we’re hoping to get around a million bucks for that. So, that leaves a 2.5 million dollar gap that we are going to the community to help us try and figure out. We just started that a couple weeks ago, which is interesting timing. Because of where we are with Big Creek.
Host: And that’s where we want to save that for the big surprise.
Anthony: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Hosts: Now, the Alpine mammals got into our, I’m curious about this. What Alpine mammals are we talking about?
Anthony: Yeah, so we’re talking a lot about those Rocky Mountain goats and those pika and the bighorn sheep. A lot of those creatures that have very unique adaptations to be at high altitude. I mean, you look at the Rocky Mountain goat hooves and they’re basically designed like tennis shoes. I mean, there’s two pitching toes essentially that go back and forth and they have a hard top to them, but they have a soft bottom almost like a tennis shoe. And so that allows them to stand on a rock shelf that’s only a half an inch wide and do it with great comfort.
Hosts: And your toes wrap around it.
Anthony: More or less, yeah. You kind of get a pitching that goes with the two different little hooves there, yeah.
Hosts: I was thinking maybe we were talking bears.
Anthony: Bears as well, yeah. Both grizzly bears and black bears. You don’t think about it a lot, but I watched a black bear go up and over Siyeh Pass here just last year. There’s a lot of different creatures that you’re gonna see up at high altitude. Mule deer, I mean, we see them all the time up at high altitude. And there’s a lot of adaptations for those creatures. I mean take the pika, which are, you know, hands down the cutest creature on the planet– I would fight anybody who would say anything different. But they’re farmers! They literally take different grasses and they help disperse the seeds. And then to get ready for winter, they actually take and store all of those grasses underground to prepare for the winter. And they’ve got stashes of food that help them survive through the winter. Underneath the subnivean zone, under the snow where it’s a consistent 32 degrees, all the time.
Hosts: That’s something that we’ve taken some of those tours up at the park, the park rangers and the snowshoe. And I’m just amazed at all that’s going on under the snow.
Anthony: Oh yeah, yeah. It’s very interesting. It’s something you don’t think about because you don’t see it. You look out over the vast open snow and it’s all hidden underneath. Anything above about six inches of snow depth and there’s a consistent 32 degree temperature down there. And that’s how a lot of these creatures are surviving the winter, is that they’re thriving in that little ecosystem down there.
Hosts: And I know one of the things that the park ranger, well, you know, you need to smell this poop. I’m not into smelling poop, I’m sorry.
Anthony: You can tell a lot about a creature based on the way their poop smells.
Hosts: Yeah, I know, but do you teach that?
Anthony: We do teach some of that kind of. Absolutely, yeah. Our winter tracking courses are extremely popular. It is so fun to go out with an expert who can tell you the story behind the different tracks that you’re seeing based on the gait of the track. Ya know, how fast was that creature going? And just to know what creature it is.
Hosts: Depends on what they were eating, I think. They’re looking for a bush somewhere.
Anthony: Or what’s trying to eat them.
Hosts: Oh yeah.
Anthony: Yeah, exactly. We see a lot of that. There’s always a story there with the tracks.
Hosts: I love even, there at Apgar, just trudging around down there by McDonald Creek. But it’s to the point there now where it’s populated enough with people so that the deer come up for their photo ops with you.
Anthony: They do, they do tend to get a little too close, which, you know, public service announcement, make sure you don’t get too close to the creatures in Glacier National Park.
Hosts: They just come along so you can snap a picture of them. You know, not so much a selfie.
Anthony: Nice big smile.
Hosts: But that’s how, you know, that’s how it has kind of gotten there. And then what you’re talking about going up in the high country is a whole different set of rules.
Anthony: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of things you have to be concerned about as far as safety. There are guys that do it, but you know, there are avalanches in Glacier National Park. There’s things that you need to be concerned about there. So make sure that you’re safe as you’re doing it.
Hosts: Steam camp, talk to me about that.
Anthony: Yeah, we’ve been trying to provide more and more opportunities for kiddos to learn how there’s different careers that you can go into, in the outdoor field, and there’s a lot of things in the outdoors that tie into everyday life. I mean you look at STEAM, and it used to be STEM and they pulled the arts into it, and so now we’ve got STEAM camp, so that’s where that comes from. But we’re talking about how pulling all of these elements from the outdoors can guide into different careers. And certainly how there’s a lot to tie into education with the outdoors in regards to a lot of these different topics with engineering and mathematics. I mean, I went and got my degree in Wildlife Biology, like we talked about, and I spent a lot of time doing population statistics. I mean, that is mathematics to the core. Most of it I’ve forgotten at this point, because I haven’t used it, but that was a big part of my degree was learning population statistics and all of that. We try to incorporate a lot of that and help these young kiddos figure out, man, you don’t have to just be an outdoor educator. You could go into population statistics. You could go work for fish, wildlife and parks and be helping to create regulation, using science to figure those things out. There’s a lot of different paths you can go.
