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The Importance of Wilderness

Wilderness rarely makes it into the news.

It usually gets mentioned when a US president designates a new wilderness area, or adds existing federal land to an existing wilderness area. The acreage involved in those events is so large, usually so vast, that it must be newsworthy. It just has to be news. It is impossible to ignore it.

This makes the “very good” news.

Another way to get wilderness into the news is to raise the subject of natural resource management in a remote area that is not declared or designated wilderness, but which has a wild and untouched character. These reports are usually cast as a loss of innocence, a loss of wildness, a loss of something special.

This makes the “very bad” news.

Wilderness as a news topic usually involves one extreme or the other: Very good, or very bad.

The truth is that wilderness, those huge untouched areas with nothing but healthy flowing watersheds, breathing forests, and nearly unlimited wildlife habitat, are of mere flesh and blood. Wilderness gets such short shrift and limited coverage in the news media, because so few people know what it is. It is mythologized for better and worse. That it is nearly 100% public land can complicate things, politically, but the fact is, you will not find wilderness in any other state of being in a developed nation.

Most Americans do not have any real exposure to actual wilderness. Their hands-on exposure to it is either zero or merely driving through or around some wilderness area or region (like northern Maine), and admiring it from a car or picnic area. Few immerse themselves in it.

For me and for many people like me, wilderness is like oxygen. We just have to have it. We must have it coursing through our bodies, supporting our feet as we stand or hike or explore. There is nothing mystical about this experience. No transformative or spiritual worshipfulness. No beams of sunlight directed downward by heavenly forces. It is a purely physical connection that in the context of modern sedentary lifestyles becomes such a stark contrast and unusual experience.

Oh sure, we see the hand of God in Nature. Goes without saying. How can you not see Him there? The genius of life on Planet Earth is beyond magical, beyond scientific.

That I get an endorphine rush from every moment I am out in wilderness is an indication of my own “nature deficit disorder,” a topic worthy of a full discussion some other time and something most assuredly suffered by the vast number of Americans.

Why people do drugs of any sort is beyond me, because I can get a safe and natural high from watching a tree sway in a breeze, or a snowy hilltop dressed in silent snow, or a tiny junco flitting among the snowy branches of a small spruce tree. So much of what we call wilderness is really just the same things going on in your own back yard, except that actual wilderness has much less of some of that animal activity, and a lot more silence and serenity. In designated or de facto wilderness, we do see the more rare and cool “charismatic” animals, like moose, panthers, fishers, bobcats, marten.

As an experience, for wilderness lovers like me, wilderness excursion or immersion is just like eating, or breathing. Its quiet is a quantifiable value, like a gallon of gasoline has a price we pay to keep our vehicles going. People like me simply gotta have that wilderness experience to keep running. In modern American terms, it is like having a really big house. We feel like we belong and must be there, comfy and snug.

One of the challenges with wilderness designation is that most of it happens out West, where there are already hundreds of millions of acres of nationally-managed public lands. Already out there are big wilderness areas that a person could spend an entire summer exploring just one location.

Back East we have hardly anything resembling wilderness, and what we have is easily degraded. It is here in the East that the energy and money must be focused on setting aside wilderness while we still have some few opportunities remaining. Opportunities being those industrial lands no longer useful for commercial forestry or mining.

It is a lot more politically palatable to work on wilderness protections here, in the East, where the majority of the American population is concentrated. Many more people are excited about it here, and far fewer people feel like their livelihoods will be negatively impacted by public land and wilderness. Because we have so little of it.

Wilderness is important because it is in wilderness that our species evolved and lived happily for 99% of our time on Planet Earth.

Wilderness is our natural state of being, where we humans are most at home, most honestly, naturally ourselves. In modern times, it is where we are least distracted by “narischkeit,” meaningless chatter and buzz. In wilderness we can be honest, true, most mentally healthy, if only for a day or two.

This past Fall I killed the biggest bear I have ever seen in the woods, in a designated Adirondack wilderness area where I was on a solo hunt. It weighed close to 600 pounds, and its hide squared over six feet. Its hide is literally over twice the size of the 260-pound bear’s hide I sleep under in the winter. A true monster. The king of the mountain.

Know what’s neat about this hunting experience? This bear had probably never seen a human before, and he stalked and tried to eat me three times. The third and last time he tried was when I lost patience amidst growing fear that I was going to be eaten alive, and I shot him at thirty yards in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Just skinning him took almost two days, because his enormous carcass rolled under a log on a steep hillside.

It was predator versus predator, animal eating (or wearing) animal, the most basic natural law on Planet Earth.

Though I admit feeling remorse for having ended his kingly reign. I had been after a big buck, and only took my foe when he had willingly forfeited his nine lives over the course of two days with me on the mountain.

I have never felt so alive.

Wilderness, it’s in us. It is important to us, to be us.

To be human.

On Being a Dinosaur

I am a dinosaur.

