To embark on new waters is the meaning of the Lakota word: Watanopa. It’s also the third chosen name for the camp that lies snug in the shadows of the Pintler Mountains and on the shore of Georgetown Lake.
What started out as the first nonsecular camp for girls in Montana in 1924, has blossomed into a campsite that instills not only independence but a deep love and knowledge for our environment by simply being present in it without distraction.
Like most gems in Montana, Camp Watanopa (despite enduring three name changes and some minor details) has kept the important stuff intact—dinner is still served family style, dream boats are still cast onto the lake as symbols of friendship, hope, and love, and there still lives an elf who resides in the forest and writes letter to campers. Cell phone service was not part of the experience back then and nor will it be today.
Montana Trout Unlimited is one of the groups who rent out this treasured site for a week of learning and recreation. Campers take part in the art form of fly fishing and learn all about what makes the waters of our area so abundant for wildlife and personal enjoyment. Open to 11 to 14 year old attendees, Camp Watanopa is the beautiful backdrop for these topics: trout conservation, preservation, water management, protection, and land conservation. And of course, how all facets lock fingers for the big picture.
The camp is brimming with in-depth education but overall, the intent is for students to walk away from their week on the water with a love for fly fishing, trout, and a passion to protect that habitat for generations to come.
The genesis of the Montana Trout Unlimited teen fly fishing camp was the brainchild of the late Dr. John R. “Jack” Beck and the late Enoch “Inky” Moore. Members of the Pennsylvania Cumberland Gap chapter of Montana Trout Unlimited, Jack and Inky, along with other chapter members, spearheaded the beginnings of what is formally known as The Rivers Conservation and Fly Fishing Youth Camp in 1995.
Jessica McCutcheon is the coordinator overseeing the complex mechanisms of the local camp workings for the past four years. She came to the Montana Chapter offices with a background in political science and as a case manager for a law firm. She started as the quasi-office manager, transitioning into her current position, and proudly talked about the Montana memberships’ strong ethical work in water conservation, water access rights, and habitat restoration.
“Montana Trout Unlimited Chapter and councils traditionally play an advocacy role in all matters concerning water conservation and preservation, not limiting ourselves to trout habitat and conservation. It is all part of the whole,” said Jessica. She knows the heart of Montana Trout Unlimited, and is proud to bring campers to such a powerful environmental example of what they’re in constant effort to accomplish. It’s obvious that Camp Watanopa could allow campers the environmental instruments fit for the job in three main areas: Conserve. Protect. Restore.
What each teen takes away from the camp is as unique as the individual. The week is busy, packed with many activities and instructional classroom time. It’s a true panoply of choice for campers. The educational curriculum includes land conservation and restoration, Bull Trout habitat restoration, philosophy, hydrology, stream access, fly tying and fishing, watershed management, entomology, climate change effects, and numerous other aspects of trout, stream, and land management.
One of the most important activities during camp week is a stream restoration project. Attendees learn about the importance of stream conservation and restoration, but they also get a hands-on learning experience by re-building an endangered section of stream bank, learning about shading and channel-cooling, willow planting, invasive plant and insect species, pulling weeds, and long-term protection of restored river and stream channels.
“We really focus on teaching trout as an indicator species of an entire ecosystem. If the trout are doing well, so is the surrounding environment,” said Jessica.
Montana Trout Unlimited’s weeklong camp is backed by volunteers from both the Missoula and Hamilton area chapters and council. Penny and Bill Ritchie are two instrumental people who worked tirelessly to get the original camp off the ground and their efforts are matched only by those passionate individuals today. While the faces may change, the root passion for maintaining the most valued part about our Montana lifestyle is unswerving. And the campers are enthusiastic, even during the learning process.
“We tend to catch a lot more tree branches than fish at first,” said Jessica. “Flies are always a needed commodity at the camp, even with all the kids learning to make their own.
The days are long. There are early morning and late evening and night time fishing expeditions, classes with a variety of experts including state land management experts, forestry officers, hydrologists, fisheries biologists, and expert trout guides, tours of different watersheds both rural and urban, a fish hatchery excursion, leadership development, and more flies tied than you can shake at a Loomis fly rod.
Applicants for the camp are required to submit an essay as part of their application, stating not only why they would like to attend the camp, but also why they believe they would be a good fit and what they could add to the experience. Forty percent of applicants have been exposed to some type of fishing or have parents who fly fish, while others may be urban-dwelling students who have no experience with fishing or conservation issues but have an interest in learning.
“We always need volunteers. Our fund-raising efforts and generous contributors help us finance what is essentially an intensive week of education. People appreciate what we are trying to do and want to make sure it continues,” said Jessica. “Orvis chose our organization as its donor recipient this year at their annual Down the Hatch Festival in Missoula. They also donate updated equipment, as do other fly shops.”
Along with sponsorships and donations of materials, Montana Trout Unlimited’s goals are supported and brought to fruition because of the efforts within our community and beyond. While the campers are taught about the resiliency of cold-water fish, they, too, are learning about the resiliency within themselves. And just like that, a flame is lit, not only for the commitment to his or herself, but to a way of life for the trout and everyone else.
You can learn more about the camp and Montana Trout Unlimited at its website and Facebook pages. MontanaTU.org/ConservationYouthCamp or by contacting Jessica McCutcheon at firstname.lastname@example.org