Just over a week ago, myself and 49 other conservationists descended on Missoula, Montana to begin an immersion experience in some of our nation’s Wilderness lands………….. with a big “W”. These lands are conserved for all Americans to have an opportunity to enjoy at some time in their lives, and when your time comes, I would love to hear about your experience. For those who are unfamiliar with Wilderness, it is a different concept than you may have heard me refer to in the past. I have been in some Wilderness areas in the past, but mostly in wilderness lands with a little “w” (to Maurice, Bob, Frankie, Tylar, and DJ….that’s Mount Mansfield in Underhill, VT and Catamount SF in Colrain, MA). The Wilderness work we “finished” last week was about looking back on why we have specifically declared Wilderness lands (these are NOT specifically National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks, or National Forests, but these agencies do sometimes manage Wilderness lands), what’s important about them, and what our responsibility is for them.
This Wilderness idea is one that took me on a lot of journeys by dream as a child. My dreams were fueled by the old TV show Wild America and watching the movie called the Wilderness Family (remember that family that was dropped off on a lake and they decided to live off the land), and a middle school science teacher named Mr. Vancamp……those who knew me back then know the deal. Mostly I was a target for teasing for playing in the “woods” and “swamps”……. I would hear things like “watch out for those dragonflies” or “those animals are going to get you”, or “there goes wild boy”, which were meant to poke fun. Some of them however, came from real and/or perceived fears. Regardless, with a quick outburst of laughter and a smile of encouragement from mom or dad, I was off to the woods.
Wilderness lands are a big deal, and in essence, they are wild lands free from the controlling nature of mankind………….essentially, maintained roads (dirt or paved), motorized or mechanized equipment (cars, planes, chainsaws, bicycles, etc), permanent structures, habitat manipulations are NOT allowed in Wilderness……..obviously, this is very difficult to find today. However, as with many things, it’s not as straight forward as I just stated it. There are some exceptions, which enter the decision making process for “managing” Wilderness lands, some of which we chewed on all week, both in the classroom and roughing it on the trail. When do we make exceptions for actions that are NOT allowed in Wilderness lands? We as people have the tendency to control and dominate all things around us, and I do mean all of us when I utter those incredibly generalizing words……but think about it on a personal level. We love putting roads in, taking an atv or snowmobile into wild places, damming rivers, building bridges, inserting communication towers, wind farms….. The list is long, and you know what, it makes our life “easier”, right? What if we can just hold back, what if we can just blend in with the landscape, with no machines, no permanent buildings within………..everything we bring in goes out with us. What if indeed…..well, this would be true Wilderness. For me, it draws me to stillness, thankfulness, and rewarding prayer. What would such a place do for you?
I think a small journey back in time is in order first. As a kid, I spent my formative years exploring “my wilderness” at Shady Brook Park and White City Lake (now John A. Roebling Park) in Trenton, NJ. The pathways through these places were narrow and somewhat foreboding for me, yet at the same time, I had the need to go………….blame it on the insatiable need to explore. Fear bore no chains on me as a child……not much today either though. I was an odd duck for sure back then……….. preferring dark pathways to time with my friends’ on the basketball court, preferring catching frogs and turtles to talking to girls. It took me a while on that front, but perhaps a good thing. I went to Shady Brook this past July 4th holiday weekend and those same pathways are either grown over with shrubs and grass or wide enough to drive a vehicle on.
We have lost something special, something real, in exchange was a sense of safety, and/or easy transportation. It is sad to see that the places close to my childhood home have lost the natural touch that a little one could truly explore, even if it’s relatively small in size.
The opportunities to explore the imagination in natural places are vanishing as I finish this sentence. One of the discussions we had on the trail was surrounding this very question from a conservation “business” perspective…… Why should we have Wilderness lands in the east if they are going to be small………? ……………… what a discussion that is……… My answer to that is a simple one, but there certainly are other perspectives out there. Some feel that small Wilderness’ cannot provide the quality of experience or have the same Wilderness Character that a large Wilderness’ can provide. Some feel there are different “shades” of Wilderness. In my earlier days, I would have agreed with the first statement, today…..well, let’s just say that is the line of thinking that has disconnected the American public from natural resources for decades, and put conservation as a whole in a continual “catch up” game. The conservation world has become a pretty elitist group, in that we protect “it” and share “it” with each other. My question is ……….How then, do we reach and connect others with such places, if across the country they must go, to have a Wilderness experience? Chew on that one, and I’ll toss another one…………if we are to protect threatened and endangered species and not provide the opportunity for our visiting or curious public to see and experience their importance and the joy in learning about them, why would they want to work for or vote to support them?
I know that was an offshoot of my story, but bringing you into my world might help connect you with why I decided to document my trip to Montana in the first place. As I mentioned earlier, just over a week ago, we set off for three days on the trail, camping and connecting with Wilderness in grizzly country…….we saw a great deal of wildlife out there, but no grizzly . My crew of 8 classmates and myself spent our time on the Scapegoat Wilderness, along the North Fork of the Blackfoot River (yip “The River Runs Through It” country) with one sidearm and three cans of pepper spray. Those who know me can see this was my kind of trip. The Scapegoat Wilderness had recently burned, consuming much of the forest, but already, there are trees reclaiming the landscape. Even a burned landscape reveals a certain kind of beauty, as you can see the life is returning in earnest.
