Paul Andersen: Hiking the “real world” of wilderness
You can still find places with no human impacts … hidden places, rare and sacred havens, trail-less enclaves of remote wilderness, settings of beauty, grandeur and primeval purity, places of salvation that exist in our very backyards.
Where else can one find an antidote to the constant demands of electronic devices? Devices that not only prompt a connection, but also prompt responses with canned language and pre-processed words. Devices that make us automatons who no longer need to think about how or what we communicate.
The future of these wildernesses is imperiled by these very same electronic devices. How many of our future generations will want to preserve a personal connection with pure nature when they are addicted to the pacifying comfort of a device in their pocket? Happiness is a warm iPhone.
These wild places have no designated trailheads, no signs marking boundaries or routes. They are vague jumping off spots where elk, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats have beaten in faint depressions in the forest duff, the highland grasses, the alpine tundra. Here you discover that your trail eyes can be tuned to hoof prints and scat, your senses keened to the ways of wild animals.
When the trail braids across a wetlands bog, you make your best guess and go with it. You may find yourself scrambling through a maze of downed timber. And if it’s wet, the going is slow and laborious. Legs get scratched and nicked. A sense of humor is necessary, plus a good measure of humility.
Go high enough and eventually you break out into open tundra where timberline is marked by the interface of the Krummholz ecosystem, the visible boundary of stunted trees between the sub-alpine and alpine life zones where trees stop growing and the tundra begins. Here the wandering is easier, unless a storm is brewing and lightning and thunder issue crackling, rumbling warnings.
Eventually, you come upon a hidden lake, a serene reflecting mirror that shimmers in a breeze and shines in the sun. Here, the limpid water reveals cutthroat trout lazily swimming the shore, looking for the right fly, which you happen to have in your kit. With fry pan and butter — no seasonings necessary — you savor their succulent pink meat that has the flavor of lobster from feeding on a diet of high mountain lake shrimp.
My son, Tait and I, had such an experience last week where we followed faint game trails — or no trails at all. We spent nights in lake-filled cirques with no signs of human activity. No trails. No fire rings. Only jets roaring overhead.
In one deserted basin, storms pounded our tents with rain and hail. The next morning dawned blue sky and cool. Hiking out, we watched a herd of 15 mountain goats scamper up an impossible couloir while we climbed our own vertical ridge on a series of narrow ledges.
The hiking was breath-taking, not only in stark vistas, but in thin air over 12,000 feet. We filled our bottles with headache-cold spring water rushing from snow-crested boulder fields, tasting the snow from last winter.
At one timberline camp, tucked into my warm down bag and wakened in the dark of night, I unzipped the bag and the tent fly and stood out in the cool of night. My consolation for a midnight pee was a star-filled sky with the Milky Way arching overhead in a cloud of cosmic dust. I stared up and was both lost and found in the vastness of our home galaxy.
At one camp, Tait ventured off to find an overhang under which to weather the next onslaught of storms. I wandered off in another direction toward the sound of rushing water from a nearby waterfall gushing off granite slabs planed smooth by a glacier.
I perched on a boulder between stunted Krummholz trees and took in a magnificent landscape of vertical escarpments and noisy creeks, just me and the Great Mystery, a transcendent experience that is so beautiful when one steps away from the demands of devices, away from the news cycle, away from manmade stressors into the “real world” of wilderness — man’s original home.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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