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Fort Missoula exhibit “packs” on memories, amazement about outdoor gear

MISSOULA – If you’ve lived in the Northwest anytime at all, it’s likely you have a backpack or two, some treasured hiking boots, sleeping bags or cross country skis in storage.

But what you probably don’t realize is how all that gear is a growing part of our legacy, and the centerpiece of a new exhibit at Fort Missoula taking the history, and the memories, out of the attic.

When Rachel Gross grew up in Southern California she was convinced the best way to fulfill her outdoor ambitions was to buy the best gear to show expertise.

“That wasn’t always the case. I certainly, when I started backpacking many years ago, had people stop to ask me ‘why is your pack so big?’ Or ‘why are you carrying that kind of stove?’ They had all sorts of questions for a young woman who was by herself on the trail, thinking that they knew much better,” Gross said. “And I started to realize that actually there are so many different cultures of outdoor recreation and that there’s no correct way to necessarily to do things. But that we can look at how people start to understand these rules as a way of understanding bigger trends in American history.”

Now, her expertise IS the gear. Her post-doctrinal work at UM’s Davidson Honors College is the history of outdoor gear, a forthcoming book and fascinating new exhibit opening at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.

While we spend billions on outdoor gear, it’s a business that has been building for decades.

“People have been turning towards outdoor stores as a way of preparing for their wilderness adventures for more than a century,” Gross said.

The exhibit is total fascination for gear heads like me. From the brands like Kelty that set the standard for frame packs, to amazing artifacts dating to the backpacking boom of the 60s, 70s and 80s, it’s a step into another era, where down was even more expensive and you may have to “sew your own.”

“I don’t think that gear has changed that much over the last 40-years. In fact, it’s people who decide now that everything is so light we can carry more stuff who keep pack weights as a pretty consistent rate.”

Now days we have to have our fancy fleece and our GPS receivers before we venture into the outdoors. But the exhibit reminds us that it’s not really about the hardware. It’s about the memories, and experiences, that we’ve had out on the trail.

Students helping with the research are uncovering amazing stories.

“And so she got to know somebody from the neighborhood, from the local university neighborhood and also hear about how he used to carry an iron skillet, tin cans of food, or sometimes pack out a quarter of an elk on that very backboard.”

One of Rachel’s personal favorites is this rare Kletterwerks prototype internal frame pack, designed by Dana Gleason in Bozeman in the 70s, and owned and used proudly by a Missoula woman.

“She said that she thought it was useful because she could go skiing because it didn’t have an external frame pack. You can still smell a lot of the adventure on the material of that pack if you get close enough.”

“This is a history of outdoor gear. It’s about stuff. But it wouldn’t be interesting if we didn’t have personal stories to attach to it. So, I’m less interested in any particular Whisperlite stove from 30 years ago. And I’m way more interested in hearing how does that tell a story about your family’s past and the leisure activities that you pursued together.”

The “75-years of Outdoor Recreation Exhibit” will have a grand opening at Fort Missoula Friday evening, and will be on display into April. Dr. Gross will also be giving a public presentation at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena February 9th at 1:30 p.m.

Dennis Bragg

Dennis Bragg

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