In so many ways, my beliefs, ideals, values, education, outlook, hobbies, lifestyle, and behavior seem as outdated and as uncommon as the dinosaurs that died out long ago.

Put another way, I am one of the Last of the Mohicans, certainly not THE last, but one of a dwindling group that sees the world differently than the corrosive pop culture fed daily to Americans by Hollywood.

And I am proud to be this way, to be a patriot, to exalt individual citizen rights and liberties above government intervention, to take risks and make sacrifices in a free market capitalist society that rewards hard work and penalizes laziness.  American Sniper, Act of Valor, and Lone Survivor are the only movies that moved me in many years because I believe in military heroes, although the Lord of the Rings productions are highly entertaining.

Meanwhile, pop culture would have every American equally unhappy, equally deprived of their rights and liberties, equally planted on a couch eating junk food and watching mindless TV shows that are at war with the underpinnings of Western Civilization.

(A short, hard-hitting article about Hollywood’s destructiveness by one of its most famous writers is here.)

And I am also an old-fashioned “Hook-and-Bullet” conservationist, a hunter, life-long gun owner and fisherman, an NRA member and even more so, a FOAC member who means it when I say “You can have my guns when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.”

But did I mention that conservation is a huge part of my identity? You know, farmland preservation, wildlife habitat protection, forest land acquisition for public ownership, and wilderness areas where I can hunt, fish, camp, and hike without seeing or hearing another human being for as long as I am out there.

And why is it so hard for so many traditionalists to see that traditional American values are directly tied to, and derive from, rural landscapes? And that our remaining rural landscapes are precious fragments of the great American frontier, on which our national identity and Constitution were forged?

So why wouldn’t a conservative want to conserve those rural landscapes that gave birth to his identity and values, that enshrine Constitutional rights and self-reliance?

For some strange reason, an increasing number of gun owners are not hunters, and do not really show that they care about wildlife populations or wildlife habitat, or about land and water conservation.  When I attend meetings at different sportsmen’s clubs, like Duncannon Sportsmen, and I hear the Conservationist’s Pledge, my heart wells up and I nearly get as teary-eyed as when I hear the national anthem, or the Pledge of Allegiance.  It doesn’t help that most of us in the room are sporting lots of white in our beards and on our heads.  The next generation seems to have taken a lot for granted, because all of the battles we fought decades ago bore such abundant fruit.

All this makes me a dinosaur, and although I recognize it, I am not happy about it.  I feel like I am watching the greatest nation on Planet Earth disintegrate under my feet, and it scares me, makes me sad, and makes me want to do what I can to try to prevent it from happening.

I do not want traditional American values to go extinct, like the dinosaurs, because although those values may not be in vogue right now, America was founded on them and the nation cannot successfully continue on without them.

Fifty years of designated wilderness

Two weeks ago marked the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act.

It applies to federal designation of remote areas, not to states. States can create their own wild areas, and some do. States closest to human populations and land development seem to also be most assertive about setting aside large areas for people and animals to enjoy.

I enjoy wilderness a lot. Hunting, camping, hiking, fishing, and exploring are all activities I do in designated wilderness.

Every year I hunt Upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains, in a large designated wilderness area. Pitching a tent miles in from the trail head, the only person I see is a hunting partner. Serenity like that is tough to find unless you already live in northern Vermont, Maine, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming or Alaska. It’s a valuable thing, that tranquility.

This summer my young son sat in my lap late at night, watching shooting stars against an already unbelievably starry sky. Loons cried out all around us. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves on the birch trees above us and caused the lake to lap against our rocky shore.

Only by driving a long way north, and then canoeing on a designated wilderness lake, and camping on a designated wilderness island in that lake, were we able to find such peace and quiet. No one else was anywhere around us. We were totally alone, with our camp fires, firewood chores, fishing rods, and deep sleeps in the cold tent.

These are memories likely to make my son smile even as he ages and grapples with responsibilities and challenges of adulthood. We couldn’t do it without wilderness.

Wilderness is a touchstone for a frontier nation like America. Wilderness equals freedom of movement, freedom of action. The same sort of freedoms that instigated insurrection against the British monarchy. American frontiersmen became accustomed to individual liberty unlike anything seen in Western Civilization. They enshrined those liberties in our Constitution.

Sure, there are some frustrations associated with managing wilderness.

Out West, wilderness designation has become a politicized fight over access to valuable minerals under the ground. Access usually involves roads, and roads are the antithesis of a wild experience.

Given the large amount of publicly owned land in the West, I cannot help but wonder if there isn’t some bartering that could go on to resolve these fights. Take multiple use public land and designate it as wilderness, so other areas can responsibly yield their valuable minerals. Plenty of present day public land was once heavily logged, farmed, ranched, and mined, but those scars are long gone.

You can hike all day in a Gold Mine Creek basin and find one tiny miner’s shack from 1902. All other signs have washed away, been covered up by new layers of soil, etc. So there is precedent for taking once-used land and letting it heal to the point where we visitors would swear it is pristine.

