First Person: Whitman in the Wallowas

Marie von Hafften

Story and Photo Gallery by Marie von Hafften ’13
Photo by Alegria Olmedo ’12

Ah, goofy camaraderie! Welcome to my life – my life for one month with Whitman College’s exciting new summer program, Whitman in the Wallowas (WITW).

Imnaha River
The beautiful hills and grazing land along the Imnaha River
 
Nash
Todd Nash, a Angus cattle rancher, invited us to participate in the branding and castration of his calves, a cultural tradition and experiential learning day that inspired many different reactions our group.

In June 2011 I was among the inaugural group of 12 students who delved into Wallowa County in northeastern Oregon. We camped in bright orange tents and explored the area’s biology, history, and current social and environmental issues. Judging by how quickly the month seemed to fly by, we also had altogether too much fun.

The economy of rural Wallowa County is based primarily on natural resources. It faces serious challenges including rising land prices, an influx of amenity landowners (people who buy land, but don’t work it like farmers and ranchers do), and logging restrictions that caused total, sudden mill closure in the 1990s, wiping out dozens of jobs in a single swoop that continues to pain memories and economic recovery still today.

Similar to Whitman’s Semester in the West, WITW was an immersive, interdisciplinary experience. We learned from Wallowa County locals by sitting down together and discussing economic issues and more, such as the impacts of wolf reintroduction in the area. We met with ranchers, farmers, loggers, weed managers, fish taggers, local historians and even county commissioners. Some people we talked to are from families that have lived in the county for generations, working the land for different crops and livestock as markets shifted.

Balsamroot
Arrow-leaf balsamroot, one of the many plants we learned to identify in Wallowa County
 
Skeleton
An old skeleton we discovered on the Duncan Ranch

The best part of WITW was the people. Everyone we talked to in Wallowa County, officially or on the street, was welcoming and generous. Each life story we heard was unique. People shared their land with us to camp on and explore, and urged us into their homes and barns. They trusted us with their struggles and triumphs; they spoke to our open ears and hearts.

Whitman professors Delbert “Hutch” Hutchison and Don Snow, who led our adventure, are characters themselves in the best sense of the word. Hutch is jovial and kind, passionate about living things and making learning fun. He belly-laughed with us like equals and found all sorts of critters for us to marvel in. Don Snow coached us through the intense week-long writing workshop at the end of the WITW program, when we pulled together all our Wallowa County stories and experiences to craft long essays for a group book. Don has devoted his life to environmental awareness. As a professor, his intimidatingly high expectations demand effort and persistence, but Don helped us all improve with his insight and profound faith in our abilities.

Nils Christofferson and Holly Akenson, our local guides from the non-profit Wallowa Resources, are extremely knowledgeable and approachable as well, introducing us to the many faces of the county. Nils has a low strong voice and is a quiet powerhouse of ideas and faith in community solutions, respected far and wide. Holly helped us recognize how change can be seen as a social and biological constant, and inspired us with exciting tales of wildlife biology research as we snow-shoed atop Howard Mountain. 

Most of all, my 11 fellow Whitman students made WITW unforgettable. We experienced our fair share of stumbling blocks on this very new program – rain, hail, excessive sun, weekly showers, a flat tire and a handful of very long days – but every single person remained steadfastly passionate, caring, and hilariously fun. Such memories as synchronized dancing in the car, intense morel hunts, a crazy game called Salad Bowl, singing around the campfire, jumping in the chilly Imnaha River, sunbathing outside the Joseph town laundromat, and our elaborate mock wedding party on our last night together continue to pop up unexpectedly in my dreams, inspiring renewed – and admittedly wistful – giggles in the morning.

WITW was a testament to the magic of Whitman. Our school is committed to growing environmental awareness and offering exciting experiences for students. I am so thankful for the opportunity and can’t wait to hear the stories of future WITWers!

Mustaches
(L to R) Hannah Joseph ’12, Adam Brayton ’13, Field Manager Molly Smith ’06, Lindsay Cameron ’12, and Erin Kanzig ’12 don flashy facial hair, adding extra zest to dinner preparation.
 
Hutch with toad
Whitman Professor Hutch befriended a charming toad

About the Author: Alaska-raised Marie von Hafften starts her junior year at Whitman in fall 2011. She dreams of being a professional photojournalist and exploring the world. At Whitman, she shoots photos for the Pioneer newspaper, and delights in anthropology. See more of her Whitman in the Wallowas photos at flickr.com