by Debbie Funk and Carol Bibler

More than 50 years ago, two adventurous little girls spent some of their happiest days playing in the woods that they called “Down Below.”  Even then, as fourth and fifth graders, they knew it was a special place. It was their place, where they enjoyed solitude and freedom in nature. 

Debbie was fortunate to live just a five-minute walk from this immense playground, and Carol was fortunate to be her friend. To this day, they both remember the excitement of waking up on Saturday mornings, anticipating spending the day in this magical place.

“Are you girls going Down Below today?”, our moms would ask, already knowing the answer. “Here’s some lunch for you to take along”. Debbie’s trusty beagle, Gina Lollobrigida, usually accompanied us, and she probably enjoyed it as much as we did—and Debbie’s mom figured we were safer with Gina along. Oh, the freedom! We were in charge, and to this day, we do not recall seeing another human during our many visits. During this time in our childhoods, nothing came close to being as much fun, or as interesting, as the hours, summer days, early evenings and those wonderful Saturdays playing in the woods. 

Although we certainly got a good education at our Kalispell elementary school, some of our best learning happened in the woods. And although we were pretty good students, Carol recalls daydreaming about Down Below while she was supposed to be paying attention in the classroom. What was happening down there while we were away? Were the birds still singing even though we weren’t there to hear them? Looking back on those days, we realize how much hands-on learning took place there in the absence of parents or teachers, and how it influenced our love and appreciation of nature and its beauty to this very day. We hiked, walked, and ran for hours through the woods, discovering and imagining. “Let’s pretend we are (explorers, treasure seekers, Indians, pioneers, in the ‘olden days’). We made maps and looked for treasure. We had a world of make-believe in the woods, running as quickly as possible through the “Haunted Woods” (a part of the forest that was a little more overgrown than the rest) to reach the beautiful clearing. 

Autumn colors in the fall, sun shining through the trees in that indescribable light; green leaves, the smell of sap, and birdsong in the spring; shapes in the clouds that drifted over blue skies; tall grasses that tickled bare legs. The clearing was truly breathtaking and awe-inspiring to two little girls. Joy and happiness, every time.

We were young and paid no attention to the names of the many birds that sang and kept us company; we recognized diversity in the vegetation surrounding us but didn’t know what to call it.  As years went on, there was less time spent playing, and more time exploring in other ways.  A jar full of water from the back water tributaries provided a whole world of creatures to explore under Debbie’s first microscope. Her procrastinated middle school botany project was rescued when these woods provided a huge variety of plants collected in one day. High school photography class sent her back “Down Below” to discover amazing winter ice patterns on the river’s edge and the beauty of water flow patterns and rocks.

Both Carol and Debbie went on to earn science degrees, and we’re sure that this special time spent in what is now called Owen Sowerwine had a huge impact on those choices. Looking back, we’re so incredibly grateful we had this opportunity.  

Right now, we all have a fleeting opportunity to ensure that this area will remain natural forever. If you want your children, grandchildren, and their children to experience the magical place that we did, and if you want this precious wildlife habitat to remain undisturbed, please join us in supporting the fundraising efforts to preserve the Owen Sowerwine.

Owen-Sowerwine Natural Area