As we approached the end of the last road we would see for three days, it began to set in….how we would both rely on each other for the rest of our trip, with no connection to the outside world, no escape routes, no, “i can’t handle this”, and draw nearer to what’s important in our lives….whatever that may be.
So, without those machines that are not allowed in Wilderness lands, how did we get out there? For me, it was an amazingly sturdy, gentle, and stunning friend of mine who goes by the name of Remmington.
He was my companion into the Scapegoat and a good one, at that. Though I had ridden horses before, we did not bond right away. I wouldn’t claim excellence in riding a horse either, but by the end of the trip, we had quite the connection, and parting ways had its sting.
I have always had an appreciation and affinity for horses. Once I realized Remmington’s need to know me, know my smell, know my demeanor and intentions, the bond was a sure one……I could trust him and he, me. We rode along pathways just wide enough for one traveler, with cliffs dropping off down to a river bottom hundreds of feet below…..we crossed rivers together………… We even had the chance to get up on a run a few times….the power of a horse is difficult to describe, and you have to learn how to flow with his run or your butt and legs will pay for it, hehehe……
As we continued our journey to camp, way up on the ridge line above us soared a Bald eagle, in the most wild country I have been in. The Eagle darted from a tall pine tree, rose, and danced in the wind along the ridge of the Scapegoat…..We crossed by some small landslides and viewed some that could tear a home from its foundation. I cannot imagine anything surviving some of the big ones.
Remmington and I continued our trip on the way to our base camp, where a string of pack mules had carried our food, personal items, and tents to earlier that day. Jack Rich, Mariana, Ace, and Cecil were our guides on the trip….all of them professional and knowledgeable about Wilderness, as well as, making the public connection. Jack was the lead, and runs the Rich Ranch, just outside of the Scapegoat, which is a family guide business that goes back to his grandfather’s days.
Continuing our journey…….. my excitement grew each time Remmington strode forward…………There is an alertness and acute awareness of all going on around a man, when you encounter a place like the Scapegoat…….your senses cannot help but come to life in such places….. If you know me at all, I tend to lose time in these haunts…… wandering off into the hills or waterways and pushing my limits…….On this trip, it was no different, earning me new name on this trip. Funny thing is, I didn’t push my limits enough…… To me, it is that wandering off to experience untamed places like the Scapegoat that is exciting, connecting, and draws me closer to the creator….. I explored as much as I could on this short but breathtaking trip into the backcountry.
As we sat around the camp on our first night, the flute like song of the Swainson’s thrush rang out on the hillside. This would be a common sound around camp and on hikes.
On an adjacent hillside a herd of Elk were feeding….it’s amazing to see these animals in truly wild places and not crossing roads. On our second day in, I felt the call….when you feel it calling, you must simply go……and go I did…..leaving Remmington, classmates, and our guides down at camp. I crossed the river, into a floodplain meadow, where Willow flycatchers were playing there song…..past the Willows and up the mountain side I climbed, and below me, the moving figures of my classmates were tiny specks, some fishing, others cooling in the river, or resting. The sound of the river faded to be replaced by the sound of birds at a higher elevation and the knocking of woodpeckers…..once on the ridge line, I could see the valley we journeyed through to approach camp and it was breathtaking……the river wound from side to side, and the mountainsides appeared to collide into each other……
Another equally powerful aspect of our trip is watching others connect in their own personal way to wilderness experiences, as we all experience wild places and resonate with them in a very personal way. In the past, one of my classmates was a lawyer and judge, now working for the Forest Service……for our trip, he took to horseback (his horse must have had a bunch of beans…that puppy was blowing steam the whole trip….I’m pretty sure that every time that horse took a step, he was blowing fumes, hehehehe), learned to fly fish, and I’m sure came to a new meaning of his Wilderness experience…..some of my other classmates I expect had strong religious or spiritual experiences this week. It’s difficult to describe the experience without providing a person the opportunity to see it and feel it. I would encourage everyone to seek this kind of experience….they help us to focus in prayer, meditation, connect fully with each other, and just to listen……to what? ……..just listen and you will answer that on your own… I can guarantee that much. On my personal journey this week…..it started as group bonding, understanding, then solitude………solitude in wild places like the Scapegoat or some places back home always takes me to the past, the present, and into future….how to bring some of the past into the future for those coming after me. It also intensifies prayer for me. What a beautiful thing, this gift we’ve been given.
Places similar to the Scapegoat Wilderness exist out East, so dream a little my East coast friends and associates…..then tap into and that exploration within. Respond to that call and take a leap. Some of the Eastern US haunts that have great promise to me are; deep in the old growth Cypress swamps of the southeast on a canoe; Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in Errol, NH; the Underhill side of Mount Mansfield in VT (specific trails); the peace of being out on a fully functioning tidal marsh with no roads (not many are left that you cannot hear traffic), hmmmmmm……the list is long……. Do explore, do ask me for options, if I can, I’ll take you on a journey myself…….
Finally, as Remmington was taking me on the last few steps last Saturday afternoon, my mind wondered back to our last night in the Scapegoat………the closing seemed so rushed. We had a final trail side meal, rounded up to take pictures with our guide crew, and say goodbye to our horses, which had a certain sting to it. All the while, I was still recalling the last evening………..the song of an owl that took me to sleep on that Friday night, as I recall, it was a Boreal owl. He can play that song til the end of time and beyond. Even that was enough to walk out of the Scapegoat with. Just imagine if I had let the fear of the unknown stop me as a youngin’……..