UM Student Dives Into Summer of Writing, Surfing, Self-Discovery

Izabela Garcia-Arce, a UM graduate student in Environmental Studies, looks out over the Pacific from a volcano near San Quintin, Baja California. (Photo by Justine Holden)
UM’s Izabela Garcia-Arce (left) takes a selfie with her friend Dahlia Diaz at Scorpion Bay.
UM’s Izabela Garcia-Arce (left) takes a selfie with her friend Dahlia Diaz at Scorpion Bay, a renowned surfing spot in Baja California. 

By Cary Shimek, UM News Service

MISSOULA – When Izabela Garcia-Arce was an undergraduate in California, she read “A River Runs Through It” for a class. This set her on a journey to graduate school at the University of Montana in Missoula, and recently culminated in an epic summer of learning – one in which she found no clear line between writing and surfing.

Because it turns out Garcia-Arce, too, is haunted by waters.

“Without the writing experiences I’ve gotten here at UM and the classes I’ve taken, I don’t know where I would be,” she said. “I didn’t even consider becoming a writer before applying here – I really didn’t see that in myself. I definitely wouldn’t have gotten to do all the cool things I did this past summer.”

A native of San Diego, Garcia-Arce is in her last year of earning a UM master’s degree in environmental studies. She said her writing was sparked and encouraged by UM Assistant Professor Mark Sundeen, the author of books about the West and the relationship between humans and nature. She found herself writing about her interests: outdoor adventure, the ocean, gender identity, social justice and her Mexican-American heritage.

Eventually, she became editor of Camas magazine, UM’s student-run literary magazine. And a piece she wrote about lobster diving off the coast of California – one of her favorite pastimes – recently was accepted by Outside magazine.

Her success opened doors this past spring and summer. She was awarded scholarships to two prestigious writing workshops that were held in stunning natural settings. Later, inspired by UM’s Ethics and Restoration class, she designed and executed her own research project along the coast of Mexico – all while meeting long-lost members of her family and exploring some of the best surfing spots on the Baja Peninsula.

Her first stop was a Freeflow Institute workshop in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state. Directed by UM Environmental Studies alumna and Missoula resident Chandra Brown, the institute mixes water adventure with writing. Garcia-Arce found her creativity inspired by kayaking between wooded islands in the Salish Sea. Her group included about 10 other writers who were facilitated by a professional wordsmith. Guides provided food and logistics for the weeklong experience.

“You bring your work and you workshop and you do generative exercises,” she said. “We also would have little 2,000-word pieces that we would read to one another around the campfire in the evening. Or maybe you would be on a bench overlooking the Salish Sea or down on the beach. With the guides, the experience really lets you focus on writing, so it’s a little like glamping.”

Garcia-Arce’s next earned workshop was the weeklong Broadleaf Writers Conference in Vermont, where she workshopped her writing in the forests of New England.

“You have craft lectures with people working on similar things to you,” she said. “It helps you build a network of friends who come from everywhere in the world.”

The best was yet to come. In a UM class taught by the recently retired Dan Spencer, Garcia-Arce became interested in how people get into ecological restoration – especially in remote, rural parts of the world. This inspired her to self-fund a trip to Baja California, where she had family members she had never met. Soon she strapped three surfboards to the roof of her stick-shift Subaru, coordinated with friends who would join her for parts of the journey, and headed south.

Garcia-Arce writes on the beach.
Garcia-Arce writes on the beach in San Quintin, Mexico. (Photo by Justine Holden)

“It came out of curiosity,” she said. “I didn’t know what I would find down there or what would happen. I thought I could at least do some surfing in case everything else failed. But I had the greatest time and met some amazing people.”

After 12 hours of driving south of the border, she arrived at the tiny, remote fishing town of Bahía Asunción. She met a long-lost cousin, and many others in the village shared her last name.

“They are all these fishing people who are really great surfers, divers and conservationists,” Garcia-Arce said. “They maintain some of the most-pristine underwater kingdoms in Baja and provide some of the most fish to Baja as well.”

In small communities on the peninsula, she discovered rural people doing their own conservation work from the ground up with little or no help from the government. Some would do 24-hour surveillance to protect fishing areas from poachers. Many used rod-and-reel fishing for everything instead of long-line fishing or nets.

If she had to pick the best day of her summer, it was this:

“We arrived in a surf spot called Scorpion Bay, which is one of the most famous longboarding spots in the world. I got there with my best friend from childhood during Hurricane Estelle, which meant giant swells. It was so fun! Then we went out for drinks with fishermen in a cantina and bonded over – of all things – the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). They are into lobster diving, and they invited me back to do some citizen-based lobster research in the winter. They would like to increase their yields in December and January, and I volunteered to do some diving for them.

“That was one of the coolest days, because we spent six hours surfing and then made friends with people who could talk lobster with me.”

Garcia-Arce started surfing at age 12 and always has had a deep affinity for the ocean. This made her an outlier among her immediate family in San Diego, where her dad doesn’t even swim. She said finding blood relatives who also were creatures of the sea was a revelation.

“It was really cool to meet people I was related to who also shared my love for the ocean,” she said. “They were covered with these ocean tattoos and would spend every day in the boat on the water. It was awesome to meet other Mexican people who shared passions that sometimes made me feel isolated.”

Garcia-Arce said Montana definitely has impacted her outdoor pursuits. She is drawn to trail running (including the occasional ultramarathon), fly-fishing and especially snowboarding. She said Missoula may remain her home after graduation, but she definitely plans to write about those remote Baja communities and return there often.

“I hope my trip is the start of some kind of book,” she said. “It would be great to do some adventure writing that weaves in elements of social justice. In Baja, there were a lot of cultural and economic disparities in regard to the Americans that I encountered down there. Maybe I could earn a Fulbright Fellowship to provide more time living in Baja to explore this.

“Because I didn’t realize I could become so attached to a place, but it happened.”


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM strategic communications director, 406-243-5659,

Surfboards are strapped to Garcia-Arce's car at the beach in Scorpion Bay.