Science trekking through Canadian wilds

Summer in the mountains of British Columbia is hardly summer at all. At altitudes of 10,000 feet the wind bellows over tarns and glaciers, bringing nearly constant rain and temperatures that rarely exceed 50 degrees F.

Hardly the choice spot for a summer holiday, but into this foggy wilderness a unique educational group has sent willing youngsters for half a decade. Last summer a handful of hardy teen-agers paid their own way to join the Canadian Exploration Group, a team of scientists studying the flora, fauna, and geology of the little-known high country of western Canada.

The organization that sponsored their journey and provided logistical support throughout is Expedition Training Institute, based in Boston. It is a nonprofit organization founded in 1975 by the globe-trotting Lowell Thomas and his friends at the Explorers Club. At first it functioned solely as a placement service for students seeking outdoors programs. In that regard, it first hooked up with Dr. John Marsh, a Trent University geography professor and leader of the Canadian topographic study.

In recent years the institute has become more than another referral agency for experimental education opportunities. It operates more than a dozen of its own teaching treks for students aged 16 to 24. Last summer applicants could choose between sail training and ocean ecology in Antigua, volcanology in Nicaragua, marine botany in Honduras, and mountaineering and wildlife conservation in Kenya. Each trip is designed and led by trained scientists and outdoors people, and the emphasis is on the learning of research techniques in a wilderness setting. The institute's executive director, James Elder, says: "Our primary motivation is to educate young people, not to fund research. We're less concerned with findings than we are in the teaching process."

Toward that end, Mr. Elder and his staff are constantly exploring new trip environments, the director having recently returned from a Patagonian mountain climb. They solicit and closely review new project proposals from distinguished naturalists. But the Canadian Exploration Group trek has remained a highly successful staple in the institute program. Last summer's group met in distant Revelstoke, British Columbia, to explore among the Monashee Mountains. Students conducted a biological and geophysical inventory of the central lakes of the mountain range, learning vegetation mapping, assembling a herbarium collection, and recording the density and behavior of wildlife in the area. The busy apprentices climbed and photographed glaciers and probed into a network of caves.

A second focus of the month's study was a canoe journey along the Columbia River, a last look at a pristine valley soon to be flooded by a massive dam.

In what leisure time remained, students had the chance to climb, spelunk, fish, and photograph wildlife in the wilderness environment.

Faunal surveys done by the students and Canadian Exploration staff show the diversity of animal life encountered in the range.Black bears and grizzlies were scarce, fortunately. Weasels, marmots, porcupines, and the tiny rabbitlike pika were sighted. Birds noted included kestrels, golden eagles, white-tailed ptarmigan, spotted sandpipers, rufous hummingbirds, and two dozen other species.

For some expedition members, one animal has taken on a special interest. The 1976 expedition team undertook an intensive study of the most common big-game animal in the Northern Selkirks, the mountain goat. The elusive white rock-climbers were the object of a census and detailed behavior charting, which became an integral part of the bulky annual report for that year's expedition.

In addition to topograhic and faunal data, that report includes excerpts from student diaries: "Mist and clouds have cut visibility down to 30 feet, and it is raining continually -- best to return to camp -- the goats have won today." "Clearly this was the edge of the world, ahead lay nothing but gray fog."

Foul weather did, indeed, prove too dampening for the spirits of two students sent to last year's expedition, and they left the campsite well before their allotted time.

Still, the frank project reviews filed by each student participant show a common wonderment at the wilderness they encountered. One asked: "Why do mountain goat ranges have to be at the top of mountains? That's right. It affords the enthusiastic biologist a chance to see magnificent scenery," and another described "the vivid green of the alpine meadows contrasting with the massive monochromatic bulk of the Sir Sanford Mountains."

Scott Stegeman, a student member of last year's Canadian expedition, concluded, "I saw the wilderness on a scale I had never experienced, doing true field work in a wide range of areas."

"That," says Mr. Elder, "is what we are all about."

Further information about the summer expeditions can be had by writing to Expedition Training Institute, Box 171, Prudential Center, Boston, MA 02199.

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