Seventeen adults, some kids and three dogs took a walk Wednesday night along a portion of the Bitterroot River on what will eventually be known as Skalkaho Bend Park.
Their leader was a veteran with a dream.
Sometime in this coming year Dan Kimzey wants to create a new nationwide nonprofit for veterans and their families that he plans to call Ruck On America!
Kimzey’s idea is to create a community of like-minded veterans who find peace in the quiet places of the wilds.
It seemed fitting, then, that Kimzey’s new organization’s first steps would happen in a place where the community of Hamilton is coming together to create one more of those wild and quiet places where people can find peace.
Kimzey’s Veterans’ Walk Tuesday night kicked off a series of events in May sponsored by the Bitter Root Land Trust to offer the community a chance to explore the 70-acres of cottonwood groves, Bitterroot River frontage and grass-filled meadows adjacent to Hamilton’s River Park.
The land trust’s Emy Royce joined the group.
“It was really wonderful,” Royce said. “I think everyone who went felt that way.”
The partnership of the two nonprofits — one well-established and the other brand-new — was the perfect way to begin the series that Royce hopes will get the community excited about the new park.
“Basically Dan’s mission is all about getting veterans together to go hiking,” Royce said. “It’s about building community and getting people out into nature with each other so they’re not stuck being alone.
“The beauty of last night’s walk was that we were able to elevate each other’s program and projects,” she said. “It helped bring awareness to both things.”
The Bitter Root Land Trust kicked off its final fundraising push on May 1 to raise the last $30,000 it needs to acquire the property. It’s already raised more than half of that amount.
“The community’s response has just been incredible,” said Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs. “They’ve made it very clear that they treasure access to river, and conservation of natural habitat, especially this close to town. They’ve demonstrated their support. I think people know that opportunities like this don’t come around every day.”
The donations have ranged from a couple dollars to $1,000. Ricklefs said most have fallen in that $25 to $50 range.
“We are asking people to be patient while to work to close this funding gap,” he said. “The park will be open soon, but not quite yet.”
Through the month of May groups like Kimzey’s will get a preview of what’s to come.
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“I was happy with the turnout,” Kimzey said. “It was a beautiful evening. A rainstorm came through just before we started. We had the perfect window for our walk.”
Kimzey had arrived early to walk the trail to ensure there weren't any big limbs or any other hazards along the way.
“I did see a young yearling bull moose about five yards of the trail on that first walk through,” he said. “I said, ‘OK. I hope he doesn’t get spooky when we bring the larger group through.' It turned out just fine.”
Once the school year ends, the Hamilton High School principal plans to reach out the 200 or so soldiers with whom he's stayed in contact over the years to see who might be willing to step forward to help make this dream of his come true.
“I’ve been involved with the veterans’ community right here in Hamilton,” Kimzey said. “We have a lot of awesome and talented veterans right here in our own community. We might be able to create the spark that will help build a nationwide network of veteran hike leaders.”
Kimzey wants to create a system where the nonprofit can track the number of miles walked exploring natural places across the country.
“It don’t think it will take long for us to hit 1 million,” he said. “Our first steps were taken Tuesday.”
The remaining events at the proposed park include:
• May 12, 5–6 p.m., Emma’s House “Oula Nature Dancing” for moms to celebrate Mother's Day with Val Widmer.
• May 16, 5-6 p.m., Evening Yoga at Skalkaho Bend. Connect with nature and relieve stress through gentle guided yoga stretching with Inspansion Yoga’s Pam Watts. All ages are invited.
• May 22, 6-7 p.m., Evening bike ride at Skalkaho Bend Park: Bike-Walk Bitterroot hosts a casual bike ride through the park with Matthew Rohrback.
• May 23, 5:30–6:30 p.m., Walk and Talk with MSU Extension at Skalkaho Bend nature walk and learn more about the new park and MSU’s wellness program with Katelyn Anderson.
• May 23, 5–8 p.m., Cocktails for Skalkaho Bend Park at Westslope Distillery with Susan Young/Jesse Trauth. A portion of proceeds from the evening will help create the new park.
• May 29/30 5–6 p.m. (date TBD), Heartism hosts nature-based play for children with autism, and young adults and their families at Skalkaho Bend Park (for families with autism) with Jessica Fitzpatrick.
Call the Bitter Root Land Trust office at 406-375-0956 or visit its website, www.bitterrootlandtrust.org for more information, including the meeting location for May’s events.