Meet Andrea McElwain. Andrea is the first Gallatin River Ranger to work for the Custer Gallatin National Forest. This summer, her focus is to improve river access and user experience along the Gallatin. We sat down with Andrea the other day to learn a little bit more about her and what she’s been up to this summer.
GRTF: Where are you from?
AM: I’m from Kansas originally, but I’ve been in Montana for 12 years now.
GRTF: What brought you to Montana?
AM: I originally came out to serve with Montana Conservation Corps and I just fell in love with the state, so I couldn’t leave.
GRTF: I understand that you enjoy whitewater paddling. Can you tell us about your favorite adventure on a Montana river?
AM: I do love running the Gallatin. I’m pretty new to kayaking, so high water is still exciting for me. I usually stay away from the Mad Mile, but I’m improving and starting to feel more confident.
GRTF: How did you get involved in recreation management?
AM: I wanted to work for the Forest Service and this seemed like a good way in. I did trail work for a while, but I was kind of done with that. Last year, I worked here, out of the Ranger District, as a Wilderness Weeds Mapper. So, I went on backpacking trips in the Spanish Peaks and mapped weeds wherever I found them with a GPS. I basically got paid to backpack (laughs). It was great! It felt like I didn’t really have a job. My current position seemed like a good avenue to continue working for the Forest Service.
GRTF: As far as I know, you’re the first River Ranger on the Gallatin, is that correct?
AM: Yes. We’re not sure what to call my position. Most River Rangers are on boats checking permits, but my work is a little different.
GRTF: Can you describe your day-to-day responsibilities?
AM: Every day is different, but I’m doing a lot of signing and trying to improve access sites for both boaters and fisherman. I am working to enhance access sites in different ways, including improving fencing, signing, and parking lots, as well as doing some work with weeds.
GRTF: How would you describe the partnership between the Forest Service and the Gallatin River Task Force?
AM: I think we have a really good relationship with the Task Force. I work with Jack (Task Force Big Sky Watershed Corps member) more than anyone else. We’re working on a river use survey, along with MSU as well. We’ve also coordinated volunteer projects that are part of bigger river access site restoration projects.
GRTF: What has been the most rewarding part of your summer so far?
AM: I think just being along the Gallatin River every day is so nice. It is just so beautiful; I love the vibe. I feel lucky every day just to be near the water; although, when it’s hot, I want to jump in.
GRTF: Do you have a favorite spot?
AM: I like the river south of Big Sky. It’s a little more open with fewer people and beautiful views. Anywhere along there you can find solitude and take in the view.
GRTF: What has been the most challenging part of your summer so far?
AM: I’ve got a lot of competing priorities. Sometimes it’s a challenge to make sure I’m staying efficient, on schedule, and getting everything done in a timely manner. Usually when something will come up unexpectedly, I end up switching gears before I complete the task I started.
GRTF: And you’re the first Gallatin River Ranger, so I imagine it feels like you are inventing the wheel.
AM: Yes, I’m kind of winging it a little. The Forest Service is giving me a lot of freedom to figure things out and do what I want with my position. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what my priorities should be and what is the most important.
GRTF: Why do you think improved recreation management on the Gallatin River is important?
AM: The Gallatin is such a great place to recreate. And there are more people recreating every year. Improving access will enhance the experience by making the river more accessible and more enjoyable for all users.
GRTF: How can river users help to protect the Gallatin River? Do you have recommendations for how hikers, anglers, and boaters can make sure to “recreate responsibly”?
AM: I would recommend that recreationists use the intended access sites, instead of making their own, or using sites that are clearly not the best place to go. This will prevent erosion. As well as staying out of areas that have been newly planted or are fenced to give plants a chance to survive and thrive.