Hosts: Anthony Nelson is the Executive Director of the Glacier Institute and he is a happy dude today. And we’re gonna reveal his happiness right after this.
Hosts: Our conversation this day with Glacier Institute Executive Director Anthony Nelson, we left off regarding the Big Creek Educational Center. Now you want to- That’s why he’s the happy guy today. Yeah, yeah. Now you want to restore and preserve it. It needs preservation. What kind of state is it in?
Anthony: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it’s in a lot better state now, being that we’ve already begun on construction. And that’s part of the reason I’m so happy is that phase one of our construction is functionally complete. Couple of little things to tie up to close it down. But phase one is almost done. And what we’re working towards right now is phase two. And the reason I’m so excited is because we are almost done with our fundraising. It is a $1.7 million project and we are getting closer and closer to the finish line, which we’re extremely excited about. Because Big Creek, it’s been around for a hot minute. It was the original ranger station for the forest service, out in that area. And up until about the mid 60’s it was really the main head operation point for the forest service. And so there was up to 300 people living on site at one point. Buildings that date back to the 20s and the 40s, all of which that have been kind of questionably maintained over the years as it’s gone through different hands. We took it over in 1988 and we’ve been, you know, kind of maintaining it as you go, but, you know, duct tape and bubble gum fixes only last so long. And it came to the point where it’s like, hey. We gotta do something. We’ve got to kind of double down and make sure that we’re investing in this place so that we can continue to bring kids out there, and continuing to impact future generations.
Hosts: Okay, and that was one of the questions that I had: What are you gonna be able to do, maybe that you can’t do right now?
Anthony: Yeah. A big part of the project is making sure that we get everything, A: up to code, that’s important. As much as we can with historic buildings, we’re doing everything we can to bring it up to code as much as possible. Also we’re doing all new windows and all new doors and adding insulation across all of the buildings to be able to operate Big Creek through out th winter. So currently we bring about 1,500 kids a year out there, between about April and October. When we open that season up, especially during the school year, when there’s a lot of local schools here that would take advantage of that, we’re going to be able to up that number to, you know, 2,000, maybe 2,500 kids that we bring up to Big Creek every year. And if you can imagine how cool it would be for a group of high schoolers to come out and stay at Big Creek for a week in the middle of the winter, 20 miles north of Columbia Falls, you know, vast, vast open wilderness.
Hosts: Yeah, sure. Okay, and the fundraising, almost complete.
Anthony: Almost complete, yeah.
Hosts: What can the person listening right now do to help support?
Anthony: Thank you for asking, good question. So we launched a GoFundMe here this last week. We’re trying to go to everybody in the community and collectively raise $200,000. And that’ll get us basically to the finish line for Big Creek. There are a lot of people here in the Valley that have been impacted by Big Creek in one way or another. Whether your grandpa was one of those, you know Rangers that worked out there, many, many years ago or whether you yourself came to a course when you were a kid or you’ve sent your kids out to a course at Big Creek… I think a lot of people in the community would agree that this is a place that we want to continue and we want to see these programs keep going. So collectively as a community, if we all come together and we say hey I can give 10 bucks. I can give 20 bucks. I can give 50 bucks. That all adds up. And that’s what we’re really trying to do right now with that GoFundMe.
Hosts: Okay, if people come through for you and the funding is complete, what kind of a time frame are you looking at?
Anthony: Yeah, we’re hoping to start construction on phase two here in October.
And that construction really is in the cabins there, where the guests stay. A major remodel of those bathrooms and getting those cabins up to ADA standards is really the goal for that part. So being able to have camps for everybody to come.
Hosts: And I’m guessing a membership in the Glacier Institute wouldn’t hurt either.
Anthony: Absolutely, it’s a great way to help us operationally be able to continue to offer these programs for everybody and keep the costs really low. We’ve never turned a kid away from camp coming to Big Creek. We’ve got a scholarship and we’ve never turned a kid away from camp. We always wanna continue doing that.
Hosts: It’s a great organization to support folks. Thank you, Anthony, for coming in this morning. I sure appreciate all you and your staff and volunteers are doing.
Anthony: Thank you guys, I appreciate you having me.