Wilderness and wild places have played a large role in my life, from my earliest youthful memories to my current career in natural resource management. As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I thought that it would be a good time to share some of my experiences and thoughts on the backcountry.
I’ve been lucky enough to have have spent the majority of my life close to wilderness. Even though I’ve pretty much been a town-dweller since I started college, I’ve always had a job that regularly takes me into the backcountry, or I’ve lived within a short drive of the mountains. I grew up in a remote Montana community in the Swan Valley, which is wild enough in its own right, sandwiched between the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east and the Mission Mountains Wilderness to the west. I went to college in Missoula, which just so happens to have some great backcountry and wilderness just minutes outside of town. After college I’ve lived and worked in southeast Alaska and southwestern Idaho, which both have impressive wild places.
To me wilderness is more than just an official designation or a line drawn on a map, it’s about a place being wild. I’ve seen designated wilderness areas so small and heavily visited that, to me at least, they don’t really feel wild anymore. Conversely I’ve spent countless days in places that aren’t designated wilderness, and in fact were heavily impacted in the past by human use, but were wild in the truest sense of the word. In my travels in southeast Alaska there were very few places that hadn’t seen at least minor human use or exploration, and yet even the in the old logging units there was often a quiet solitude, and the nearest soul was miles away. Wildness alone doesn’t make a wilderness, but to me, a place isn’t really wild unless I give a second thought to my own survival while I’m there. Whether it’s watching for bears or other predators, or simply watching my step on a slickrock trail because help is hours away, that sense of being responsible for my own well-being is an integral part of an experience in the wild.
In the world most Americans live in today, noise and light are ever present. The absence of these things is important I think, especially as we become more and more an urban tribe. For the past hundred or so years, people have been steadily moving from rural places into urban areas, losing connections with the land, and solitude with it. There is no doubt in my mind that quiet, solitude, and even darkness are now harder to find than they were in years past, and I think in losing them we’ve lost an important connection with the land and each other. I know that for me, there is no simple pleasure quite like being in the backcountry, standing on a ridgeline or high point, hearing the wind meander through the trees, the air whistle through a ravens wings, or the call of pikas echoing off the walls of a glacier-carved cirque, and not hearing road noise, car horns, or sirens. It’s a space where I can reflect on life, and I can feel good about being in the moment as it happens. The same goes for being able to see the stars reflected in still waters as you wrap yourself into a sleeping bag for the night on the shores of an alpine lake. It’s a primal experience that used to be common to the human condition, and I think we’re worse off for missing it.
It’s important for there to be places where, if we desire it, we can go to get away from it all, where we can unplug from our connected world and let the cell phone stay at home. There’s something pleasurable about being away from the constant demands of society, and being able to more closely live in the moment. This has been, oddly, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my time in the remote places of the west – being able to put away the smartphone and disconnect for a while. I’ll admit, I enjoy being able to text, Facebook, and check my email on my phone as much as the next person, but I also think it’s valuable to spend time away from those things, to reset my natural mental pathways, and focus on what’s happening right now. Wilderness offers a place to do this, and we should be glad it’s there, even if only to visit sparingly.
Until next time…