Out East, where we have large hardwood forests, occasionally, huge valuable timber falls over in wilderness areas, and the financially hard-pressed locals could surely use the income from retrieving, milling, and selling lumber from those trees. But wilderness rules usually require such behemoths to stay where they lay, symbols of an old forest rarely seen anywhere today. They can be seen as profligate waste, I understand that. I also understand that some now-rare salamanders might only make their homes under these rotting giant logs, and nowhere else.

Seeing the yellow-on-black body of the salamander makes me think of the starry night sky filled with shooting stars. A rare thing of beauty in a world full of bustle, noise, voices, and concrete. For me, I’ll take the salamander.

Your dog sniffed my crotch

It was bound to happen. Two lovely days on a wilderness trail with my young son ended as we rounded the trailhead and aimed for our truck 100 yards ahead.

Two recently arrived hikers were actively calling for a dog, and they asked us if we had seen it.

“No,” I said, and I quickly added that I’d appreciate the dog being leashed when it finally arrived.

As usual, the dog’s owner went into a description of his dog’s fine qualities, its gentle disposition, etc. and then out of nowhere, she appeared. And she made a beeline for me, barking aggressively right up to my knees.

Having been attacked by dogs, my reaction was not “Oh, your dog is so cuddly poofy sweetums wonderful.” Rather, I prepared to give the vicious beast a face full of heavy hiking boot. Thankfully, the owner intervened, but in a minute, the dog was off and running around, again. My small and vulnerable son was not yet into the truck, because I was still trying to get the keys out of the extra large pack.

And it all followed an online debate pitting clueless dog owners against dog lovers who prefer not to have their crotches sniffed by unleashed dogs on wilderness trails, far from help.

No surprise that I described my concerns to the owner, a nice young guy named Garrett, and followed it up with an email to the district ranger, asking that the state either require dogs to be leashed in that region, or banned altogether.

Folks, your dog may walk on water. He may fetch your slippers, keep you warm, and make you feel loved. That’s great. But he doesn’t have the right to run up to me and smell my crotch, any more than someone could do that to you. It’s so undignified, threatening, and uncomfortable. What’s truly sad is that it’s not the dog at fault, but its owner, who has put it in a no-win situation. A leash is just a few bucks, and can turn a potentially disastrous day into a happy day for everyone.

The tonic of wilderness

Reading just about any wilderness outdoors report by hikers or wilderness advocates, you’ll have a tough time not meeting up with the well-worn phrase “the tonic of wilderness.”

All my life I’ve been a wilderness hound, and I don’t know what that phrase means. Whether day hiking, fishing, or camping with a rifle next to me many miles from the nearest road, my feelings about wilderness have zero association with the word tonic.

Euphoria, and drug-induced narcotic stupor are more accurate for my take-aways. That Cloud Nine feeling can stay with me for weeks after returning to human settlement. Getting older only makes it better, because so many layers are filtering the experience now. Water, stands of old conifers, some far off hill that sees one or two people a year, or a decade, these now are the templates upon which each new excursion is planned. Studying a topographic map now yields concrete images of what to expect in my mind, accurate or not.

Since last year I’ve taken to marching about with a heavy pack loaded with 50-65 pounds of steel as a means of getting back into some sort of decent condition. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to hike a local park for 30-60 minutes. Usually, it’s just my neighborhood that I’m tromping through in my rugged hunting boots. Concrete isn’t pretty to see, and my mind once again helps out. As the minutes tick by, a quiet euphoria overtakes the senses, and my eyes see trees, distant horizons, and unbroken scenery. My hand instinctively grips an imaginary rifle, and oblivious to cars whipping past, I wander unnamed marshes somewhere else.

If someone wants to call this the tonic of wilderness, OK. It makes no sense. But if that’s now the by-word, I’ll accept it. Just so long as I can get more, soon

Hunting season is here, and I’m not

Hunting season, around these parts, is an all-consuming month of shooting star-like proportions and beauty. All year we wait to hunt bear and deer, with our packs on our backs and our rifles in hand. Wild areas that haven’t seen a human in a year suddenly welcome one, two, maybe three long striders. And that’s where I’ve been the past month, living in tents in wilderness areas, climbing up cliffs, playing cat and mouse with deer that either walk in front of your car or fall to my bullet, and which provide clean, healthy, sustainable nourishment nonetheless.

With old friends and new, I’ve had some exciting adventures, learned some new things, and had opportunities to reflect on life and career topics. Hunters Sharing the Harvest received one of my deer, with a $15 donation for the processing, and two friends are splitting another deer I took. A third deer I harvested I’m splitting with a friend. Over the coming month, I’ll dole out venison treats to friends and colleagues, sharing nature’s bounty. Along the way, thirty pounds of flubber have disappeared from my torso, and my kids tell me I look like their dad again. Friends tell me I look ten years younger. That feels good.

More to come after this frenetic month ends next weekend. Until then, keep yer powder dry.